John Dickson Carr was an American author whose two main protagonists, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, were English in typically English settings, especially country villages and estates. He also published as Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn.
Carr is usually included in any list of the greatest writers of the “Golden Age” mysteries, i.e. the “whodunnit”, often with a convoluted plot, an extensive list of suspects, and in which the mystery is the brain-teaser. Carr was a master of the locked room mystery, in which a detective solves an apparently impossible crime. In 1981 a panel of mystery authors and reviewers selected the Dr. Fell mystery The Hollow Man (1935), as the best locked-room mystery of all time.
Carr wrote 23 Dr. Gideon Fell novels from 1933 through to 1967 as well as a few short stories. Dr. Fell is full-figured, i.e. he is fat, with a moustache; he wears a cape and a broad-brimmed hat and was supposedly modeled on G.K. Chesterton. In the early books he was introduced as a lexicographer but this description gradually disappeared and later he was described as working on a monumental history of the beer-drinking habits of the English people.
Fell is an amateur sleuth, frequently called upon by the police, whom he drives mad, as was the fashion between the wars, by refusing to reveal his deductions until he has arrived at a complete solution to the problem (this is typical of the gentleman detective of that era). Dr. Fell is a master at solving locked-room mysteries and is an expert at demonology. Contrary to many of the amateur detectives who were introduced during the Golden Age of murder mystery, he does not have a side-kick (foil, fool, biographer or otherwise) but frequently enlists one of the (invariabley innocent) suspects in that role.
Superficially Sir Henry Merrivale is quite similar to Fell. Both are large, blustery, upper-class, eccentric Englishmen somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. While Dr. Fell, is so fat he can walk only with the aid of two canes, Merrivale, although endowed with a majestic "corporation", is physically active and is feared for his ill-temper and noisy rages. He is a well-to-do descendant of the "oldest baronetcy" in England, and a member of the Establishment. In the early novels he is the head of the British Secret Service and has qualified as both a lawyer and a medical doctor.
Henri Bencolin, Carr's first series detective, appeared in five "locked-room" and "impossible crime" mystery novels of the 1930s, and in four short stories even earlier. He is a juge d’instruction (examining magistrate) in the French judicial system. Bencolin is one of Carr’s early characters and moves from being kindly in the early stories to being satanic and cruel later and seeming to delight in his cruelty. Later, after his career as an author was established, Carr thought Bencolin was too overwhelming and he wanted to create a softer, more likeable detective. The result was Dr. Fell.
Books by Carr (Carter Dickson) and other authors are available from Mystery & Mayhem on the home age under various categories such as Tough Guy PI.