Locked Rooms

London, Reading & Writing

On Monday 21st at 4:00pm on Radio 4 you can hear me talking about locked room mysteries on ‘Miles Jupp in a Locked Room’. The show will also available to listen to again for seven days.

We recorded the show in the basement of St Bride’s Church, where the next Bryant & May book is partially set. I love locked room mysteries, especially those by the master of the form, John Dickson Carr, who is required reading for those interested in this peculiar sub-genre of mystery writing.

Pennsylvania-born John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) hit upon the ultimate mystery, the murder that takes place in a hermitically sealed room, and wrote variations that increased in ornate complexity, with cliffhanger chapter ends and solutions that still have readers slapping their foreheads.

Writing prolifically under a number of pseudonyms including Carter Dickson, Carr became one of the greatest American writers of ‘Golden Age’ mysteries. Although his plots stretch credulity in the extreme, therein lies their great pleasure. His sleuth Dr Gideon Fell, fat and rumpled, with a cape, canes and monocle, was modelled on GK Chesterton, and Sir Henry Merrivale, blustery, noisy, Churchillian, is parodied in the play ‘Sleuth’.

These days people have little patience for barmy sleuths who uncover insanely complex murders, and Dickson Carr wasn’t remotely interested in offering his readers realism or relevance. Instead he provided cases that involved witchcraft, automata, eerie disappearances, snowstorms, impossible footprints, a hangman’s ghost, corpses that walk through walls, a victim who dives into a swimming pool and vanishes. He combined an infectious joy with a powerful sense of the macabre, and once announced ‘Let there be a spice of terror, of dark skies and evil things.’

After marrying an Englishwoman called Clarice Cleaves, he moved to England and produced a string of classics, including ‘The Judas Window’, in which he suggests that every room in London has a window only a murderer can see, and ‘The Hollow Man’, which involves a Transylvanian legend about being buried alive and is generally regarded as his greatest locked room mystery. A murderer kills his victim and literally vanishes, reappearing in the middle of an empty street to strike again, with watchers at either end who see nothing and no footprints appearing in freshly fallen snow. The book has a famously jaw-dropping double-plotted denouement.

Although he is regarded as a pulp writer, most of Carr’s output possesses the graceful reliability of crafted clockwork. His writing is exotic, antiquarian, gruesome, steeped in gothic imagery and yet filled with a sense of Wodehousian slapstick. In 1949 Carr had a great success with the authorised biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, then turned to writing historical whodunits. He created legions of fans who have kept his name alive on the internet.

Actually, for the BBC show we should have had ourselves locked into the crypt – missed a trick there, I think!

11 comments on “Locked Rooms”

  1. Bob Low says:

    Locked Room mysteries are great. I haven’t read any Carr, but he sound worth looking out for. A personal favoutite of mine is The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux.

  2. J. Folgard says:

    Same here -I’ve loved the Rouletabille novels since I was a kid, but always passed by Carr’s books without even glancing at the back cover. After this piece I’m going to remedy that -thanks admin!

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I have to disagree with those who classify J.D.Carr as a “pulp writer”. Because to the best of my knowledge, he never sold to or was never published in a pulp;although some of his short stories did appear in popular or glossy magazines, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
    “Pulp” to me means cheap paper stock, a monthly or alternate month publishing schedule, base priced magazine with stories that were paid a penny-a-word and written to run “straight ahead.” Carr’s work was clever, complex, witty, colorful and “intellectually” addictive. “Pulp” is early Earl Stanley Gardner, A. G. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, etc.
    I have now read all, but one novel, two of Douglas Green’s posthumous Carr collections and a collection of radio plays. I haven’t finished them because after that there ain’t no more.
    Everyone should read one, the earlier novels are the better, but not the watch out for The Constant Suicides as it’s in a tediously overdone “stage” Scottish English. For those of us dealing with American usage vs. British usage, note The Hollow Man is titled The Three Coffins in the U.S.

  4. Mantichore says:

    Isn’t the double-plotted denouement in The Burning Court, which ends with both a rational and a supernatural conclusion? Haven’t read The Hollow Man, though it, as a few other JDC books, has been sitting on my shelves for a while. I haven’t read a JDC since The Nine Wrong Answers which felt a bit like a championship crossword puzzle, where the smartass writer keeps interrupting with footnotes saying: “At this point of the story, you probably suppose that the murder method is this and that, and the murderer, Soandso. Well, wrooooong, nyahh nyahh nyahh!”. Which is a bit jarring when you’re just in for the ride, and not to go at loggerheads against the writer.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I think of pulp fiction as cheap paperbacks. These days I wonder if people think of them as something that ought to be pulped – a waste of good trees.
    I haven’t read many J.D. Carr, but I have a vivid memory of The Devil in Velvet, a man who sells his soul to be able to go back to Elizabethan England to protect a woman from being poisoned by her husband. It involved eggs broken into a bowl. Wonderful. Was he a Kahr or Kerr kind of Carr? Or do we know?

  6. I don’t know where, exactly to put this comment, but I’d like to thank you for the hours of pleasure you’ve given me since I discovered the Bryant & May series – I’m currently on “Bryant and May on the Loose”. Just a fantastic series.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    The Nine Wrong Answers was designed to be a game between writer and reader with – wait for it – nine wrong answers. It was originally sold as a challenge, like some of the Harper Brothers (US only?)detective novels (crime novels) that came with their last chapter or so sealed in orangish or yellow tissue paper? The book’s reader was challenged to correctly identify the murder, the method and the ending. If you gave the book seller the correct answers the book’s cost was refunded. There were quite a few of them over the years.
    And does anyone remember Len Deighton’s first spy novel The Berlin Memorandum, aka The Ipcress File? It came with a pocket in the front that contained all sorts of take-out items that figured in the story. (This was much in vogue in the twenties/thirties.) Lots of fun, but mine are now long lost. Shhhh.

  8. admin says:

    About the use of pulp; I think I – and we in the UK in general – don’t use it in the same way that the US does, where it constituted a specific type of sale. I’ve used it as a catch-all for the mass-market paperback. I actually think there should be another term for those (after all, they contain much of the finest writing I’ve ever read) but haven’t come up with anything better.

  9. Alan Morgan says:

    There’s nothing wrong with the term pulp. Nor that which constitutes it, at least for me and here in the UK. There’re a lot of good and lots of bad in any genre, including ‘genre’. It was just a gig, and the same now for a piece in Interzone for example. It might well only be seen there, and a real gem might well never be seen other than in that one magazine. The internet allows for more longevity now of course.

    Embrace your pulp. Stand up and wave your magazine however old, or your lost paperbook no matter the tatty state and say, ‘This is pulp and I am proud.’

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    Mantiore: Yes, The Burning Court had a double denouncement and it was such a hit Carr later wrote a second novel with some of the BC’s characters that carried the tale forward.
    Alan: Agree, there is nothing wrong with the pulps. They were the proving ground for a great many writers of all genres and many readers. I have several I bought in plastic wrap, but rereading them now would reduce their pages to dead-sea-scroll like bits and pieces. Never knew of the British usage before.
    Arthur: There are only 42/44 days, depending on how you count the days on the calendar, until the next B & M novel comes out in hardback. YES!{Plus – for over here – 5-10 days of Royal Mail shipping.)
    Admin: These usage questions due to the “Pond” (dislike that term, but Aqua Separatus is worse) are quite interesting. Thanks.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Personally I *like* Aqua Separatus, but would Sea be better than Water?

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