John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) – Part 1

After finishing Carr’s short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints I was devastated. Not because it was bad, but because it was brilliant, audacious and ridiculous, and contains some of the most original impossible crime set ups going.

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I wish Carr had kept producing Colonel March stories in his spare time (which I doubt he had any of, sometimes writing 7-8 novels a year, plus radio plays), and that there were another 10 collections of Queer Complaints where he could have let loose on his most mad locked room ideas. Ideas that he couldn’t try anywhere else.

With this in mind, and with my recent Carr kick going on, I was super excited to find on my last London second hand bookshop walk the collection The Men Who Explained Miracles, which contains another two Colonel March stories, alongside 4 more shorts and a novella.

As there is so much content here the short stories will have to wait till the next post, and today I will go to the end of the collection for some thoughts on the novella, a Henry Merrivale story titled All in A Maze. To have a Merrivale story alongside Colonel March, may seem odd, but in fact the collection contains his detectives March, Merrivale, Dr Fell, French detective Monsieur Lespinasse – written much in the same way as Carr’s first detective Henri Bencolin – alongside a stand alone historical short thriller. Why and how this mix-and-match collection came together, and quite late in Carr’s career, is unknown to me and if any of you have more info out there it would be great to hear it, as I imagine many of these stories were not written as late as the 60’s?

All in a Maze is a gorgeous little piece, with Carr flexing his plotting and impossible muscles to try a few more original ideas out. The story begins with Jenny Holden running out of St Paul’s cathedral, so terrified that she is flying down the main steps at unnatural speed. Journalist Tom Lockwood, seeing her impending fall, manages to catch her. They both run to the safety of a local cafe where Holden tells Lockwood that she believes someone is trying to kill her. For a story of just under 60 pages Carr manages to weave in international spies, switches of identity, double clues and a great dose of humour all round.

All in a Maze also presents us with two impossible problems. Firstly, how could Jenny, in the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral, hear a voice tell her that she will die, when there is no one that could have spoken it? And secondly, later that evening, how did someone enter her locked room, turn on the gas from her fireplace to gas her to death and then escape while the room was securely locked and bolted from the inside?

I would love to know more about how Carr reached his impossible crime ideas, as it often feels he must have been inspired by a location or a generally interesting domestic occurrence to create an impossible puzzle. You can imagine him on a day out with his wife and kids, or at a friends house and seeing the cogs suddenly turning as an new idea comes to mind when someone tops up the electric meter or shuts a window in a funny way. It’s those relationships to a particular setting, atmosphere or everyday situation that gives much of Carr’s work it’s original feel, and the puzzles their unique quality.

The whispering gallery solution is basically the only one there could be, but I won’t fault Carr for that, and the locked room solution is super tidy, and could have been a sub mystery to a larger novel if Carr had wanted. The proofs for the locked room are also really tight, and I appreciate the dedication to plot and solution that Carr strives for even in a short story. It’s not going to blow your mind, but it will leave you feeling satisfied for sure.

But a really memorable part of this novella, is a brilliant and super clever connection between the first impossible problem and the second, with the misunderstanding of a single word uttered by Merrivale. It’s a genius move by Carr as it could throw you off the scent in a clever way, and feels like it could be a part of a central mystery in a Jonathan Creek episode. I’ll leave you to find that one out. The final few pages are a high-speed finish, from which the story gets the nice double meaning of it’s title.

Part two, the short stories, to follow soon.

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P.s – I am also aware of the Merrivale, March and Murder collection, which I hope to get at some point, although it doesn’t contain any other new Colonel March stories that are not in this collection or Department of Queer Complaints. Although the other pieces in there look great.

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9 thoughts on “John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) – Part 1”

    1. It’s endless isnt it?! Some of Carr’s short stories are his best work. The House in Goblin Wood, and The Silver Curtain are two shorts of his that are some of the best things he has ever written. I recommend them very highly. They tend to come in mixed collections.

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  1. I’ve been saving the short story collections until the end, in part because I know that Carr recycled a few idea (no doubt in different forms) and I would hate to ruin a full length novel because I had already seen the trick in a 20 page story. In fact, one of the stories in The Men Who Explain Miracles is a shortened version of a full length novel, although under a very different title. If you haven’t read it yet, I can let you know which one, so that you can read the novel first.

    With that said, I’ve read The Blind Man’s Hood, The Wrong Problem, and The House in Goblin Wood. The first two are excellent and the latter is possibly the best thing I’ve read by Carr. I also read the very first March story in The Men Who Explain Miracles (William-Wilson’s Racket) – the overall story felt a little simple and the twist wasn’t that notable.

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    1. Totally with you on saving these till later. I have read through the short ones and do think I know which short story you mean and which novel you mean, and was planning to comment on it next time for sure.

      I am with you on Goblin Wood, it is possibly his best ever piece of work, and it has my favourite clue of all time in it as well. William Wilson’s Racket is indeed simple, but to me I love how Carr uses these short stories to try super original set ups, I mean a man disappearing from a watched room leaving his clothes behind after becoming obsessed with a news paper advert is great!

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  2. It’s crazy that Carr only wrote two short-form H.M. stories, isn’t it? Of all his characters, I feel Merrivale is perhaps the best suited to short stories — especially as the comical shenanigans that came to invade the later books would be all the more…tolerable in a shorter tale — in the same way that the blustering of Fell, hiding as it does a savage morality and lethally-coiled intellect, really requires a full novel to fully appreciate.

    I have a feeling that one of the stories herein is the basis for a novel — I want to say The Gilded Man though that may not be right — but, of course, you probably already know that and/or have read it anyway. I have a feeling Puzzle Doctor’s review of this mentions it, and I’m holding off reading it until I’ve covered whatever book it is. Just, y’know, in case.

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    1. Yes I think it is crazy, and the comedy could be used to great effect. It may have been that Carr just kept coming up with ideas that he wanted for novels instead. I’ll be touching on the short story to novel links (without spoilers), as it seems there are quite a few in this collection.

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  3. I confess that the very first paragraph of this post was sufficient to elicit significant groans… Few months ago, my local second-hand bookshop had stocked a copy of ‘Department of Queer Complaints’, which I had hesitated buying. And I recalled that it was finally purchased by someone few weeks ago. Only to be told in your post that it’s ‘brilliant, audacious and ridiculous’, even ‘most original’. I popped into the bookshop yesterday, and discovered that I remembered wrongly – it was ‘Gilded Man’ that had been purchased. And so I returned home with a book in hand… 😀

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    1. This is the best story I have heard in a while, sorrow turned to joy. I actually had a very similar experience in that I found a copy of DoQC in a secondhand bookshop for £15, hesitated, thought it was too much. Then looked it up when I got home and compared to online it was really cheap. Called up and they said it had gone. Went there a few weeks later and it hadn’t gone but had been moved to another shelf, and I got a discount too.

      You are in for a wild ride with DoQC, it’s a lot of fun.

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