Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Favourite British Author Wasn't British

Several years ago I was affiliated with the Friends of the San Diego Public Library, eventually becoming director of book sales. Most of our money, with which we funded various  projects the City saw fit to leave unfunded, came from weekend book sales. Some of our books came from Library castoffs, but most came through direct donations. I evaluated and priced books before they were added to our stock. I probably should mention at this point, and it will certainly come as no shock to anyone who knows me, that in addition to being director of book sales, I was also my own best customer, which is why I never had money for any other vices. I recall, in particular, one very large donation from a man who was moving back east and was paring down his mystery library to what he considered "the very best and most important." We got the leftovers.

The "leftovers" were nearly a hundred boxes, all packed to bursting with hardcover mystery novels, every one of them not only with a dust jacket, but with an archival Mylar book cover to protect the dust jacket. Unpacking, evaluating, pricing and shelving the books was a task for many months. As I worked, I found myself setting aside certain volumes for my own purchase. I soon noticed that nearly all the books I was purchasing were either written by British authors or were set in England. That brought up an interesting remembrance. Many of the mystery writers of my youth were British. There was, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, along with Sayers, Allingham, Tey, Marsh, Fleming, Wentworth and dozens of others. However, when I was young, my favourite British author was John Dickson Carr...the only problem was that he wasn't British.

John Dickson Carr
30 Nov 1906 - 28 Feb 1977

No, as it turned out, he wasn't British at all, but was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The only other times I've been so shocked about a nationality were when I learned that Patrick McGoohan had been born in Queens, New York, and that Patrick Macnee had been an American citizen since the Fifties. Carr was taken with the same notion as was I--that the British were the best mystery writers, and he wanted to be one of them. In 1932, he relocated to England to seek fame as an English writer. And find it he did.

Although Carr wrote short stories and many standalone non-series novels, he's mostly known for three things: 1) Dr Gideon Fell, an erudite detective based on G.K. Chesterton, 2) Sir Henry Merrivale, an amateur detective with more than a passing resemblance to Winston Churchill, and 3) writing the best locked-room mysteries ever.

A lock room mystery, for those who need to know, is a story about a crime (generally murder) that takes place within a venue where the crime would be impossible. The crime often takes place in a room locked from the inside with no point of egress (hence the genre name) but it can also be an open area, such as a beach or a tennis court where the victim is absolutely alone. I always divide locked-room mysteries into two categories, those written by Carr and those written by everyone else. In the end, the locked room mystery is solved and the culprit outed, but in the very cleverest way possible.

Both Dr Fell and Sir Henry were created by Carr to solve the locked-room mysteries churning in his mind. Of the two, Dr Fell was more serious, usually tinged with morality and the supernatural, a walk down a darker path for all concerned. Sir Henry was less serious, almost comic, though his murders were just as dastardly  and the solutions just as clever. When reading Sir Henry's tales I was known to laugh more than a few times, but when reading a story featuring Dr Fell I was much more likely to look over my shoulder to make sure nothing dire was there.

As I mentioned, I mistook Carr for a British writer, for in those years all I had to go on were his writings, which often seemed more British than actual British authors. It was not until the Seventies, when he was writing a regular book review column for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that I read of his true nationality. Even though I was a little dismayed (I had to shed two decades of wrong assumptions), he remained one of my favorite (American) British authors, and does so to this day.

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