John Dickson Carr: The Shape of His Career | Impossible Crimes | Carr's Subjects and Politics | Detectives | Architecture and Landscape | Carr's Techniques | Carr and the Realist School | Film and Television adaptations
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Douglas G. Greene's John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) is an excellent biography and critical study of Carr's writings. It covers all of Carr's novels and short stories, as well as many of Carr's radio plays. Greene is especially illuminating about the development of Carr's story ideas from one work to the next, tracing connections between Carr's radio plays, and novels, for instance. He also has much to say about Carr's characters, and their human, social, and emotional attitudes.
Castle Skull (1931) (Chapters 1 - 10)
Hag's Nook (1933)
The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933)
The Plague Court Murders (1934)
The White Priory Murders (1934)
The Three Coffins / The Hollow Man (1935)
The Unicorn Murders (1935)
The Punch and Judy Murders (1936)
The Crooked Hinge (1938)
The Judas Window (1938)
Death in Five Boxes (1938)
The Black Spectacles / The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)
The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939)
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941)
The Seat of the Scornful / Death Turns the Tables (1941)
She Died A Lady (1943)
He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944)
Till Death Do Us Part (1944)
The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945)
A Graveyard to Let (1949)
Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)
The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)
The Cavalier's Cup (1953)
Captain Cut-Throat (1955)
The Ghost's High Noon (1969)
The Department of Queer Complaints (most of these stories are also in collection Merrivale, March and Murder)
The Third Bullet
The Men Who Explained Miracles
The Door to Doom
The Dead Sleep Lightly
The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (collected 1954)
13 to the Gallows
13 to the Gallows is available from its publisher Crippen & Landru.
Carr is a great inventor of "impossible crime" mystery plots: crimes which look as if they were impossible to commit, but which get a rational explanation at the story's solution. Carr published one hundred of these. There are reportedly a sizable number of unpublished Carr radio plays and stage plays, as well, several of which contain locked rooms and other impossible crimes.
Carr wrote several stories as an undergraduate. The most important of these, "The Shadow of the Goat" (1926), is notable for containing germs in outline of two of his best later novels, The Three Coffins and The Nine Wrong Answers. It focuses right at the start of Carr's career on an Impossible Disappearance from a locked room, a kind of problem that will be one of Carr's central mystery puzzles throughout his writing. This tale created sleuth Henri Bencolin, a French policeman. Carr's succeeding short stories and his first four novels star Bencolin. The best of these early Bencolin novels is The Lost Gallows (1931). This book shows Carr's skill at compressing a very complex plot into a fabulously small space. As a work of storytelling it fascinates.
In 1933 he created one of his two main detectives, Dr. Fell, in Hag's Nook. This is a good novel. Carr's best period was from 1933 to 1944. Most of his great works of mystery fiction were written in those years.
In many ways the first "real" Carr novel was The Plague Court Murders (1934). This tale marks the debut of Carr's other principal detective Sir Henry Merrivale. It also shows Carr making a permanent commitment to the impossible crime story.
The great works of 1935 are of fabulous plot complexity. They are more complicated than even the average Golden Age detective novel. The best of them, The Three Coffins (1935), contains "The Locked Room Lecture", a chapter in which Dr. Fell sums up the main approaches used to commit impossible crimes in detective fiction up to that point. Both the "Lecture", and the solution to the novel itself, are among the high points of the Golden Age of mystery fiction. The Unicorn Murders (1935) contains one of Carr's most inventive impossible crime plots.
Carr's work in 1936 and 1937 was not as good, but 1938 and 1939 found Carr in absolutely top form again. His four best novels of those years are perfectly proportioned, complex without going to extremes. They are probably the Carr novels that adhere most closely to the canons of the Golden Age, in terms of plot density and the overall architecture of a detective novel. They are also endlessly inventive, as is all of Carr's best fiction.
The Judas Window (1938) impressed me deeply when I first read it, as did many other Carr books. Traditionally, Carr's masterpiece was always considered to be The Three Coffins. That book has "The Locked Room Lecture" and some remarkable impossible crimes. However, in recent years, The Judas Window is often being cited as Carr's other major masterpiece. Carr authority Douglas G. Greene regards it as so, and author Barbara D'Amato pays homage to both works in her novel Hard Case. The storytelling in The Judas Window is especially good. It has a rich vein of comedy, and a wonderful courtroom drama. It makes a very satisfying reading experience: every plot element falls into place in the work just the way a reader would want.
The Crooked Hinge (1938) has one of Carr's most inventive solutions. In fact, it has almost more explanations than there are mysteries in the original text! This is how a mystery should be. Hint to authors: the solution to a mystery is the finale of your novel. It should not be hurried over, giving the most minimal explanation of the mysteries in your book. Instead it should be as rich and creative as possible. Good models here are the finales of many Mozart operas, such as the Act 2 finale of The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart pulls out all the stops here, writing his most complex and spectacular music. I do not make a comparison between Carr and Mozart lightly. Carr is as creative a figure in our medium, the mystery, as Mozart was in his.
Carr also began to write short stories heavily in these years. Many of his best short pieces date from 1938 - 1940. My favorite of all is "The Locked Room" (1940). Carr eventually went to work in radio, in late 1939, and the flood of short stories was replaced by a flood of radio plays, fairly brief works that served a similar function as his short stories. These radio plays are still largely uncollected and unpublished, although The Door to Doom and The Dead Sleep Lightly contain some first rate works. Forty-six of Carr's published short stories and radio plays contain impossible crimes. This is nearly half of Carr's total of 100 published works in the impossible crime field. Carr's short stories from 1938 on are uniformly good: wonderful, richly inventive pieces that show an astonishing flood of plot ideas and atmospheric backgrounds. The radio mysteries are more uneven, but contain some excellent works. When Carr was writing, audiences loved both short stories and all kinds of stage and radio drama. The popularity of these media has taken a nose dive in recent years, at least in the English speaking world, and there is a tendency among many readers to concentrate entirely on novels. A novel-only approach is going to miss half of Carr's achievement as a writer.
Carr's impossible crime novels in 1940-1942 seem thinner than his earlier books. The one with the best locked room concepts is The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941). The best book of this era shows Carr's skills away from the impossible crime genre. Death Turns the Tables (1941) is a brilliant "straight" mystery. It reminds one that impossible crimes, however well done, are not the only features of Carr's books. They are also full fledged detective novels with clues and many ingenious plot ideas not dependent on locked room techniques. I would like to see this book develop a "cult" reputation.
Carr's creativity showed a major flair up in 1943 and 1944. Some of his best radio plays date from 1943, including the impossible crime "Cabin B-13" and "The Dead Sleep Lightly". He also wrote three classic novels. The best novels of this period, such as She Died a Lady and Till Death Do Us Part, center around the same sort of brilliant impossible crime ideas one finds in his short works.
A Graveyard to Let (1949) and Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) are both novels, which show similar construction. Both contain impossible disappearances, with imaginative solutions. In both, the disappearance is essentially a short story contained within the larger novel, and only loosely connected with the rest of the book. In both, the bulk of the novel is taken up by an absorbing non-impossible crime narrative, about an absconding financier and poison pen letters, respectively. Both include a love story subplot about an older woman's romance towards the end. Both have some of the better humorous writing about sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale, and public disturbances he causes. Both refer to used bookstores, and both share with us Carr's ideas about literature, with Night at the Mocking Widow being especially trenchant in favoring the Dumas-Stevenson romance over the "serious " novel. Both of these books have many outdoor scenes; A Graveyard to Let shows Carr's flair for landscape architecture, a popular feature of Golden Age mystery writing.
Carr's work had a flair-up of brilliance in 1952-1955. The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) has a tiny impossible crime in it. But mainly, it is a remarkably inventive book that shows Carr's skill with the "straight" mystery novel. The book has an experimental quality, playfully altering and inverting the paradigms of the conventional mystery book. The Cavalier's Cup (1953) is one of Carr's funniest works. Much of the early parts of this book are just one long farce. However, fair play clues are embedded in the work, and gradually it turns into a working detective story. This is the last Sir Henry Merrivale novel. There was a year long pause in which Carr published little. However in 1955 he brought forth some of his finest fiction. Captain Cut-Throat (1955) is Carr's best historical novel. Mainly this is a spy novel, not a detective story, unlike most of Carr's historical fiction, although an impossible crime mystery occupying a small percentage of the plot allows it to be classified as a mystery novel. It is a fascinating piece of storytelling, somewhat in the tradition of Dumas. Carr also brought Sir Henry Merrivale back for his final appearance in "All in a Maze" (1955). This novella turns into a definitive expression of Carr's ideas about impossible crimes. It makes an outstanding finale for Merrivale's career. If I were to introduce a new reader to Carr's world, I would include this story, the Locked Room Lecture from The Three Coffins, (or maybe the whole great novel), and the short story "The Locked Room".
Carr also revived his career as a radio writer in 1955, writing some fine scripts. "White Tiger Passage" (1955) is a rollicking adventure story, in which a young newspaperman tracks down a killer, showing more persistence than detectival brilliance, one has to admit. It recalls the adventuresome young hero of Captain Cut-Throat. And "The Villa of the Damned" (1955) develops one of Carr's strange impossible crime illusions, in the tradition of The Three Coffins, "The New Invisible Man" (1938) and "The Crime in Nobody's Room" (1938). So all in all, 1955 was an annus mirabilis for Carr's later work.
Carr's work after this shows a ten year decline. Most of these later books, both historical and contemporary, are labored and uninventive. They do show Carr's gift for atmosphere, however; they also show a consistent level of craftsmanship and fair play. In 1967 Carr's Dark of the Moon showed the beginning of a late revival of his talent. There is a greater sense of mystery in this book than many of its predecessors, simply more mysterious incidents to be explained at the finale, and a greater sense of enthusiasm for the mysterious that the elderly (and it turns out, often ill) Carr had shown for a long time. The book was set in the Carolinas, where Carr had gone to live. It is not a great mystery novel, but it was heartening. Carr's comeback continued, and in 1969 he published a genuine mystery classic, The Ghost's High Noon. Although a "historical" novel, the book is actually set in the world of Carr's childhood, the only Carr novel so placed. The book contains a well done impossible crime, that while by no means as good as The Three Coffins, say, is still a real achievement. This book makes a fine Last Hurrah for Carr's career. He published only two more detective novels, and some well informed mystery criticism in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, that should be collected and made available.
Following in the footsteps of John Dickson Carr as a purveyor of locked room puzzles have come a steady succession of authors. Many of these seem to be consciously imitating Carr's work. By the way, Carr was extremely generous to his successors, sponsoring Edmund Crispin into the Detection Club, becoming a personal friend of Clayton Rawson and Joseph Commings, and writing rave reviews of Hake Talbot, Bill Pronzini and Edward D. Hoch.
There are other types of problems in Carr, each of which involves fewer examples:
Other authors have produced locked rooms, and bodies isolated on beaches and in snow. But the crime actually witnessed - but not understood, and with no apparent murderer - seems to be a very difficult trick to pull off, and perhaps less common:
Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) also offers an unusual disappearance, related to The Three Coffins. Night at the Mocking Widow is strangely imaginative in its solution. Like The Three Coffins, albeit in a more modest way, it is a book that stimulates the reader's imagination, causing them to see new possibilities of plot and the mystery. The unclassifiable "The New Invisible Man" (1938) is also in the tradition of The Three Coffins.
Perhaps related is the primary disappearance in The Burning Court (1937). This too shows real imagination, although I confess I have never liked the supernatural novel which surrounds it. Carr has come up with an impossible situation here that is genuinely original.
The locked room murder in "The Fourth Suspect" (1927) is the least original of Carr's early impossible crime Bencolin short stories. Its ideas derive from Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1890). Admittedly, Carr's version here is hard to guess - and he also throws in an alternative solution, also fairly conventional. Carr emphasized both of these approaches in his "locked room lecture" in The Hollow Man, which discusses the typical solutions used by locked room authors as a whole. But he rarely used these conventional ideas again in his fiction. He instead preferred completely original approaches.
"The Murder in Number Four" (1928) suffers from a subplot about a disappearing ghost, that is a cheat. There are also some fairness problems with some of the exposition surrounding the actual murder. Carr will do a much better job of scrupulous fairness throughout the rest of his published fiction. These problems aside, the actual murder is an impressive locked room idea.
Carr's supernatural scenes tend to evoke the horrors of history. In The Plague Court Murders the menace is a hangman's assistant from the 1600's Newgate Prison. Carr evokes all the horrors of 17th century prisons, capital punishment, and the plague. The purported supernatural menace of the novel is that the ghost of this boogie man has come back, and is pursuing the characters of the novel - at night of course, and in the decaying old house of the title. This is plenty creepy, even overwhelmingly so, without Carr having to stress much supernatural mechanism. Villains in Carr novels tend to be disasters from the past come back to haunt the present. Carr's work does not contain a tremendous political charge. But it tends to invoke the idea of progress - we know that history was full of really bad old institutions that are now gone, and Carr dredges them up to chill us. Other early Carr books are dominated by motifs of ancient prisons as well: Hag's Nook (1933) takes place in the ruins of England's first detention prison, and The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) in England's most famous prison, the Tower of London. Later Carr will deal with modern defects of the judicial system: corrupt police in Death-Watch (1935), and a hanging judge in Death Turns the Tables (1941).
Carr's novels have a uniformity of approach: they tend to be complexly plotted formal detective stories; and of tone: an eerie atmosphere. Because of this they are instantly recognizable as Carr's work. But these similarities tend to disguise and obscure the sheer variety of subject matter in Carr's books. For example, there is a startling gap between Death-Watch, a set against a realistic background of the politics of police corruption in London, and Castle Skull, which is a baroque Gothic tale of revenge at a magician's castle in Germany. And unlike many historical novelists, such as Georgette Heyer, who found one favorite historical period and stuck with it, each of Carr's historical mysteries is set in a different time period.
Carr's politics go through three stages:
Carr's other detectives are less interesting. Henri Bencolin is largely an apprentice character, although The Lost Gallows is a major Carr novel and "The Shadow of the Goat" an inventive short story. Bencolin is a professional policeman, and he indicates how Carr's sleuths tend to be professionals, rather than amateurs. Dr. Fell is a true amateur detective, but Merrivale is a British Government official with ties to Intelligence, and other Carr sleuths include Scotland Yard figures and barristers. These men tend to have colorful, eccentric personalities, of the kind often associated with amateur Great Detectives, and are far from the colorless officials favored by Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers.
Barrister-sleuth Patrick Butler's two novels Below Suspicion (1949) and Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956) are among Carr's worst books.
Colonel March of Scotland Yard appears in some very good short stories, but he personally seems fairly colorless.
"The Clue of the Red Wig" (1940) features a pair of detectives: a Sexy Frenchwoman reporter, and a marvelously proper and stuffy young man Scotland Yard official. The two make a great pair, and it's a pity that Carr did not bring them back for any sequels. The reporter is one of the few woman sleuths in Carr.
The first half of Castle Skull (1931), Carr's third novel, offers superb scene painting of the Rhine River in Germany, and of two elaborate buildings on it, a country house mansion, and across the river from it, a restored Castle. Both buildings are outré to the max. Carr is very good at imagining their ornate and ominous furniture, carpets, wall hangings and rare objets d'art, in a tradition that goes back to Poe. Carr has vivid descriptive skills. The reader has a "you are there" feel, whether Carr is evoking the houses, the river, the eccentric characters, or the storm at night.
The book which introduces Dr. Fell, Hag's Nook (1933), does a similar vivid job recreating the Fen Country. This is Carr's first novel set in the English countryside, and one of his first with an English detective.
The middle section (Chapter 8 to the start of Chapter 14) of Carr's first mystery novel, It Walks By Night (1930), has a rich Parisian atmosphere. While the opening and closing sections of this book are full of an overdone horror, these middle sections give an indication of Carr's great talent to come. Carr describes two houses set in the Paris suburbs in these middle chapters. His description of the lights of Paris and these houses by twilight, by night and in the rain is especially rich. There is also considerable delicacy in the depictions of the characters' emotions. Carr's very first Bencolin mysteries, the short stories he wrote as a college student such as "The Shadow of the Goat" (1926), are also full of atmosphere and scene painting, of both France and England.
Carr's impossible crime technique was strongly influenced by G.K Chesterton. His series detective Dr. Fell is an affectionate pastiche of Chesterton.
Carr's work reflects other authors, as well. The "older detective solving the case while the young man narrator has adventures and finds a love interest" paradigm derives from the books of R Austin Freeman, such as The Eye of Osiris. This pattern is already present in Carr's first novel, It Walks By Night, and it will persist throughout his entire career. Chapter 13 of It Walks By Night also contains a small scene set in a lane next to a garden in which a murder has been committed. The country lane, complete with hedge, immediately recalls a setting much used in Freeman's books. So does the use of classical detection in this scene: Bencolin examines tire tracks and footprints, make deductions from them, and finds the murder weapon.
Both Castle Skull (1931) and Death-Watch (1935) split into halves, with the first half of each being the initial investigation, the second half being the follow up and solution. In both books, the split comes at virtually the mathematical center point of the novel, in terms of the number of pages. It is hard to believe that Carr did not consciously plan the books this way, with a mathematical precision of design that recalls Emily Brontë. In each book, the initial investigation starts at night, and ends when the detective characters give up and go to bed. The second half of each novel begins at the sunny start of the next day, and is much more diffuse than the first half, which concentrates on a single continuous investigation. In both books the first half is a gripping piece of storytelling, but the second half generally disappoints. (For reference, in Castle Skull the first half is Chapters 1 - 10, while in Death-Watch the first half consists of Chapters 1 - 11, while Chapter 12 consists of a summing up of the initial investigation, with Dr. Fell listing five unanswered questions: what Carolyn Wells called a tabulation.)
The article on J.J. Connington describes how Connington's techniques of plot construction may have influenced Carr. Connington used the mathematical concept of the "permutation" in The Case With Nine Solutions (1928), and somewhat similar permutations pop up in Carr's Locked Room Lecture. Carr particularly admired Connington's "sheer brain power", as he referred to it in "The Grandest Game in the World" (1946), and he also became a close friend and collaborator with John Rhode, creator of mathematician detective Dr. Priestly. Carr had trouble with math in school, and comic mathematicians turn up in such Carr works as The Cavalier's Cup. Yet Carr also had a deep respect for mathematics, and it plays more of a role in his works than is initially apparent.
Carr's stories, which often focus on exploring the aftermath of sinister crimes committed at night, recall in approach those of Anna Katherine Green, who he read extensively as a child. There is little fake supernatural atmosphere in her books, but there is plenty of a feeling of nocturnal horror. (Although Green did occasionally write stories with a mock supernatural appearance, for example, "The Gray Lady" in her collection Masterpieces of Mystery.) Douglas G. Greene has pointed out the similarities of a plot element in Carr's "The Gentleman From Paris" (1950), and an episode in Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878). Carr's childhood reading of Green finds other echoes in his work: his radio play "Cabin B-13" deals with a situation similar to her "Room No. 3" (1909), while it finds a very different solution, and his "The Door to Doom" (1935) recycles plot material from Green's "The Staircase at Heart's Delight" (1894). (See the article on Sir Basil Thomson for a discussion of "Cabin B-13" and its predecessors.)
With The Plague Court Murders (1934), his first novel featuring his other series detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr will commit himself to the Impossible Crime, and take a radically different road, that of the intuitionist, Chesterton based school. As Douglas G. Greene has pointed out, with The Three Coffins (1935), Dr. Fell will be retooled as a specialist in impossible crimes as well, something not part of his original characterization. The experiment with Realism will be just a brief phase in Carr's career. Carr's early Fell books have aspects of a young writer trying to adapt himself to a popular tradition, Realism, while coming out of an intuitionist, Chesterton tradition that is fundamentally different. Carr's plot solutions in subsequent early Fell books like The Mad Hatter Mystery and Death-Watch seem to come more out of the Chesterton tradition, favoring rearrangements in time and space, rather than the Realist school's "breakdown of identity" he used in Hag's Nook. And Carr's lyrical, emotionally rich travel descriptions seem a long way from the analytical depictions of social and technical institutions found in Crofts and the other Realist school writers. They instead seem part of an atmospheric mise-en-scène. Carr is not the only intuitionist, Chesterton based writer to go through a brief Realist phase: Agatha Christie experimented with Realist traditions around 1925 - 1926.
Carr will not entirely abandon Realist school traditions. Nine - And Death Makes Ten (1940), deals with science and fingerprints, a subject linked to the Realists since R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb Mark (1907). Just as in Freeman's novel, Carr's book contains thumb prints in blood, prints that are not what they seem, although Carr's solution is very different from Freeman's. The book contains a vivid Background, this time of a munitions ship in wartime, and uses other Realist techniques in its plot solution. Carr intermixes these Realist concepts with the Impossible Crime tradition in this novel, so the book is hardly a pure example of Realist School writing. Several other of Carr's works circa 1940 also use scientific ideas in the solution of their impossible crimes.
Death in Five Boxes (1938) begins with a sentence whose form, content and style seems to come right out an H. C. Bailey tale about Mr. Fortune. It serves to introduce Dr. John Sanders, a forensic pathologist attached to the British Home Office - a job similar to Mr. Fortune's. From that point on, however, the two writers diverge. Dr. Sanders is immediately plunged into a fantastic adventure in midnight London, in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (1878). As the tale progresses, Dr. Sanders' expertise on poisons is used, but mainly to set up the facts about the murder, and to show how impossible it was for anyone to have committed it. The crime is actually solved by Sir Henry Merrivale, using non-technical, common sense ideas that anyone would know. H.M. uses brain power and reasoning, not any scientific expertise. As the story progresses, young Dr. Sanders assumes the role of the young, brave, noble man who typically accompanies Carr's middle-aged sleuths, but who does not solve the mystery. In "Error at Daybreak" (1938), the equivalent young man is actually referred to as a "young man" who is "imbecile". Dr. Sanders is far more intelligent than this - but he actually does little to solve the mystery. Carr would make some inventive variations of the opening scenes and plot ideas of Death in Five Boxes in his radio play, "The Black Minute" (1940).
One might note that Carr's reputation as a detective writer was not made with his early, extravagantly gothic Bencolin novels (1930 - 1932), nor with the impossible crime stories of 1934 - 1950 on which so much of his current reputation rests. Instead, Carr became famous when Dorothy L. Sayers praised his The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) in a rave review. Sayers was one of the main leaders of the British Realist school, and she especially admired this book, a product of the brief era of Carr's adherence to Realist school traditions.
By contrast, Dangerous Crossing (1953) is a well-made mystery-thriller based on Carr's famous radio play "Cabin B-13". It manages to set forth Carr's baffling puzzle with clarity and aplomb, while telling an exciting story that catches one up in suspense. Dangerous Crossing was directed by Joseph M. Newman.
Dangerous Crossing was remade as a made-for-TV-movie Treacherous Crossing (1992), with middling results. The remake has location photography aboard the real life ship Queen Mary, and a glamorous turn by Grant Show, but never captures the storytelling vigor of the original Dangerous Crossing.
The Burning Court (1962) is a French-language adaptation of Carr's 1937 novel made by the veteran French director Julien Duvivier. I have only managed to see an English-dubbed version. This is not a clearly told detective story of the kind British TV has accustomed us with excellent TV series like Poirot. It is instead a loosely told poetic meditation on themes from Carr's novel, with a plot-line that is difficult to follow. However, it has beautiful, atmospheric photography, and rich acting by luminaries of the 1960's Nouvelle Vague. The scenes of the main mystery itself, and their later explanation, are visually striking. They also faithfully recreate on screen one of Carr's wildest disappearance puzzles.
Carr's Colonel March short stories inspired a TV series Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1953-1956). Some of the episodes were based on Carr tales. The Silver Curtain (1956) is based on Carr's 1939 short story of the same title. The Silver Curtain makes a commendable attempt to stay mainly faithful to Carr's plot. But its story telling is unfortunately dull. On the plus side talented Arthur Hill does a good job as Carr's young hero Jerry Winton.