I’m not sure how much of a crossover there is in these two worlds, but Francophones who also adore the work of John Dickson Carr might be interested in something that was finally delivered to my letter box earlier this week, even though it was published almost two decades ago (remember two decades ago? Those were nice days, weren’t they? Without feeling like the world was on some kind of apocalyptic precipice at the hands of some demented orange buffoon… Anyway). It isn’t that I’ve been waiting nineteen years for this book to arrive, but rather that I only just got around to deciding that I really needed to order a copy, having recently learned of its existence (what can I say? I’ve been busy). And I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did decide to order this particular book. In fact, I will unrepentantly cite this book as another example of information that has simply never made (and probably will never make) the migration from print to Internet.
John Dickson Carr, Scribe du Miracle: Inventaire d’une Oeuvre, Roland Lacourbe’s 1997 reference work (some sort of special publication of a journal, as it’s assigned both and ISSN and an ISBN) is a little daunting at first. Following on the heels of Douglas Greene’s 1995 biography of Carr (John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, which I have mentioned elsewhere, q.v.), Lacourbe’s exhaustive bibliography is an impressive journey through the works of Carr, with an emphasis (naturellement) on those works published in translation in France. Over the course of some 330 pages, Lacourbe exhaustively examines Carr’s career, often including information about radioplays and television scripts that I was only marginally aware of, if I knew of them at all.
Breaking his subjects down, Lacourbe first deals with Carr’s three main characters and their appearances in novel and short story, those being the tales of Henri Bencolin, Dr. Gideon Fell, and Sir Henry Merivale. The references to early works are among the most interesting, including early appearances of Bencolin before It Walks by Night, his first appearance in a novel. The author then addresses both Carr’s non-series detective stories, and his historical novels. It is an admirably thorough assessment, but nothing that could not be assembled from other sources, apart from the common French-language titles, where they appear.
Very interesting for me, personally, is the further exhaustive list of Carr’s work for the radio as a scriptwriter. Lacourbe impressively managed, largely in the pre-Internet era, one assumes, to collect recordings and broadcast information both from CBS, with which Carr worked in America, and the BBC, his broadcaster in Britain. What is most exciting about these references is that many of these programmes are readily available for download from various sources now (where they have survived), and the comprehensive lists of episodes and broadcast dates for shows like Suspense, Cabin B-13, and Appointment with Fear make it supremely easy for the Carr fan and radiophile to find stories in which Carr had a direct hand and which survive to this day. And if you already have a piece but can’t be certain that it’s the right one, guess what? On p. 166, Lacourbe has even included an “Index des Changements de Titres” (yep, a “Title Change Index”) to help determine which story is which, because a number of these radioplays had their titles changed between their US and UK versions.
But the thorough and comprehensive survey of Carr’s work on television and in the cinema is truly surprising. I knew that several of the Colonel March stories (from The Department of Queer Complaints, March being yet another cranky Carr character) had been filmed, as I long-ago found a couple of them wandering somewhere online. But I did not fully understand the scope of Carr’s work for the small screen. I seem to recall reading in Douglas Greene’s biography that Carr lamented never having a really substantial presence in cinema, something that would have secured him financially and allowed him to write more of what he enjoyed (which, later in life, was clearly the historical novel to which he cleaved and quite evidently loved to research), but to take that at face value as I did would be to belie the amount of work that he actually did for the moving pictures, no matter the size of the screen.
In short, there’s a lot to read here, and a lot that I haven’t covered yet, but I will need time to absorb it all. But the full measure of the information about every aspect of John Dickson Carr’s career is so great that, while it will probably only be of deep interest for a modest number of Carr’s most enthusiastic readers, those happy few are going to have an absolutely brilliant time.
Ultimately, for die-hard fans of Carr who don’t read French, you may want to buy a dictionary and take the plunge anyway, or hire a translator for the bits you can’t make sense of, because if I could have only one reference book about Carr and his work, it would be this one. Lacourbe clearly took an obsession with Carr and his work to undreamt-of lengths, and the result is something truly fantastic. If you do order a copy (either through Amazon.com or Amazon.fr, but be warned, the ISBN may not work and your best bet may be to search by title), be prepared for a wait of several weeks, but if you’re anything like this Carr aficionado, it will be well worth the wait. But if you love Carr’s books and read French passably well, don’t hesitate. Pick this one up for many happy hours, days, or even years of browsing to come. You might be able to assemble this information for yourself, with access to a good library and limitless time, but why would you bother? The work, quite exhaustively, has already been done brilliantly.
Reviewed 16 October 2016.