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.