Fatal Descent

John Dickson Carr


John Dickson Carr (November 30, 1906February 27, 1977) was an American author of detective stories, who also published under the pen names Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of so-called "Golden Age" mysteries, complex, plot-driven stories in which the puzzle is paramount. Most of his many novels and short stories feature the elucidation, by an eccentric detective, of apparently impossible, and seemingly supernatural, crimes. He was influenced in this regard by the works of Gaston Leroux and by the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton. Carr modeled his major detective, the fat and genial lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell, on Chesterton.

Life and Works

Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of Julia M. Kisinger and Wooda Nicholas Carr, a Pennsylvania lawyer who served a term in Congress as a Democrat. He attended The Hill School, where he was a mediocre student preoccupied with fledgling attempts at writing mystery stories. At Haverford College, he edited the literary magazine and wrote his first stories about Henri Bencolin. While studying abroad he married an Englishwoman, Clarice Cleaves, in 1931 and settled in England. They raised three children there before moving to the United States in 1948. Most of his books written through the mid-1950s are set in England or in Europe, and at one point there was speculation that "Carr" was a pen name used by the famous English humorist P. G. Wodehouse.

Carr was a master of the locked room mystery, in which a detective solves apparently impossible crimes. Examples of such crimes are murder inside a locked and sealed room (where the only exit from the room is through the locked door -- which cannot be locked from outside the room), or the discovery of a dead body (strangled or knifed at close quarters) surrounded by snow or wet sand in which no footprints but the victim's are visible. The Dr. Fell mystery The Three Coffins (also known as The Hollow Man) (1935), usually considered Carr's masterpiece, features crimes that are variations on both of these scenarios and that has a notable discourse by Dr. Fell on the nature of impossible crimes. It was selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of mystery writers and Dr. Fell's discourse is sometimes printed as a stand-alone essay.

Many of the Fell novels feature two or more different impossible crimes, including He Who Whispers (1946) and The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941). The novel The Crooked Hinge (1938) weaves a seemingly impossible throat-slashing, witchcraft, a survivor of the Titanic, an eerie automaton modelled on Johann Maelzel's chess player, and a case similar to that of the Tichborne claimant into what is often cited as one of the greatest classics of detective fiction. But even Carr's biographer, Douglas G. Greene (John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles), notes that the explanation, like many of Carr's in other books, seriously stretches plausibility and the reader's credulity.

Besides Dr. Fell, Carr mysteries feature three other series detectives: Sir Henry Merrivale (H.M.), Henri Bencolin, and Colonel March. Many of the Merrivale novels, written under the Carter Dickson byline, rank with Carr's best work, including the highly praised The Judas Window (1938).

A few of his novels do not feature a series detective. The most famous of these, The Burning Court (1937), involves witchcraft, poisoning, and a body that disappears from a sealed crypt in suburban Philadelphia; it was the basis for the French film La Chambre ardente (1962). The book is notable for an apparently supernatural ending that contradicts an earlier, rational explanation of the mysterious events.

Carr wrote in the short story format as well. "Most of Carr's stories are compressed versions of his locked-room novels, and at times they benefit from the compression. Probably the best of them are in the Carter Dickson book, The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), although this does not include the brilliantly clever H.M. story The House in Goblin Wood or a successful pastiche which introduces Edgar Allan Poe as a detective."

Carr also wrote many radio scripts, particularly for the BBC, and some screenplays. His 1943 half-hour radio play Cabin B-13 was expanded into a series on CBS in 1948-49 for which Carr wrote all 25 scripts, basing some on earlier works or re-presenting devices that Chesterton had used. (For a log of episode titles, see .) The 1943 play Cabin B-13 was also expanded into the script for the 1953 film Dangerous Crossing, directed by Joseph M. Newman and starring Michael Rennie and Jeanne Crain. Carr worked extensively for BBC Radio during World War II, writing both mystery stories and propaganda scripts.

1942's The Emperor's Snuff-Box became the 1957 British film production That Woman Opposite. In 1950 Carr wrote a novel called The Bride of Newgate, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and this may be called the first full-length historical whodunnit. The Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn! are the two historicals with which he himself was most pleased. With Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Carr wrote Sherlock Holmes stories that were published in the 1954 collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes {ISBN 0-517-20338-3}. He was also honored by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by being asked to write the biography for the legendary author. The book, The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, appeared in 1949 and received generally favorable reviews for its vigor and entertaining style. Later critics have noted that Carr may have glided over difficult issues about Conan Doyle's advocacy of Spiritualism. In 1950, this book brought Carr the first of his two Special Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America; the second came in 1970, in recognition of his 40-year career as a mystery writer. He was also presented the MWA's Grand Master award in 1963.

Late in life Carr developed an interest in the Southern United States, and a number of his last books are set there. In early spring 1963, at Mamaroneck, Carr suffered a stroke which paralyzed his left side. He continued to write using one hand. He eventually died of lung cancer in Greenville, South Carolina.

Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale

Carr's two major detectives, Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are superficially quite similar. Both are large, blustery, upper-class, eccentric Englishmen somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. Dr. Fell, however, who was frankly fat and walked only with the aid of two canes, was clearly modeled on the British writer G. K. Chesterton and was at all times a model of civility and geniality. He had a great mop of untidy hair that was often covered by a "shovel hat" and he generally wore a cape. He lived in a modest cottage and had no official connection to any public authorities.

"H.M.", on the other hand, although stout and with a majestic "corporation", was physically active and was feared for his ill-temper and noisy rages. In a 1949 novel, A Graveyard to Let, for example, he demonstrates an unexpected talent for hitting baseballs improbable distances. A well-heeled descendant of the "oldest baronetcy" in England, he was an Establishment figure (even though he frequently railed against it) and in the earlier novels was the head of the British Secret Service. In The Plague Court Murders he is said to be qualified as both a barrister and a medical doctor. Even in the earliest books the bald, bespectacled, and scowling H.M. was clearly a Churchillian figure and in the later novels this similarity was somewhat more consciously evoked.

Critical appraisal

For many years now Dr. Fell has generally been considered to be Carr's major creation. The British novelist Kingsley Amis, for instance, writes in his essay "My Favorite Sleuths" that Dr. Fell is one of the three great successors to Sherlock Holmes (the other two are Father Brown and Nero Wolfe) and that H.M., "according to me is an old bore." This may be in part because in the Merrivale novels written after World War II H.M. frequently became a comic caricature of himself, especially in the physical misadventures in which he found himself at least once in every novel. Humorous as these episodes were intended to be, they also tended to have the unwanted effect of diminishing his overall persona. Earlier, however, H.M. had been regarded more favorably by a number of critics. Howard Haycraft, author of the seminal Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, wrote in 1941 that H.M. or "The Old Man" was "the present writer's admitted favorite among contemporary fictional sleuths". In 1938 the British mystery writer R. Philmore wrote in an article called "Inquest on Detective Stories" that Sir Henry was "the most amusing of detectives". And further: "Of course, H.M. is so much the best detective that, once having invented him, his creator could get away with any plot."

There is a book-length critical study by S. T. Joshi, John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study (1990) (ISBN 0-87972-477-3).

The definitive biography of Carr is by Douglas G Greene, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) (ISBN 1-883402-47-6)

Novels as John Dickson Carr

Novels as Carter Dickson

Short story collections

  • The Department of Queer Complaints (as Carter Dickson) (detective: Colonel March) - 1940 (The 1940 volume contains 7 stories about Colonel March and 4 non-series stories. The 7 March stories were reprinted as Scotland Yard: Department of Queer Complaints, Dell mapback edition, 1944.)
  • Dr. Fell, Detective, and Other Stories - 1947 (Fell)
  • The Third Bullet and Other Stories of Detection - 1954
  • The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, with Adrian Conan Doyle - 1954 (Sherlock Holmes)
  • The Men Who Explained Miracles - 1963 (Fell, Merrivale, and others)
  • The Door to Doom and Other Detections - 1980 (includes radio plays)
  • The Dead Sleep Lightly - 1983 (radio plays)
  • Fell and Foul Play - 1991 (includes the full version of The Third Bullet)
  • Merrivale, March and Murder - 1991 (includes all the stories from The Department of Queer Complaints + one, that is: all Colonel March stories)


  • Speak of the Devil - 1994 (a radio play in 8 parts). First publication of Carr's radio script. Written in 1941.
  • Thirteen to the Gallows - a collection of Carr's major stage plays (Crippen & Landru)
  • The Old Time Radio Series "Suspense" contains 22 plays by Carr, many of them not available in printed form. The radio plays can be downloaded from this site in MP3 format: http://www.archive.org/index.php]
  • BBC has issued a set of two 90 minute cassettes containing radio versions of The Hollow Man and Till Death us Do Part.


  • The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey - 1936, historical recreation of a noted murder in 1678
  • The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - 1949, the authorized biography

Biographical material

  • John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles - Douglas G Greene

See also


External links

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