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Carr 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. He was influenced in this regard by the works of Gaston Leroux and by the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton. He was a master of so-called locked room mystery, in which a detective solves apparently impossible crimes. The Dr. Fell mystery The Hollow Man (1935), usually considered Carr's masterpiece, was selected during 1981 as the best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers. He was also an author of historical mystery.
A resident of England for a number of years, Carr is often grouped among "British-style" mystery writers. Most (though not all) of his novels had English settings, especially country villages and estates, and English characters. His two best-known fictional detective characters were English.
The son of Wooda Nicholas Carr, a U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania, Carr graduated from The Hill School in Pottstown during 1925 and Haverford College during 1929. During the early 1930s, he relocated to England, where he married an Englishwoman. He began his mystery-writing career there, returning to the United States as an internationally known author during 1948.
During 1950, his biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle earned Carr the first of his two Special Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America; the second was awarded during 1970, in recognition of his 40-year career as a mystery writer. He was also presented the MWA's Grand Master award during 1963. Carr was one of only two Americans ever admitted to the British Detection Club.
During early spring 1963, while living in Mamaroneck, New York, Carr suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left side. He continued to write using one hand, and for several years contributed a regular column of mystery and detective book reviews, "The Jury Box", to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Carr eventually relocated to Greenville, South Carolina, and he died there of lung cancer during 1977.
Carr's two major detective characters, Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are superficially quite similar. Both are large, upper-class, eccentric Englishmen somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. Dr. Fell, who is fat and walks only with the aid of two canes, was clearly modelled on the British writer G. K. Chesterton and is at all times civil and genial. He has a great mass of untidy hair that is often covered by a "shovel hat" and he generally wears a cape. He lives in a modest cottage and does not have any official association with public authorities.
Henry Merrivale or "H.M.", on the other hand, although stout and with a majestic "corporation", is active physically and is 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 wealthy descendant of the "oldest baronetcy" in England, he is part of the Establishment (even though he frequently rails against it) and in the earlier novels is the director 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. is clearly a Churchillian figure and in the later novels this similarity is somewhat more consciously evoked. Many of the Merrivale novels, written using the Carter Dickson byline, rank with Carr's best work, including the much-praised The Judas Window (1938).
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) combines a seemingly impossible throat-slashing, witchcraft, a survivor of the ship 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, notes that the explanation, like many of Carr's in other books, seriously stretches plausibility and the reader's credulity.
Dr. Fell's own discourse on locked room mysteries in chapter 17 of The Hollow Man is acclaimed critically and is sometimes printed as a stand-alone essay in its own right.