Tuesday Night Bloggers: Comparing John Dickson Carr’s Settings

To kick off the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ look at John Dickson Carr this month, I have decided to examine Carr’s settings and in particular do a number of comparisons. I have categorised/ defined the settings in terms of countries/continents and also in terms of Carr’s novels being set in water, in an urban area and in the countryside. Within these last two categories I have also attempted further more specific setting categories such as castle or museum. My choice of settings focus predominantly on where the crimes takes place. The comparisons I plan to make in this post are:

  • Settings used in novels written as John Dickson Carr vs. Settings used in novels written as Carter Dickson;
  • Compare Carr’s settings (under both pen names) by decade;
  • Compare the settings used in cases for Carr’s three main serial characters: Henri Bencolin, Sir Henry Merrivale and Doctor Fell;
  • Compare overall Carr’s use of rural vs. urban settings and
  • Finally look at Carr’s usage across both pen names of specific settings such as the country house for example.

Importance Notes:

  1. In the case of The Bride of Newgate and The Hollow Man where arguably they could have dual setting status within my subcategories I have opted for only one of them as I felt them having two settings would distort my results, so in the case of the former the setting is filed under prison and for the latter it is a house in a city, as that is where the first body is found.
  2. Additionally when deciding on which country to place Carr’s two novels set on ships I decided to select the country they were heading for, which was either the UK or America.
  3. The specific setting entitled Mansion/Villa is an Urban Setting.
  4. Also when looking at the figures, unless they are ones focusing on specific detectives, they will be encompass Carr’s non-serial detective novels, his historical mysteries and his Patrick Butler ones under both pen names.
  5. One final note is that within the urban setting section I have included a category entitled town/city various, as for a small percentage of the novels (primarily from the 60s/70s) I struggled to identify a more specific setting or focal point other than the town/city they were set in, as these were not ones I had read and the internet was rather reticent.

John Dickson Carr vs. Carter Dickson Settings

I began by looking at the countries Carr used over his two pen names and for me the biggest thing which stood out was that Carr, when writing as John Dickson Carr, varied his use of settings in terms of country/continent much more than he did when writing as Carter Dickson, where he relies much more on setting his novels in the UK.
Version 2 JDC vs CD

I then decided to look at the specific settings Carr used when writing under these two pen names:

JDC vs CD Specific Settings TallyJDC vs CD Specific Settings Graph

Again the extent of Carr’s range of specific settings is much greater when he is writing as John Dickson Carr, as opposed to when he is writing as Carter Dickson, where he predominantly focuses on a house or property within an urban or rural environment. As to why this is the case I’m not entirely sure. One possible idea I came up with (feel free to shoot it down (gently) if you have other theories) was that under the name of John Dickson Carr, Carr wrote more of his innovative novels, not necessarily in terms of crimes devised, but in style and genre, as he wrote most of his historical/time travel novels under this name, hence perhaps the more varied settings. Whilst in contrast the novels written as Carter Dickson can be considered more formulaic and therefore show a lack of setting variety.

Carr Novels by the Decade

When crunching the numbers for this post I noticed how Carr’s choice of settings changed over his writing career. As you can see below, although Carr has a strong preference for setting his novels within the UK throughout his writing career, I did notice that in his later years his attention seems to be drawn to setting his novels within American, especially New Orleans. One thing I have often wondered about is why an American writer set so much of his work in the UK and if anyone has any ideas on this do let me know in the comments section.

Version 2 By Decades

I then moved on looking at the specific settings Carr used in each decade of his writing career:

By the Decade Specific Setting TallyBy the Decade Specific Setting Graph

One thing that I noticed was that Carr shifted from having a preference for setting his novels in the countryside or a rural area to a more urban setting, as his writing career progressed. The decade with the most setting variety is the 1930s, which is probably not that surprising since this was when he began and was no doubt experimenting and trying out different ideas. Conversely the decade with the least setting variety is the 1970s when Carr was writing a number of historical mysteries.

Bencolin, Merrivale and Fell

As with the other points of comparison I began by looking at the settings used for these detectives in terms of countries/continents. The results below did not hugely surprise me, as it is evident that the UK was the most dominant setting for Fell and Merrivale who are both British and that European countries were the most frequent settings for Bencolin, a Parisian detective.

Bencolin, Merrivale and Fen Countries Continent

However I did notice that it is Dr Fell who covers the majority of the American set mysteries. One thing which has puzzled me is why Carr set so few of his serial detective novels featuring Merrivale and Fell in Europe. Was it lack of imagination on his part? It is unlikely that a change of setting would have affected the plots of his novels, which in many cases could have been transferred to a number of places. Maybe such a change of setting was therefore unnecessary.

When looking at specific settings used for Carr’s three main detectives (see results below), I observed a number of things. In regards to the novels featuring Merrivale, the majority occur within a country house, estate or mansion, with nearly 41% of Merrivale’s cases occurring in such a specific setting. Overall Merrivale’s cases take him to 20 different specific setting types, though the biggest concentration of them occurs within the country home and the urban house/ property. I was surprised by the variety of the settings in the Bencolin novels as although featuring in only 5 novels this detective worked within a different specific setting in each one. Doctor Fell’s cases have the widest variety of specific settings, having four more than Merrivale. Again the country house, estate or mansion is still his most frequent setting, although I think the results show that this frequency is less concentrated than in comparison to Merrivale.

Bencolin, Merrivale and Fell Specific SettingsBencolin Merrivale Fell Specific Settings Graph

Rural vs. Urban Settings

Despite the number of times I have mentioned the country house, estate, mansion I was surprised to see that urban settings were the most frequent, albeit by two novels (see results below). I wonder whether this surprise is due to the Carr novels I have read and due to the Carr novels I often hear discussed. Some of Carr’s well-known and most enjoyed novels such as The Burning Court, The Plague Court Murders and The Case of Constant Suicides are all rurally based. Consequently I wonder whether this has made me focus more on rurally set novels.

Rural vs Urban settings

Specific Settings

I imagine most people by this point in the post (well done for making it this far), will not be surprised that Country Houses, Estates and Mansions is the most frequent setting, comprising nearly a 1/4 of all Carr’s settings. Why is this? It could be suggested that a country house, especially an isolated one with a spooky past would lend itself more to Carr’s interest in the gothic and the fantastical. However I don’t think this is necessarily the whole answer, as Carr has demonstrated in a number of other novels that he can combine an urban setting with the gothic and the eerie such as in The Hollow Man. Relating back to the previous comparison section I think although there are more urban settings than rural ones in Carr’s novels, I think there is also a much greater variety of urban settings than there is rural ones, which is mostly centred on castles, country homes and villages.

Specific Settings TallySpecific Settings Graph

Over to you

Woohoo we made it to the end! I promise there won’t be any graphs in my TNB post next week. I think having done this post I have a greater awareness of Carr’s settings, particularly his urban ones and I found it interesting to see how his choice of settings changed over time. In terms of specific settings I think Carr’s variety is commendable though it would be interesting to compare this to other Golden Age authors. For example I think Carr’s variety of settings is greater than that of Sayers’ or Allingham’s, although they did of course produce less novels than he did. In regards to Christie though I am less confident on making a judgement off the top of my head. Instinctively I think Christie may have included a greater number of countries in her novel settings, but I am not so sure whether her specific settings varied as much as Carr’s.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below on any of the ideas I have raised, as there are number of points where alternative perspectives would definitely be appreciated.



  1. Kate, I’m speechless! This . . . is a lot of work! Ironically, I don’t feel setting in Carr as much as I feel atmosphere. The London of The Hollow Man struck me as the emptiest city! The house seemed isolated, Cagliostro Street deserted. And yet, it was a teeming city with houses packed together! (SPOILER: They HAD to be!) So where were all the neighbors? He Who Whispers takes place partly in France, Dark of the Moon in, I think, North Carolina. Carr doesn’t stint on the description, but in the end the focus is on the bolted door or the unblemished snow or sand court. I get a greater sense of setting in Christie despite her far more limited descriptive powers, but then I’ve seen most of her work on screen and none of Carr’s.

    Christie’s love of archaeology made her a more international setter of tales, although her unfamiliarity with America kept Poirot from setting his patent leather shoes on our soil. I will always regret that!

    I just wanted to point out that some of the fun of a Carr is watching the sleuths hustle around. Your study doesn’t allow for Merrivale’s antics on the High Street or Fell’s barreling through a novel. I assume you’re focusing on murder sites, which would explain why you didn’t include the brilliant courtroom scenes in The Judas Window, which comprise most of the novel and contain some of the funniest writing of Carr’s career. And while I can appreciate you focusing on Grimaud’s study rather than Cagliostro Street in THM, the multiple settings of He Who Whispers would be, to my mind, harder to separate for the purposes of categorization. That was a novel where setting – the city, the country, England and France, the tower, the mansion, the bombed-out streets – really came to life for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would probably say lots and lots of work as I think it took about 4hrs alone to just to categorise the settings – some a lot easier than others. And yes you are correct to assume that I am focusing on the murder scenes/locations as to do otherwise would have made this task impossible and/or would have made me go mad (there were a few moments as it was where I was tempted to fling my laptop out the nearest window). I have added this into my intro though, based on your comments so this is more clear. I don’t think Carr’s settings are the strongest aspect of his novels but I kind of went into this project wanting to get a clearer picture of the types of settings he used as all I had in my head really was the more rual and gothic structures and in fact his specific settings are much more varied than that. Also I think you are correct that Christie’s stories being adapted for film/TV has made her settings much more vivid, though I think her variety of countries also adds to this.


  2. I’m with Brad – this is massively impressive and thorough work, Kate.

    I’m especially interested to note that I had expected the country house/mansion to be so popular in Carr’s work on account of the historical novels that he increasing tended to opt for in his later career (starting in 1950 with The Bride of Newgate). But by your breakdown this period only accounts for three of this books in that setting…I got nothing to add this this, it just run contrary to my expectations!

    And, yeah, you feel Carr’s scenes well but his overall settings poorly, I agree. He’s got a wonderful sense of time, you can tell very quickly roughly what decade you’re in, and he has the environs feeling like they’re described down to the minutest detail, but there’s also a real sense of the scenery stopping past the point of what he describes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I had a few surprises myself and my impressions of Carr’s work mostly being country houses did undergo some revision after working on this post and having just finished reading The Burning Court this afternoon, I can agree that Carr does write good “scenes”, though the overall location is a bit vague.


  3. “One thing I have often wondered about is why an American writer set so much of his work in the UK….”
    Perhaps he was enchanted with UK ! I quote from Chapter 1 of Hag’s Nook (the first Gideon Fell):

    “There is something spectral about the deep and drowsy beauty of the English countryside; in the lush dark grass, the evergreens, the grey church-spire and the meandering white road. To an American, who remembers his own brisk concrete highways clogged with red filling-stations and the fumes of traffic, it is particularly pleasant. It suggests a place where people really can walk without seeming incongruous, even in the middle of the road. Tad Rampole watched the sun through the latticed windows, and the dull red berries glistening in the yew tree, with a feeling which can haunt the traveller only in the British Isles. A feeling that the earth is old and enchanted……”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Blimey this is impressive! A lot of work went into that, and the results are fascinating. ON a much simpler level I was just deciding – for my next week’s post – that I very much like his picture of London, I think he had that great outsider/insider view.
    The list of settings is priceless, from military camp to film studio to gambling house…

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha impressive or foolhardy? – When I had spotted the umpteenth mistake in the results I was definitely thinking the latter. Alas if only some kind individual had put a complete list on the internet of all the settings. Your idea of looking at his picture of London is definitely a good one, especially since he looks at London in times contemporary to himself but also in earlier time periods such as in the Victorian or Restoration period.


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