The Man Who Read Detective Novels

51kvb46+v+L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Perhaps the most important scene in The Lost Gallows is paradoxically one in which nothing much happens plotwise: It contributes nothing to either the mystery or the solution and might as well not be there – and this is why Carr chose to write it nevertheless that makes it so crucial.

I’m referring to the discussion that takes place at the end of Chapter VII between Jeff Marle and Bencolin, after that the former caught the latter perusing a detective novel instead of trying to solve the case at hand. Marle chastises his friend for indulging into what he sees as « low-brow » reading in a time of more pressing matters. What is Bencolin hoping to learn from such nonsense? After all, truth is always stranger than fiction… This cliché prompts a heated (by the character’s standards) rejoinder from Bencolin which is basically a defence of imagination against the tyranny of realism and verisimilitude and more broadly detective fiction against its « literati » detractors. 

This is no doubt Carr himself speaking through his character’s mouth, something he would do many times afterwards and on many subjects, most specifically in The Three Coffins‘ famous Locked Room Lecture. Carr’s loathing of realism was nothing new; he had expressed it in several opinion pieces in his boyhood then college years. This scene however is one of the earliest instances of his views sneaking in his fiction and in a seemingly gratuitous fashion as, once again, it serves no clear narrative purpose. 

One might object that the Locked Room Lecture too doesn’t advance Coffins‘ plot in any way and is so distinct from the rest of the book that it has often been reprinted separately without harm: it’s only Carr seizing the occasion to indulge in locked room geekery and do some padding incidentally. The seasoned Carr reader, however, knows better. The Lecture’s main raison d’être is twofold. First, Carr/Fell lists all the solutions and methods used by earlier writers including himself then rejects them, adding thus to the reader’s confusion – but he is also bragging in a very subtle way, hinting that the solution to the Hollow Man mystery is completely novel and doesn’t belong in any of the categories he set forth, which turns out to be true. 

The Bencolin-Marle kerfuffle on the other hand appears to be completely gratuitous – but is it really? The Lost Gallows was Carr’s third novel in less than two years, and the fact that it was published is proof that the young (very young) writer already had a solid fanbase. He also already had his detractors however, with British novelist Arnold Bennett being perhaps the most vehement. Carr’s books, they said, were overwritten, too heavy on atmosphere and – you guessed it – their plots lacked any kind of realism or verisimilitude. Another Carr skeptic, his old foe Raymond Chandler, would reiterate the same criticisms twenty years later. As seen in that context Bencolin’s tirade becomes something else: a writer’s defiant reply to his critics and even a miniature manifesto: The bugs are features folks, they are the point.

Bencolin also speaks for his creator, this time on a more personal level, when he talks about the ennui burdening him and how detective novels help him get through. Carr in later life was subject to bouts of depression and unrest borne out by his increasing inability to accept and deal with the changing times he was living in, but this suggests the seeds may have been sown much earlier and that reading and writing probably had a managing if not healing effect. It may also explain the overall darkness of the Bencolin Quartet and their utter lack of what would later be one of Carr’s trademarks: humour.

His meeting his future wife Clarice was probably the reason, or one of the reasons, why he eventually left Bencolin and his nightmarish world behind in favour of the much friendlier one populated by Gideon Fell and Henry Merrivale. Still, the Bencolin Quartet remains the most enigmatic part of his work, one that comes with many questions that probably will be left forever unresolved, the most pressing one being « Who was John Dickson Carr? ».

5 commentaires sur “The Man Who Read Detective Novels

  1. The world of Dr. Fell and H.M. is much more mysterious and wondrous than the nightmarish world of Bencolin, but that world still intrudes on his other series in the form of evil clocks and the unrelenting passage of time. Clocks are always directly associated in Carr’s writing with death or impending doom. Even innocent clocks tick and cough asthmatically in dark hallways and can’t remember having come across one that wasn’t malevolently ticking away the seconds of some character’s life. I’ve always wondered if he suffered from some sort of chronophobia, because his depiction of clocks and the passage of time was so consistently negative. It would also explain why he disliked the modern world and began writing historical mysteries.

    Now that I think about it. Only time Carr depicted time passing positively is when he wrote his historical time benders in which modern characters went back in time!

    Aimé par 2 personnes

  2. After all, truth is always stranger than fiction…

    In the case of crime truth is usually distressingly banal. Sordid people committing sordid crimes for sordid reasons. Murders that go unsolved are usually unsolved because nobody can be bothered to invest the time and money needed to solve them.

    Good detective fiction generally offers us a much better class of murderer. Murderers with enough brains to make solving the case an actual challenge, and usually with more interesting motivations.

    Reality is very unsatisfactory.

    How many real locked-room murders have ever been committed? Most real-life murderers just don’t put the effort in to commit interesting murders.

    Aimé par 1 personne

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