That Problematic Barber

220px-TheBlindBarberCarr’s legacy is an odd story, an odder one that any he ever devised. He is arguably the most famous of all forgotten crime writers, maintaining a loyal and enthusiastic fanbase (of which I’m a proud member) despite most of his books never having been reprinted in decades. What’s more, this quintessentially Golden Age writer’s appeal extends to readers that otherwise don’t care much either for the period or the traditional mystery genre, which may account for his popularity in Continental Europe. As French critic Roger Martin put it, he is « an absolute genius, the only crime writer that reconciles all readers whatever their allegiances » – which may be a little overstated but not by much. Carr, a conservative writer aiming at a similar audience, would probably be surprised to find himself praised for his universal appeal.

He’d probably also be surprised at the critical fortunes and misfortunes of his books. The one he probably thought his towering achievement, The Hollow Man, is still his most famous and most widely read – probably because he is one of the easiest to catch a copy of – but it is now threatened by the later He Who Whispers. Conversely, the much praised short stories The House on Goblin Wood and The Gentleman from Paris have found a strong competitor in Blind Man’s Hood, probably the closest thing Carr ever wrote to a genuine ghost story. Even books and stories long dismissed as minor now find defenders – Jim Noy and I for instance are strong supporters of the much maligned And So to Murder. The historicals remain an acquired taste, though, but an acquired taste shared by many even though a revival of The Hungry Goblin is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

There is however a novel that remains highly controversial and literally a continental divide so to speak. A book that counted fans as prestigious as Anthony Boucher and Dorothy L. Sayers but has increasingly lost in both critical and popular acclaim as years passed. That cursed book is The Blind Barber. A significant share of modern critics and readers finds it at best flawed, at worst an all-time low. The Blind Barber, for those who don’t know it, is Carr’s attempt to fuse crime fiction and madcap comedy and the controversy around the book bears on how successful he was in doing so. On the one hand, the opponents find its humour too broad, too dependent on booze, and strongly object to the treatment of one of the central characters, Norwegian sailor Captain Valvick. They also object to the uneasy pairing of a comedy romp with a mystery plot that is anything but funny – the murderer in TBB is one of the nastiest pieces of work in all the Carrian Canon. Supporters (full disclosure: I’m one of them) on the other hand find it hilarious precisely for the reasons held by opponents; the way Carr handles both comedy and mystery elements to them is impressive and makes the book one of his finest achievements, if not one of his masterpieces.

This piece doesn’t pretend to settle the dispute but to note an interesting fact about the modern reception of TBB. The « skeptics » tend to be found almost exclusively among Anglosphere readers whereas the « fans » mostly hail from non-anglophone countries and most particularly Continental Europe. The seemingly obvious answer to this puzzle is that translations improved on the original (this is the way Julian Symons explained away James Hadley Chase’s high critical standing in France) but another, which I find more convincing, has to do with culture. Broad humour, slapstick and drunken antics have always been popular with Continental audiences. This is one of the reasons why the lowbrow Benny Hill was a perennial favourite with them whereas The Monty Python and their later avatars mostly remained a middle or highbrow thing. You can’t understand Continental humour if you haven’t seen at least one movie starring French comedian Louis de Funès, who is mostly unknown in the Anglosphere but still a huge star in Europe forty years after his death. The Blind Barber‘s unbridled humour is closer to this brand of funny, which probably accounts for its greater popularity with readers from the Old Continent. That would probably be another surprise to Carr, but we’ve already seen how… surprising posterity has been to him.

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9 commentaires sur “That Problematic Barber

  1. I’ve said again and again, and I’ll keep saying it for as long as is needed, that this books is far from the disaster many seem to think — the way Carr manufactures a corpse on a cruise ship without anyone either having gone missing or having had the chance to board the ship is simply gorgeous, and works as such an explicit piece of clewing because of the heavy, broad humour on display throughout. The whole thing is deliberate, Carr knew exactly what he was doing.

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  2. I agree with you about the changing fortunes of different Carr works, and about the merit of The Blind Barber. But I seriously doubt Carr considered The Hollow Man “his towering achievement”— to my knowledge he’s not even on record as having particular pride of affection for it. And I’m
    still at a loss to see what you and Jim see in And So to Murder.

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      1. Well, I agree with all your points except those regarding plotting. As I think I’ve mentioned to you before, I wrote a story coincidentally featuring the same setting and motive (long before I ever read this Carr) and the fact that I actually prefer my plot to Carr’s is less an indication of the merit of my story as it is an indication of how low in Carr’s canon I think this novel belongs!

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  3. I think there are good things in The Blind Barber and it’s all very clever. The humor, even though it doesn’t work all the time for me, is something I can live with. What I cannot bear though is the dreadful attempt to transcribe the Norwegian accent or speech pattern. I’m not sure I object to the character’s treatment – that would suggest i found it offensive or something – but I do object to having to plough my way through dialogue that is almost indecipherable. It’s just annoying and makes reading hard work and a chore when it ought to be the opposite. And there’s a lot of that dialogue!

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  4. I’ve always liked BB, which is one of the purest « armchair detective » stories by any author – Carr even sets up a mid-book break where Dr. Fell lists half a dozen (? my memory may be off) clues and promises the same number still to come. It’s a fine display of Carr’s abilities. On the other hand, that Norwegian accent….ugh… But I’ll take the whole package and enjoy it again!

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  5. Carr’s other notable armchair detective novel is « The Arabian Nights Murder », which some may find preferable to TBB because there’s not so much humour getting in the way.

    I didn’t find Valvick’s accent impenetrable. And it’s certainly preferable to Michael Innes’ awful attempt to render a Welsh accent in « The Weight Of The Evidence ».

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