Many Happy Reruns: John Dickson Carr

Well, it has long been an ambition of mine to write a whodunit. Red herrings, fishy alibis, a murky pool of slippery suspects, and a case so deep it would have kept even the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and Hercule Poirot angling for clues, chapter after chapter, much to the delight of an equally confounded readership. Take my word for it, I have tried. Otherwise, I submit to you this piece of evidence, which I dug up from where it rightly belongs and promptly edited for the occasion:

“I am going to kill somebody, tonight,” was written on the invitations. Glossy, who had sent them, was dressed for the part, greeting the crowd that had come for the killing. She looked marvelous, her dress and body the result of careful design, a shrewd calculation in fabric and flesh [. . .]. 

It was my sister Veronica who had arranged the party. I had stayed out of it. After all, I am merely a party chronicler. Or so I thought.

“Why, it’s simply deranged,” I heard Glossy squealing, surrounded by a throng of professed admirers; it was a favored expression of hers, which she employed almost universally, except to describe her own behavior. She was sober enough to observe the crowd of friends and colleagues she had drawn toward her in an effort to gain control in a moment of crisis. Tonight, she wanted to be seen in order to see for herself. To see them all, at once. She scrutinized the scene as carefully as her condition allowed. I, for one, knew that her noisy enthusiasm was nothing but an act. Glossy had confessed as much to my sister: she feared that the days of her reign as the queen of daytime drama were numbered and suspected that someone had already planned a ruthless regicide. So, being the center of attention was not just vital for her ego, but for her alter ego as well. Glossy was on the lookout for the conspirators, and I guess the fact that she knew most of the guests provided hardly any comfort at all. . . .”

Perhaps you should have taken my word for it. It’s best to leave such murderous plots to the masters and mistresses of the craft. Experts like John Dickson Carr, for instance, who was born on this day, 30 November, in 1906. Throughout the 1940s, his plays were often heard on American and British radio, on series like Suspense, Cabin B-13 and Appointment with Fear, all of which were designed to showcase his writing. He also served as host and narrator of the mystery anthology Murder by Experts, for which services his latest novels were being duly promoted.

“Mr. Carr brings to his radio work the same superlative craftsmanship and high integrity that distinguish all his novels and short stories,” Messrs. Ellery Queen contended in their anthology Rogues’ Gallery (pictured above), prefacing Carr’s play “Mr. Markham, Antique Dealer,” which was produced by Suspense and broadcast on 11 May 1943.

Having discussed Carr’s work at length in my dissertation and on several occasions in this journal, I have come to the conclusion that the whodunit, especially when combined with the “how’sitdone”—the locked room puzzle in which Carr specialized—was best suited to the printed page, where it can unfold gradually and be appreciated at a pace determined by the reader, rather than the merciless clock of the broadcast studio.

Now, clocks feature prominently in “Mr. Markham.” One of these old-fashioned chronometers is set up to hold a clue, but their ticking is more effective in setting the scene, creating the atmosphere of the antique dealer’s establishment, and reminding the listener that time might be running out for at least one of the characters. In the one-dimensional, that is time-only medium of aural storytelling, suspense is far more effective than surprise. While not devoid of suspense, Carr’s plays attempt—and often fail to—startle the audience with a final twist that, rather than being dramatized, is tagged on in a cumbersome and less than thrilling epilogue.

Is Carr’s brand of whodunit a radiogenic genre? You may judge for yourself by listening to the British as well as the American version of “Mr. Markham.” It is hardly fitting to celebrate someone’s birthday by opening fire. Then again, there’s Glossy, lying in a pool of blood.

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