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J(ohn) D(ickson) Carr (1906-1977) - Pseudonyms Carr Dickson, Carter Dickson, Roger Fairbairn
American-born writer of detective fiction, whose work is considered among the best in the genre. J.D. Carr's specialty was ”locked-room” puzzle, an impossible crime, which he developed into its limits. He published about 80 mystery novels. Fifty of them featured one of his three detectives - Henri Bencolin, Dr. Gideon Fell, and Sir Henry Merrivale.
"His face, as ruddy as a furnace, radiated that sort of geniality which as a rule made him tower in heartening comfort like Old King Cole. Gideon Fell, Miles knew, was an utterly kind-hearted, utterly honest, completely absent-minded and scatter-brained man whose best hits occured half through absent-mindedness." (from He Who Whispers, 1941)
John Dickson Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of Julia M. (Kisinger) Carr and Wooda Nicholas Carr, a Pennsylvania lawyer and an activist in Democratic politics, who served a term in Congress. Carr was educated at the Hill School and Haverford College. His first published detective stories appeared in the college magazine. While still at school, he began to contribute sports stories to a local newspaper, but he also covered murder trials. "They sent me to a school and university with the idea of turning me into a barrister like my father. But I wanted to write detective stories. I don't mean that I wanted to write great novels, or any nonsense like that! I mean that I simply damn well wanted to write detective stories." Carr continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he plunged into bohemian life and wrote his first novel, an historical adventure story, which he later destroyed. In 1931 he married Clarice Cleaves, whom he had met on an ocean voyage, and settled in England in 1932. With Clarice Cleaves he had three children. Carr was not a very faithful husband, and he had affairs with other women.
For a period Carr wrote scripts for the popular BBC mystery series 'Appointment with Fear', starring the Man in Black. In 'Cabin 13', a C.B.S. show, the narrator was a ship's doctor, Dr. Fabian. With America's entry into World War II, Carr returned to the United States to volunteer services, but he was sent back to England to write for the BBC allied propaganda. Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940), a Sir Henry Merrivale story, was based on a transatlantic voyage Carr made in September, 1939. After the war, when Labour government was in power, he moved to suburban Mamaroneck, New York, and returned to England for some years, when Churchill became prime minister in 1951. In 1958 Carr's family settled in Greenville, Southville. In the 1960s, he lived in Morocco. During the last twenty years of his life Carr suffered from ill health and in the 1970s he was treated for lung cancer. Carr died on February 27, 1977.
Carr's first novel, It Walks by Night, was published in 1930. Set in Paris, it featured a police chief named Henri Bencolin and introduced the subgenre for which Carr became famous, the "locked-room" murder, a seemingly impossible crime eventually solved by ingenious use of logic. It this case, he investigated the murder of a young woman, whose dead body is found half-naked. Bencolin had a small moustache and a pointed black beard, his nose was thin and aquiline, and he never raised his voice.
Dr. Gideon Fell was introduced in Hag's Nook (1933). Physically the character was modelled upon upon G.K. Chesterton, but his name was inspired by the epigram: "I do not love thee, Doctor Fell. / The reason why I cannot tell; / But this alone I know full well, / I do not love thee, Doctor Fell." Dr. Gideon Fell appeared in 26 books. The stories include what are considered Carr's masterpieces of the locked-room genre: The Hollow Man (1935), which also has Fell's lecture on the subject, and The Crooked Hinge (1938). Sir Henry Merrivale, not a professional detective but who worked as Chief of the Military Intelligence Department in the War Department, featured in 24 books. Merrivale, or H.M. as he is often called, first appeared in The Plague Court Murders (1934). Colonel March of Scotland Yard was portrayed in short stories, which were collected in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) and The Man Who Explained Miracles (1963). Boris Karloff played the characted in a 1950s television series, in which the sets always seemed about to fall apart.
Carr soon attained a pace of four novels a year. He also published radio plays, and the highly successful The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1949), which won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The work was commissioned by the Conan Doyle family. Doyle was portrayed as the embodiment of chivalric virtues and as the secret model for Holmes himself. The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954) was written in collaboration with Adrian Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur's youngest son.
In the 1950s Carr began to explore the historical mystery genre. He was especially passionate about seventeenth-century English history. Carr produced such novels as The Bride of Newgate, which was set in 1815, and The Devil in Velvet, his bestseller, which combined historical romance, mystery and fantasy. In the story the protagonist is so obsessed with a murder that took place in the reign of Charles II that he goes back in time to the world of 1675 and arrives at a solution. Carr's last book, The Hungry Goblin (1972), was set in the Victorian era and had the mystery writer Wilkie Collins in the role of a detective.
Most of his life Carr was a serious drinker and smoker. It is reported hat he often wrote for eighteen hours at a stretch, forgetting meals. For help with his plotting he relied on the substantial reference library of works on crime that filled the shelves of his New York home. His thorough research for details and visits to likely sets resulted in authentic settings, which especially gave his historical novels air of plausibility. However, Carr's tone was playful, and eerie atmosphere of the murder scenes was often created in tongue-in-cheek spirit and at the end all "supernatural" elements are explained by rational causes.
In his essay in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (1963) Carr stated that "The fine detective story, be it repeated, does not consist of 'a' clue. It is a ladder of clues, a pattern of evidence, joined together with such cunning that even the experienced reader may be deceived, until, in he blaze of the surprise ending, he suddenly sees the whole design." Criticizing the chief representatives of the hard-boiled school, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he labelled them as "clueless" and Chandler called him a "pipsqueak" Edmund Crispin described him as "one of the two or three best detective writers since Poe."
Carr was named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America in 1962. He received twice the Ellery Queen Prize for short stories and was member of the Baker Street Irregulars and one of the few Americans ever admitted to membership in Britain's Detection Club - nominated by Dorothy L. Sayers in 1936. Carr's works are still reprinted. The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included The Hollow Man in 1987 among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. The book contains two murders committed in "hermetically sealed chambers" and Dr Gideon Fell's famous 'The Locked Room Lecture'.