Episode 579 of the Scriptnotes podcast, entitled Rian Johnson Returns, features, not surprisingly, a guest appearance by Rian Johnson.
Rian Johnson is the writer/director of the Knives Out series of whodunits that began with Knives Out and is continuing with Glass Onion.
The discussion is lots of fun, as John and Craig have a bit of fun not asking all the usual questions, and there’s even an interlude to check to see if the current AI technology can write screenplays better than humans (spoiler: no, but AI might be nearly as good as some producers).
But at the end of the episode when Rian, Craig, and John offered their One Cool Things, Rian began to explain that since he’s now in the midst of a multi-episode whodunit franchise, he’s begun to expand his mystery universe beyond the classic Agatha Christie books. And just before he said the name I somehow expected him to say John Dickson Carr. And I was right.
I’ve admired Carr’s work nearly as long as I have Christie’s. Where Christie is renowned for her ability to misdirect the reader and pull a Least Suspected Suspect out of the hat at the last minute, Carr was famous for the impossible crime or the locked room murder, as they are usually called. He also often dabbles with witchcraft and the supernatural so that it seems as if there can be no possible rational solution to the murders. Until his detective, usually Dr. Gideon Fell, explains all in the final chapter.
Johnson recommended several of Carr’s Gideon Fell novels, and I have no quarrel with them, as nearly anything that Carr wrote is worth reading, but I’d like to recommend my two favorite Carr novels. Sadly, although they used to be available in ebook format, they not longer are. I hope this is a temporary lapse. Used copies of both books can be found; there is even an omnibus volume containing both stories available. Check Abe Books.
First up is The Hollow Man (renamed The Three Coffins in the US), a Gideon Fell mystery. The mystery itself is reason enough to recommend it, as some consider it the best locked room mystery of all time, but halfway through the story, Dr. Fell breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader.
‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.
Then he lectures the reader for several pages as he breaks down all the methods that mystery writers can use to set murders in apparently locked rooms or other seemingly impossible situations. Definitely worth reading, and re-reading.
My other favorite is The Burning Court. This is a standalone mystery, set in Pennsylvania. Kingsley Amis felt that no one could read the first chapter without wanting to continue, although I have given it to some people who shall remain nameless (cough, Steve Sattazahn, cough) who felt differently. Anyway, it deals with the possibility of witchcraft and seemingly supernatural murders, and it is the most controversial book that Carr ever wrote. Like Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, there was a huge uproar when it was published, although for different reasons. Still, I think it’s my favorite Carr novel, as he keeps juggling one impossible situation over another, and he does keep the reader guessing until practically the final page.