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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The specific setting entitled Mansion/Villa is an Urban Setting.
- 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.
- 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.
I then decided to look at the specific settings Carr used when writing under these two pen names:
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.
I then moved on looking at the specific settings Carr used in each decade of his writing career:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.