John Dickson Carr, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Detection Club
John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author of detective mystery stories, and was the first American to become a member of the Detection Club, a club founded in 1930 that included such murder-mystery luminaries as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton and G.D.H. Cole. The club had an initiation ritual, featuring four burning black candles, a skull and a robe wearing director of ceremonies, providing an atmosphere reminiscent of some of the mystery novels that the members have written.
Carr actually wrote about the club in an essay that was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mix, and had begun his piece with the oath that was taken by the initiate:
‘Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?‘
This was described by Carr as the first article in the oath of the club, Carr going on to reveal that as the oath is taken, the initiate places his or her hand on a skull, which was given the rather enticing name of Eric, the eyes of which light up red as the initiate swears to honour the King’s English, to use legitimate detective methods and to refrain from ‘pinching his fellow members’ plots‘. Apparently the red lights in the skulls eyes was down to the electrical skill of fellow Detection Club member John Rhode. More recently, the skull has been examined and it has now been determined to be a female skull, so its name has been changed to Erica.
The part of the oath that discussed the use of legitimate detective methods in their stories seems to have been presented thus:
‘Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?‘
Carr was also a huge Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fan, writing an award winning biography of Conan Doyle in 1950. Carr also included Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear in his top ten of detective mystery stories. Conan Doyle was supposed to be the first chairman of the club, but he passed away the year the club was founded. Like Conan Doyle, Carr was obviously captivated by the macabre and by mystery, injecting esoteric themes into his storylines, such as the Tarot in his work The Eight of Swords, magic in his book Castle Skull and the art of the illusionist in perhaps his most famous work The Hollow Man.
The initiation ceremony of the Detection Club can be seen as a piece of light-hearted drama created during the so called Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a tongue-in-cheek ritual that perhaps borrows certain elements from Freemasonry and certain other secret clubs (the Skull and Bones Society springs to mind). The club is still going strong today, some of the current members including John Le Carre, Colin Dexter and Antonia Fraser and it meets three times a year at the Garrick Club or the Dorchester Hotel in London.