Back to Basics: JDC (yet) again

Let’s face it: You people just like it when I’m talking – hopefully not nonsense – about The Master. The ratings show it, and the comments section too. I’m more than happy to oblige, especially as I did some thinking on the issue of late – some MORE thinking as I have mined the subject again and again over the years. So if you’re one of my few readers who can’t stand JDC and don’t think he is that big a deal, skip this one – and let the others proceed at their own peril.

No dedicated reader can’t or won’t deny that Carr began experiencing, er, technical difficulties in the years following the end of WW2, difficulties that increasingly worsened over the next decades, making some of his later work downright unreadable. He is arguably the only major GAD writer to have experienced such a downfall, though admittedly a very slow-motion one. Christie likely suffered from dementia in her last years, meaning that an unmitigated disaster like Postern of Fate can’t really be held against her. EQ’s last period, while less remarkable than the previous ones, produced some underrated work and even their last is not that dishonourable an outing. Sayers avoided such trouble by stopping writing in her prime, whereas Allingham died too young to have her talent wane. Marsh, finally, remained more or less the same to the end, whether one takes it as a compliment (I do) or not. The only mystery writer whose evolution somehow mirrors Carr’s is his Mini-Me, Edmund Crispin, who managed to do (and undo) in less than a decade what took several for his idol to achieve. 

Carr scholars, both professional and amateurs, have tried for years to work out what happened and why the man who wrote The Man Who Could Not Shudder (not one of his most popular but gives a good idea of what his average was in his prime) ended producing The Hungry Goblin thirty years later. I did some speculation myself. Popular explanations are alcohol, politics, alcohol, growing up, alcohol, ill-adjustment to the new ways, alcohol, restlessness and alcohol. This article won’t come up with another theory but instead will focus on summing up the evidence in the case of Carr’s post-war career – or should we say his post-war personality? For the main explanation may ultimately lie there: Carr’s work before and after WW2 are different because they were not written by the same person. 

Carr’s post-war depression and inability/unwillingness to accept the rules of the new world have been abundantly documented. Much has been said about his decision to leave England for (stated) political reasons and his subsequent extremely volatile whereabouts, including a stay in Morocco then a brief return to Britain before finally finding solace (?) in North Carolina. The truth is, however, his writing alone is enough to see there was something very, very wrong going on in John D.’s head. 

It’s especially obvious on philosophical and ideological grounds. Carr’s last undisputed masterpiece and to some his masterpiece, He Who Whispers, is also one of his bleakest works, perhaps the bleakest thing he ever wrote. There is nothing left of the lightheartedness and good humour that could still be found in Till Death Do Us Part barely two years prior – the ending in particular manages to be both his least romantic (in the modern, sanitized, meaning of the word) and his most Romantic (in the proper, historical sense) This is a great book, but not a fun one – and fun was, or used to be, one of the things Carr’s writing was about, both to the reader and to the writer himself. The following Dr. Fell books, The Sleeping Sphinx and Below Suspicion, while not as grim as HWW, were definitely more serious-minded than Fell’s pre-war and wartime cases. Below Suspicion even has Fell making a long speech on contemporary decadence, which he links to Satanism. Carr must have realized that he was venturing into an area he’d rather not explore further and did what he always did in such occasions. He backtracked. Fell was sent into early, if temporary, retirement and H.M. became his leading series character while under his name he began experimenting with historical fiction – the only experiment in his career that ultimately proved durably fruitful. Still, the jolly mood of the pre-war years didn’t return. H.M. became more and more of a clown figure but it didn’t work because the spark was gone. What’s more, the gloom resurfaced now and then, chiefly in his short fiction. The award-winning A Gentleman from Paris is admittedly a clever story but also a very sad one considering what fate really had in store for its « detective » – a character Carr obviously felt a strong affinity with, lending the story a eerie autobiographical dimension. The lesser known and rarely commented The Black Cabinet, another exercise in historical crime fiction with a surprise guest, is a disillusioned tale on the immorality and ultimate futility of political violence, made even more,powerful by the identity of the Famous Person who gets to enounce the moral of the story before dying. (Carr’s choice of that Famous Person as embodiment of his thesis is somewhat at odds with some of the positions he took in his historicals but ideological coherence was never something to be expected from him – more on this later.) Finally, the earlier and much celebrated H.M. novella The House in Goblin Wood, while rightly praised by contemporary and later critics for its narrative and technical prowess, also « boasts » an incredibly gruesome modus operandi that doesn’t seem to elicit much outrage from anyone involved (the last line is both darkly funny and completely callous) Post-war Carr is gloomier, darker, occasionally sadder.

And then there are his politics.

It’s not the object of this post to put Carr to task or on trial for his opinions – this would be a fruitless exercise anyway as he has long been dead and can’t repent and also because his readers have been, and remain, very forgiving of his « quirks ». What interests me here is whether his politics remained the same or « evolved » after WW2. I’m firmly convinced of the latter. This is not to say that Carr was a liberal before the War and suddenly became a right-winger because of Sir Stafford Cripp’s fiscal policies. Carr was always mostly conservative. The difference between his pre-war/wartime and post-war political stances is one of degree on some issues and one of nature on some others. Let me explain. If we except the columns he wrote as a teenager, early Carr was not what one might call a ideological writer. He had his own notions and prejudices that showed now and then in his writing but he didn’t write to push any agenda other than that of adventure in the grand manner and impossible crimes. What’s more, those stories or novels in which he tackles Big Themes by the side are not necessarily in line with the prevailing view on his side of the political chessboard: It Walks By Night for instance is at the same time a compelling atmospheric mystery story, a literary manifesto and a powerful argument against Old Testament conceptions of justice. Unlike Christie Carr rarely made his criminals out and out monsters – ils ont leurs raisons – and as a result he often allowed them to go free, which in some cases is hard for this reader to stomach. It has been frequently and unfairly said that Carr had « nothing to say » but justice is a recurring theme in his oeuvre, and his skeptical take on it is not typically conservative, far from it. 

Post-war Carr is a different animal. Not only did he allow his notions and prejudice to show but he put them front and center. « Socialism » became his number one bugaboo and the (dubious) reason why he left the country he had called home for more than a decade. His attitude towards the past changed too. Always the Romantic born one century too late, Carr had always been fascinated with the past and so began early to write historical fiction (and non-fiction) but the past was to him as exotic settings were to some of his contemporaries, the stuff of dreams (and good stories) but definitely not of life. None of Carr’s pre-war writing suggests any notable displeasure with the time he lived in and even war didn’t significantly alter his mood. (He even made fun of the destruction of his lodgings.) But, again, postwar Carr is a different animal. The past to him was a retreat, an ideal, a standpoint from which he could pour scorn on the modern times. Charles II became his Great Man and the Restoration his own Golden Age. He sided with the Confederacy and defended the Old South against charges of racism and miscarriages of justice. He even managed to downplay slavery. A different animal indeed.

Once again my purpose is not to say if, how and why this change or evolution occurred. As a reader, I could not care less about Carr’s worldview as long as he doesn’t make it the focus of his work. He didn’t, or rarely did, before the war. He did it increasingly louder and heavier after it, and his writing suffered as a result because ideology had never been his strength or main appeal. What Carr readers expected, and still expect, from a Carr book is a tantalizing puzzle, some thrills, a bit of Gothic atmosphere, a touch of romance and some humour too – they want fun, not being endlessly told how life sucks since Clement Attlee came to power, even if they agree (but who seriously does today?) No wonder then that they keep favouring his pre-war work. 

Carr lost many things after the war but perhaps the most crucial and damaging one was his purpose as a writer. He forgot why he had chosen that job or maybe he realized he could no longer do it the way he used to. His stories had always been soapboaxes, but they were meant to run, not to preach from. 


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