When reading Alias Basil Willing last year I was surprised to find that Helen McCloy had inscribed her book to John Dickson Carr and his wife Clarice as nothing I knew about their respective works suggested they might have known, let alone appreciated, each other. Now one year later and upon finishing McCloy’s The Deadly Truth I am no longer surprised as there are indeed a few overlaps between her and Carr’s writing which I may discuss in a future blog post (I have to keep some ammunition 😉 )
In the meantime it occurred to me that both writers can be said to have more or less consciously « pastiched » each other on at least one occasion. The parallels between McCloy’s Through a Glass Darkly and Carr’s The Burning Court have been frequently discussed (and rather overstated in my opinion) I don’t think however that anyone ever noticed how « McCloyian » JDC’s anomalous « straight » detective novel The Emperor’s Snuff-Box is with its elegant writing, richer characterization, clueing that is more « psychological » than physical and perhaps most of all its atypical detective, Dermot Kinross – a psychiatrist like Basil Willing. We’ll never know for sure what exactly were Carr’s intentions when writing this book so unlike everything he wrote prior and afterwards but he was known to frequently pay some subtle or not-so-subtle « tributes » to his favourite authors in his writing. It is especially flagrant in the early books, most notably the Bencolin Quartet, but persisted later in his career – one of his most celebrated books for instance takes its title and even the name of the murderer from a famous contemporary mystery writer, who also happened to be a personal friend.
I made the case some time go for Carr to be finally taken seriously – that is, discussed and studied as a writer and not just as « the master of the locked-room mystery » and the question of his influences and literary dalliances I think is one of the priority subjects. No writer is an island, and Carr least of all – he is often portayed as an amiable old fart impermeable to contemporary trends in crime fiction, forever locked in the Thirties, which isn’t (quite) true. Carr never relinquished the traditional mystery but he nevertheless evolved as a writer, though not always in a positive fashion. The man who wrote It Walks By Night is not the same as the one who wrote He Who Whispers who in turn is – regretably – not the same who wrote The Hungry Goblin. Carr unlike some of his colleagues (I won’t name names) never ceased to read mysteries once he started writing them, and he always read them critically, even devoting increasing time to book reviewing in his later years. It would be foolish to think he didn’t find things in them that he could incorporate in his own and in his own way.
Carr liked to present himself as a monolithical, arch-conservative writer keeping the old flame of « true » detection but on this and many other topics we don’t necessarily have to take him at his word.