John Dickson Carr (November 30, 1906 – February 27, 1977) was an American Mystery Fiction writer, frequently known as the master of the Locked Room Mystery. Several of his works were published under the pen-name Carter Dickson. (He also had a couple of other pen-names that he used very rarely.)
His best-known work is probably The Hollow Man (US title: The Three Coffins), part of his on-going Dr. Gideon Fell series. He also had a popular series starring the detective Sir Henry Merrivale, written as Carter Dickson. These two series make up a large portion of his work, but he also had a couple of other, smaller series (including the Henri Bencolin mysteries), and a number of standalone novels and stories.
He was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), and published a biography of Doyle in 1950. He also collaborated with Doyle's son on several Holmes stories after Doyle died.
Despite being American, most of his works were set in England.
Works by John Dickson Carr with their own pages:
- Dr. Gideon Fell series
- Sir Henry Merrivale series (written under the pen name of Carter Dickson)
Other works by John Dickson Carr contain examples of:
- Acquitted Too Late: In one of the Bencolin short stories, Bencolin proves that an apparent murder was actually a Spiteful Suicide — but too late to stop the man who'd been convicted from being hanged.
- Anachronistic Clue: In The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, co-written with Adrian Conan Doyle, one of the stories is about a woman being blackmailed through the threat of exposing documents proving that her late husband was already married before her, making their marriage invalid and their daughter illegitimate. Holmes, upon looking at the documents, notices that the name of the groom is written in a different ink than the rest of the document. That, by itself, doesn't mean much, since the groom might have carried a personal ink pot with him... if not for the fact that the documents are dated eight years before ink of that particular color was invented.
- Asshole Victim: By the end of Castle Skull, the reader has learned that the murdered man was unquestionably one.
- Bang, Bang, BANG: Averted in one novel, where a firecracker is used to fake the sound of a gunshot to throw off the investigation.
- Bawdy Song: Near the end of Castle Skull, Bencolin and a couple of other characters join in a rendition of one of the more risqué versions of "Mademoiselle from Armentières".
- Beneath Suspicion: Remarked on in an essay on the Fair-Play Whodunnit: "never remind the reader that a suspect has an airtight alibi, or he'll immediately be suspected. Treat it as such a given that it never occurs to the detective (or the writer!) to suspect Joe because Joe is so obviously innocent."
- Best Served Cold: In "The Adventure of Foulkes Rath" (part of The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, co-written with Adrian Conan Doyle), Holmes says the proverb ("the old Sicilian adage that vengeance is the only dish that is best when eaten cold") after it turns out the murder victim was killed by a person whose brother he framed for robbery and murder twenty years ago.
- Blackmail: Galant in The Waxworks Murder collects evidence against public figures, blackmails them for all the money they have, and then exposes them anyway.
- Bottomless Magazines: Spoofed in Fatal Descent. An editor mentions "Now, it distinctly states (page 96) that the hero's gun is a six-shooter. By going back and counting the bangs, I discover that in the excitement of the moment, he has now fired 13 shots without reloading."
- Bowdlerise: Conversational Troping in Castle Skull:"You read the magazines," I said.
"So do I," Sally Reine informed me. "My old man gets heaps of them from the States. I like the detective-story ones, where the characters aren't allowed to swear, and the Chicago gangster cries, 'Good gracious!' It's nice to see the tough racketeer become a pathological case at one sweep of an editor's blue pencil...'
- Brother–Sister Incest: In The Demoniacs, the early-eighteenth-century detective has come to suspect that his girlfriend is his half-sister. She isn't. If she is, he wants to find and destroy the evidence so he'll be able to marry her anyway. When he admits that to her, after finding out she isn't related, she's pleased rather than squicked; she plainly feels it's romantic.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Rossiter in Poison in Jest appears at first glance to be a bumbling Cloud Cuckoo Lander with delusions of detectivehood, but it's his deductive skills that eventually crack the case.
- Call-Back: Jeff Marle, the narrator of Poison in Jest, had previously been The Watson in the Bencolin novels, and finds himself wishing Bencolin was there to sort out the current mystery too.
- Captain Ersatz: In Captain Cut-Throat, the English spy Alan Hepburn and his wife Madeleine are very reminiscent of Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife Marguerite in The Scarlet Pimpernel. The role of Chauvelin is taken by Historical Domain Character Joseph Fouché, the head of Napoleon's secret police.
- Close-Call Haircut: The climax of The Bride of Newgate, set in 1815, is held up by the arrival of a minor character at Darwent's house, demanding satisfaction for mostly plot-irrelevant issues. Darwent and everyone else (including the reader) is impatient to go on with the plot, but as the intruder is an Officer and a Gentleman he can't refuse the duel. Riled, but not wanting to kill or seriously injure the man, Darwent (who, before being made a peer, was a fencing master) shaves off some of his hair and both of his impressive and stylish sideburns. Then his maddened opponent accidentally charges through a false wall, revealing the hidden room that holds the central mystery and kick-starting the climax proper.
- Continuity Nod: In The Lost Gallows, Bencolin and Marle are in London to watch the play that Vautrelle was writing in It Walks By Night.
- Conviction by Contradiction: Carr specifically warns aspiring mystery writers about this kind of clue in his essay "The Greatest Game in the World." Of course, if you do what he advocates, having guilt depend on a series of clues rather than just one, you won't have that problem.
- Deal with the Devil: The Devil in Velvet opens with the protagonist selling his soul to the Devil to travel back in time. The Devil keeps up his end of the bargain, but (of course) has a few jokers of his own to play.
- Dying Clue: In Patrick Butler for the Defense, the victim says before dying to the person trying to assist him "It was your gloves". It had previously been established that the victim only spoke French and that a Translation Convention was being used. In French, "your gloves" is "vos gants", which sounds similar to the murderer's name "Vaughan".
- Fair-Play Whodunnit:
- His stories always showed you all the clues. The only problem was usually that the murder was impossible to begin with, so you couldn't figure out how, much less who. Carr's essay "The Greatest Game in the World" makes a key point about what makes a Fair-Play Whodunnit really fair, and good when done right: the key to the case isn't just one clue — a random word hidden in chapter six — but a system of interlocking clues that allow the reader to open a tapestry of interpretation that gives a larger picture: that of the truth.
- Castle Skull was originally published with the last few chapters sealed, and a message just before the seal that the reader now had all the information necessary to solve the mystery.
- False Reassurance: Done in The Nine Wrong Answers in the form of footnotes that can be misleading at best, and a razor thin edge from outright lies at worst.
- Fantasy All Along: A dark example from the standalone novel The Burning Court: The detective comes up with an rational explanation for the murder mystery in the penultimate chapter. But in The Stinger chapter, we learn that Marie Stevens is most likely a witch, quite probably the reincarnation of a 19th century murderer, and that she framed the woman who was arrested for the murder.
- Formerly Friendly Family: The Quayles in Poison in Jest — flashbacks contrast the happy times Jeff had growing up with them to their present dysfunctional state.
- Genre Savvy: The standalone The Nine Wrong Answers periodically stops to warn the reader that if s/he thinks such-and-such is the case, s/he's wrong.
- Glass Weapon: In one story, a killer hides a glass knife by dropping it into a jug of water.
- Going Commando: In Scandal at High Chimneys, Cherry (a teenage barmaid and hooker) "made it clear in the most ladylike way that she wore neither pantalettes nor knickerbockers."
- Her Code Name Was "Mary Sue": In It Walks By Night, Vautrelle, one of the suspects, writes a play in which the hero, Vernoy, is an obvious Marty Stu of himself.
- Hidden in Plain Sight:
- In one story, a killer hides a glass knife by dropping it into a jug of water.
- In The Waxworks Murder the murder weapon is taken from a tableau of Marat's death, and returned to its place afterwards.
- High-Class Glass: In Castle Skull, the German detective Baron von Arnheim sports a monocle which (like Lord Peter Wimsey's) is really a powerful magnifier.
- Historical Domain Character:
- Captain Cut-Throat has Joseph Fouché, the head of Napoleon's secret police, as the antagonist.
- Scandal at High Chimneys is a fictional case for real-life detective Jonathan Whicher.
- Incredibly Obvious Bug: Defied in The Waxworks Murder — Bencolin would have liked to put a recording device in Galant's club, but the disturbance necessary to install it would have alerted Galant. Bencolin instead takes the more old-fashioned approach of sending Jeff in, disguised as a member, to eavesdrop.
- I Was Quite a Looker: In The Demoniacs, the hero's girlfriend discovers that a certain very decrepit old-looking woman is younger than she looks — and might be her long-lost mother. The girl is quite upset by the possibility that she might come to resemble this hag.
- I Never Said It Was Poison: Carr wrote one of the greatest examples of this trope in The Emperor's Snuff-Box, in which the killer's guilt is revealed by a small piece of information which obviously showed they had information they could only have known were they the killer, but which is accepted without question. At the beginning of the book, protagonist Eve Neill is suddenly visited by her ex-husband Ned Atwood in the middle of the night. While they are arguing, Ned looks out of Eve's bedroom window (which has a curtain drawn over it) and claims to see her future father-in-law, Sir Maurice Lawes, handling a "snuff-box thing" when somebody walks into Lawes' study. Later, they both see Sir Maurice with his head bashed in, the snuff-box smashed to bits, and a gloved hand turning off a light. Atwood later falls down a flight of stairs into a coma, causing Eve's testimony to become unsupported. We later learn Sir Maurice had bought the snuff-box earlier that day, showing it off to his family. The snuff-box had the facade of a pocket-watch, and Lawes had written about it in a journal on his study desk. At the book's end, it is revealed that Atwood from the distance he "saw" Sir Maurice with the snuff-box, could not have known it was a snuff-box due to its watch-facade, and that the only way he could have known it was that he had killed Sir Maurice himself, smashed the snuff-box without ever seeing what it looked like, and discerning its nature from seeing the words "snuff-box" written in Sir Maurice's journal. Since Atwood had convinced Neill she had seen Sir Maurice alive herself, she had repeated this testimony and convinced the police for awhile that she had lied and killed him.
- The Emperor's Snuff-Box also has another version of this trope, in which another suspect is found to be lying about seeing the light through the closed door of Sir Maurice's study when the carpeted floor would not allow light through, in order to hide the fact that they were trying to steal one of Sir Maurice's antiques when they found Sir Maurice already murdered.
- Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Defied in It Walks By Night. Bencolin is scathing about American police forces who, in his view, just beat a confession out of the nearest suspect rather than using deduction and evidence to prove a case.
- Karma Houdini: Subverted in The Lost Gallows. The Big Bad of the story has been arrested and his intended victim rescued. Bencolin tells the victim that he will now stand trial for a murder the Big Bad was attempting to avenge. The victim replies that he has destroyed the evidence, and will therefore walk away scot-free. Then, as he's triumphantly gloating, he falls straight into the Big Bad's death trap and gets a Karmic Death.
- Know When to Fold 'Em: Subverted in The Waxworks Murder. Galant sees the police investigation will expose his activities, and proposes to leave for England and live in quiet retirement rather than stay until he's finally got revenge on Bencolin. Unfortunately for him, he's left it too late: he's already made too many enemies among his closest associates.
- Locked Room Mystery: Carr, the acknowledged master of this back in the golden age of crime fiction, provided all sorts of different ways to accomplish this.
- Magic A Is Magic A: Carr's commitment to the Fair-Play Whodunnit, where everything necessary to solve the mystery must be laid in front of the reader, meant that in those rare cases where he wrote a story involving the supernatural, the rules the magic operated by were clearly explained. For example, in The Devil in Velvet, Professor Nicholas Fenton makes a Deal with the Devil to go back in time and try to solve (even better, prevent) a murder; he and the devil hash out a detailed contract as to how this is to happen, and the precise terms of the contract end up being relevant to the denouement.
- Master of Disguise: Alexandre Laurent, a dangerous psychopath in It Walks By Night. He escaped from a lunatic asylum, visited a crooked plastic surgeon (whose head was later found severed from his body) and was last heard of heading for the scene of the crime, with a grudge against Raoul de Saligny (who is found dead in chapter 2, likewise decapitated). Any of the principal male characters could be him, since they're all of similar height and build. Any. Including the body.
- Metaphorically True: The Nine Wrong Answers has authorial footnotes that use this trope to an almost gleeful extent, to the point that the final one points out that at no time did previous footnotes technically lie about niceties like whether a man who was poisoned actually died, and whether a man really was who he was claiming he was. (Although some critics maintain that Carr slipped in a few places and really did make the "incorrect" claims.)
- No Fourth Wall: In The Nine Wrong Answers, the narrator regularly halts the action to inform the reader that if you think such-and-such is the case, "you're wrong."
- Off with His Head!: The murderer in It Walks By Night favours decapitation.
- Red Right Hand: Galant has a broken nose that has healed badly, the result of a previous encounter with Bencolin. He could easily have surgery, but wants to get even with Bencolin first.
- Right-Hand Cat: Etienne Galant, the Big Bad in The Corpse in the Waxworks, is seen stroking a white persian. The book was published in 1932.
- Shown Their Work: Scandal at High Chimneys has a historical appendix giving the source works the author used for his descriptions of 1860s London.
- Skeleton Motif: Castle Skull, in the book of the same name, is a German castle that's been deliberately reconstructed to resemble a giant skull.
- Secret Underground Passage: Castle Skull is well-provided with them.
- The Watson: In the Henri Bencolin stories, Jeff Marle narrates and acts as an audience surrogate in asking obvious questions of Bencolin.
- Worthy Opponent: Baron von Arnheim in Castle Skull is Bencolin's German counterpart, and they're competing to solve the murder. They're never less than polite to each other, and respect each other's abilities; their rivalry dates back to when they were opposing spymasters in the First World War.
- Wretched Hive: The London of Scandal at High Chimneys - Carr makes a point of showing locations that were fashionable when he was writing (such as Oxford Street and Leicester Square) when they were far less reputable.