Tuesday, September 27, 2011

You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles...

My library has got an interesting feature on their website. After you log in to your account, using library card number and a pin, you can look up your reading history. This way, I can see every book I’ve ever borrowed out on my library card, from the time I moved to this city to the present day. One entry in particular interests me. On April 21st, 2008, I checked out three books that would change my reading life for good: The Three Coffins, Hag’s Nook, and Nine— and Death Makes Ten. All three were penned by John Dickson Carr, and I read them in that order. I was immediately captivated and started placing Interlibrary Loans left and right, placing myself at the mercy of the system to read more Carr. Then, when I found out that He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and The Eight of Swords were unavailable via ILL, I started haunting the local used bookstores, to the point where I’m on a first name basis with a few of the owners. I found The Eight of Swords quickly enough—it was the first in my collection, along with The Crooked Hinge, The Mad Hatter Mystery, and A Graveyard to Let. Other titles were more elusive…

Then, on July 4th, 2009, I checked out a book by Douglas G. Greene: John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. I delayed borrowing it out for quite a while. I thought it would be a stuffy academic criticising Carr and his writing left and right, throwing in never-before suspected connotations about his sexuality every other page.

As it turns out, I was completely wrong.

I read through it rather quickly, and I admired the book a lot. Greene was considerate enough to place spoiler warnings when he was going to give something major away about a book, a gesture I highly appreciated. But I was paranoid anyhow, so I avoided reading about books I hadn’t read (so I could enjoy them more, not knowing what to expect). After reading a bunch of titles, I’d go back and read the parts I could now “safely” read. This process continued for a long time until I sat down and read this book cover to cover, skipping only one or two sections about books I’ve yet to read that were blocked off in spoiler warnings.

This book is one of my all-time favourites. Doug Greene wrote it wonderfully. He begins (quite appropriately) at the beginning: Carr’s early life or anecdotes Carr would tell of his childhood (be they true, untrue, or highly suspicious)… We then continue throughout Carr’s life right to the end. It’s delightful to find out how Carr wrote his first mystery novel or how he originally planned The Three Coffins to be called Vampire Tower and be the return of Henri Bencolin.

With all the fascinating biographical information he’s dug up, Greene also takes the time to examine and appreciate Carr’s works. He warns his reader of spoilers whenever he plans to indulge in them, explaining that “John Dickson Carr remarked that the one thing a critic must not do is reveal the solution to a detective novel, and most mystery fans rightly agree. Nonetheless, how Carr resolved the puzzle is often significant in understanding his life and works.”

This is quite obviously the work of an enthusiast, someone who loves and admires the work of John Dickson Carr, but it isn’t uncritical. If Carr wrote a poor book, the author is sure to point it out. Sometimes I disagree with these opinions, but much of the time, I find myself in nearly complete agreement. It is an intelligent appraisal that knows what to look for in terms of quality of the puzzle, solution, and overall narrative.

It is very difficult to review a work of non-fiction, for me at least. After all, it isn’t like a mystery—we know how it is all going to end. (Spoiler alert! John Dickson Carr dies at the end.) I can’t very well steal all the fascinating stuff I learned—that’s what the book is there for. It’s one of the best literary biographies I’ve ever read, written in an engaging style throughout. And there’s plenty of interest here not just for fans of John Dickson Carr, but for mystery enthusiasts in general. Greene devotes some time to talking about Carr’s days at The Detection Club, for instance, particularly his collaboration with John Rhode, and unearths some wonderful anecdotes. I hope he will forgive me if I steal just one to illustrate what I mean:

The Carrs often entertained at their new flat. The Detection Club might object to party games, but at their own apartment, John and Clarice always had pen-and-pencil challenges and they often played the Murder Game. Among the guests at the Carrs’ parties were Powys Mathers (“Torquemada”), the famed Yorkshire novelist J. B. Priestley, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers. The first time Christie came to one of their parties, she and Priestley were stuck for more than half an hour in the lift. “Over Mr. Priestley’s language,” Carr said, “it is best to draw a veil, but the creatrix of Hercule Poirot was only amused.” In the Murder Game that evening, Priestley played a chief inspector from Scotland Yard and Agatha Christie one of the suspects. When she claimed an alibi at Westminster Bridge with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Priestley accused her of having done in the cleric.

Overall, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles is a triumph in every way. Doug Greene’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject comes through on every page and makes for a simply delightful read, as well as being a very informative resource and intelligently written. My library is in serious danger of not getting its copy back one of these days.


  1. Did "The Three Coffins" spoil any books for you? Luckily for me, I'd already read a lot of the referenced books before I read it.

  2. I came to JDC via a Penguin reprint paperback of THE HOLLOW MAN. I was hooked. Since then it's been a case of finding them where I can. The Doug Greene biography is worth its weight in gold, although it is incredibly hard to find in Britain. When I attempted to borrow it from the library it took ages for them to find one. It seems that there is only one copy in the British Library system, and the only way that I was allowed to read it was to go to the local library and look at it there. It was forbidden for it to leave the building.

  3. I really should track down a copy of this book, but I am afraid I will end up liking JDC even more than I already do, if that's even humanly possible, and will end up culling his grave for genetical material to clone him. Hey, don't look at me like I'm some sort of ghoul! He forced me by dying before I was born and became a fan.

  4. Christopher, I'm almost positive it spoiled some book or other for me. However, I can't remember details clearly anymore. In some cases I'm not even sure what book Carr is referring to!

    A copy is currently on Abebooks for about $30, which for that book is incredibly cheap. I thought of ordering it, but since I have a library copy, I'll leave the option open for other addicts to get their hands on it first.

    See above. ;) But seriously, I think you would enjoy this book. It's wonderful in every way and no excuse is reasonable for delaying. Even mine was pretty pathetic-- I delayed for over a year!

  5. My copy of Doug's book I bought when it came out, having started reading Carr five or six years earlier and being in my High Carr Phase. It's all marked up with underlining and highlighting--I didn't realize it would become a collector's item!

  6. I bought a copy of this when it first came out, and I'm a notorious cheapskate who practically never buys a hardback new. I'm probably due for a re-read.

  7. If you ever had the pleasure of meeting Doug Greene you would never have used the words "stuffy academic" to describe him. Lively and approachable are better suited for him, I think. I had several brief and impassioned talks with him about Carr and other writers at various book conventions over the years.

    I've come across this book several times in my book hunting but have always decided to pass it up. I'd rather have read the bulk of Carr's books first before tackling Greene's biography. That way I won't have to skip over the spoiler sections. I have about twelve or fifteen left to read.