#254: The Unicorn Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

unicornmurdersWhen a man is found dead, stabbed between the eyes by a unicorn (of indeterminate nationality) — a, yes, fictional animal that can nevertheless apparently turn invisible at will — you don’t expect to find yourself in the GADU.  And when a second victim is then killed in the same way but in full view of witnesses, if one can witness an invisible animal, you better hope you’re in the GADU or else things are about to get silly.  Well, it’s your lucky day, because you are in a classic impossible crime mystery and things are about to get silly — this book is probably the final time John Dickson Carr had all the ingredients for a classic and didn’t actually write it, instead leaving a few edges untouched so that the overriding impression is slightly more “Er…what?” than “Hell, yeah!”.

It is, though, a tremendous amount of fun seeing Carr at the end of his early phase of staggeringly fecund imagination, flipping and jumping between genres with the sort of agile literary parkour that was completely his own.  Some may find this a little ADHD — it’s spies! it’s a chase! it’s battles of wits! it’s comedy! it’s gothic! it’s puzzle! it’s impossible! — but you may have noticed that I’m something of a fan of Carr, and I’ll take his wild flights of genre-bending in my stride quite happily.  It’s interesting to note the increased confidence here, too, as he has a couple of revelations that in the likes of The White Priory Murders (1935) would have ended a chapter in grand, dramatic fashion, but here are quietly relayed in a manner that belies any accusations that he doesn’t have a good grip on what’s happening in his own plot.

There is as unicorn in this plot, but we don’t find out what it is until the final pages.  What we do know is that French master criminal Flamande has publicly threatened to steal and his nemesis Gaston Gasquet of the Sûreté has equally publicly vowed to defend.  That this theft will take place on a plane is also promised, and I spent a good 20 pages fighting off a sort of delirium tremens as memories of Obelists Fly High jumped out at me from every paragraph.  Carr could absolutely write a classic ‘everyone in one place’ mystery, but this isn’t it — the plane is abandoned, and then things get really weird…

Once you get over a couple of huge coincidences early on, this is actually a coup of plotting and imagination that for solidly 75% of its length shows Carr at his best; every time you have a handle on something, off it twists, and the number of little surprises worked into the threads of the plot — a woman being terrified by opening a book, a man throwing his suitcase out of a window, the fun had with the uncertainty over the identities of Gasquet and Flamande — is pretty incredible.  How in the hell Carr managed to publish four books of this complexity and more in 1935 alone beggars belief; that man’s mind must have been a furnace  of ideas, it’s a wonder he ever got any sleep.  Things do get exceptionally talky in the closing stages, though, and in spite of a of those few very clever casual revelations you’re likely to find yourself a touch…not bored so much as exhausted.

It resembles the aforementioned The White Priory Murders in this regard, except that TWPM had a lot of talking along the way to it’s brilliant, brilliant reveal.  This has brilliant, brilliant reveals…and then dumps a lot of talking on you.  The impossibility is very clever here — you’ll doubtless get the idea, if not the precise details — and it’s interesting to think just how little Carr’s own focus was on making the impossible angle the driving element given how famous he has now become for his impossibilities.  If you’re in this solely for the impossible unicorn murder you’re going to come away a little deflated; go in for the joy of a greatest detective novelist of all time finally figuring out how to do this and working the last of the rust out of his system and you’ll fare much better.  The impossibility-free The Punch and Judy Murders, a.k.a. The Magic Lantern Murders (1936) from the following year would employ this aesthetic far more successfully, with the final quarter’s summation of the preceding madness being a great deal more satisfying.

And I haven’t even mentioned Henry Merrivale yet.  We have with him and Gasquet a sort of ‘duelling banjos’ situation as seen in the likes of Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) and Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links (1923).  H.M.’s more tempestuous nature makes him a slightly more compelling presence than would the stoic solidity Gideon Fell be here (Fell’d be going “Heh, heh, heh” every three pages and finding it all mightily amusing), and there are some wonderful moments in the denouement when he relates when and how he started to twig to things early on that show The Old Man as a force to be reckoned with.  It’s just a shame that too much verbosity still rules the day.  Maybe I’m being harsh in my rating but, oof, the quality from here more than justifies it.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

If everything goes to plan, I shall return to this book on Saturday with a slightly different purpose; in the meantime…

See also:

Ben @ The Green Capsule: Finally we get Carr in his element, and he plays the plot with expert precision. From the moment the murder happens, the book careens out of control towards an uncertain conclusion. Without me giving anything away, the plot bypasses a traditional investigation — in its place providing a bit of a thriller imbued with a real sense of peril.

Noah @ Noah’s Archives: This is one of a very small group of mysteries that really is worth trying to solve. Carr seems to have felt that this sort of novel is a kind of battle between the reader and the writer, and if you want to have a chance of winning, I recommend that you take it very, very slowly — know where everyone is and what they’re doing — be aware that trickery and impersonation abound — and stop before the end and formally declare your opinion as to who the murderer is. There are so few of these mysteries in the canon that it is worth savouring this like some exquisite lollypop, taking only slow, careful licks until the centre is revealed. I envy the reader who has yet to read this book. Don’t spoil your experience by rushing through it.


I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category A Green Object.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Death in the Tunnel as the two authors collaborated on a novel (Drop to His Death, a.k.a. Fatal Descent (1939)).

45 thoughts on “#254: The Unicorn Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

  1. Do you know, I now realise that I remember this one very little, but in my defence (and no criticism of the mighty Carr), it was well over 30 years ago that I read it last. So I read your review a tad gingerly in case it all came flooding back to me! Must get it off the shelf this summer- can’t think of anything I would rather read in such terrible as we are currently traversing. Thanks chum!


    • It’s certainly a complex little book, so if you’d been able to remember it in any great depth after 30 years I would have been exceptionally impressed! Early Carr, for his faults, really does commend itself when things seem a bit grim, eh? I’ve reread a couple of late to get me out of reading slumps, and I’m always amazed at how he lifts my mood and makes it all seem okay again. Hope you enjoy rediscovering this one.


  2. I regard this as one of the most convoluted of Carr novels. In fact, the question of who is who is more perplexing than how the murder was committed !
    There is a discrepancy regarding the depth of the wound in the man murdered at Marseilles. In chapter 2, it is mentioned as 4 inches , but in chapter 6, it is mentioned as 6 inches. Also, according to chapter 2, the wound is “the exact shape and size inflicted by a shot from a revolver of high caliber”; whereas according to chapter 6, the ” orifice was much bigger than any largest caliber of firearm”.
    One of the clues requires one to know a peculiarity of French matches !
    The method of killing of a previous book is revealed in chapter 10 of this book.


    • I love that thing about the French matches, though — I don’t imagine anyone is really expected to know that, but it’s lovely when that is revealed and you realise how deep everything has been the whole time.


  3. I purchased this title at Ben’s recommendation, and I daresay I enjoyed it. I thought the puzzle was very strong, even if the narrative had some rough edges. 😀 In any case, I thought it was a better read than… No, I shouldn’t throw out fighting words all the time. (Just once every two posts, perhaps? 😛 )

    Anyway, since you mentioned ‘Punch & Judy Murders’ – is it any good, and would you say it is worth hunting down? I seem to get mixed reviews for that title…


    • I love The Punch and Judy Murders — it does the whole “frantic mystery on the run” thing wonderfully, like a sort of 1920s Hitchcock caper that never got made. I see it as a sort of watershed between two periods in Carr’s career, but to expand on that would require much more space than I intend to use up here. Definitely worth tracking down, though obviously don’t pay silly money for it.

      As for fightin’ words…it’s okay, I can take it — if I can take Brad’s dismissal of Paul Halter and seemingly everyone’s dismissal of Rupert Penny, a slight disagreement over precisely where Carr was at his most masterful is mere chickenfeed 😀


      • Thanks for the recommendation of ‘Punch and Judy Murders’. 🙂 Despite my initial lukewarm reaction to Carr, I confess that I’ve got hold of virtually every novel of his that has received at least one positive review, barring ‘Punch & Judy’, ‘He Wouldn’t Kill Patience’ and ‘Skeleton in the Clock’. And perhaps a couple of the historical novels. I think I owe a copy of everything else from his ‘peak period’. Talking about paying ‘silly money’, I’ve probably just paid ‘silly money’ for two Flynn and one Rhode novels – all thanks to Puzzle Doctor. 😛

        Anyway, yes, thanks for being patient with my curious disavowal of ‘Plague Court Murders’; then again, I’ve been an ally on all the other instances of disagreement you mentioned! 😀


      • I see it as a sort of watershed between two periods in Carr’s career, but to expand on that would require much more space than I intend to use up here. Uhhhhhh, then you’d better be expanding upon it this weekend, because that is too tempting of a topic to raise and then casually put down. As for my thoughts on the matter, I’ll save them for now with the hope that you do an entire post.


        • Well, I’ve gotta read The Burning Court first, just to get full coverage, and because if I don’t it will doubtless be the flaw in the argument that brings the whole edifice down. But, worry not, an Ages of Carr post is steaming away in my mind…it’s all in the timing, nothing comes out until it’s ready. However, there’s an aspect of Carr’s aegis which may be relevant to bring up in the comments of what I have planned for Saturday, which is this book from another perspective — oOooOoOOOooOOoo, anticipatory…

          I’d say more, but it’s proving to be a lot of work and I might not finish it in time. So let’s wait and see…

          Liked by 1 person

      • Not everyone’s dismissal of Rupert Penny — I’m with you. I appreciate his virtues and am willing to overlook his shortcomings. Perhaps it’s just that he’s still not the easiest or most affordable author in the world to get; there are to my knowledge no e-books and Ramble House’s trade format is quite expensive to get outside the US.


        • You’re right, we have discussed the merits of Penny before now — sorry, lots of mystery discussion happening on a weekly basis (aaah, what a problem to have!).

          Pretty sure Fender Tucker does Kindle editions, though since you buy them direct from him people may not know about this…or, hey, maybe people just prefer “real” books. As much as I love my Kindle, there’s still something about paper books that’s hardwired into me as being preferable.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I really need to reread this one in order to properly comment on it, but remember being impressed at the time with how Carr tiptoed between the thriller and the formal detective story, while jugging with master thieves, spies and impossibilities as he traversed that slippery tight-rope. That’s the one thing about the book that stuck with me the most. Something about the solution struck me as being similar in nature to The Plague Court Murders, but can’t recall what exactly that was.


    • Ha, yeah, there is something in the solution that recalls something about The Plague Court Murders…it’s a trick rather less brazen here than there, but still of a similar ilk.

      Carr juggled genres better than anyone, but I still think his purest detection is where he’s strongest; after this he really hits a groove in his content and tone with each book, and avoids too much dilution of ideas by — as you say — turning each narrative into a tightrope (with spinning plates on it). We will never see his like again.


    • One of the wildest, which is sometimes in its favour and sometimes to its detriment. Hence the middling rating — the ending is too talky for something as crazy as how this is for most of the book, but something less crazy would work perfectly with the talky ending…what are you gonna do, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Quite the strange choice of novel Carr chose to write here, eh? It’s the book that I struggle forming a solid opinion about just because it straddles so many… mmm… elements. I think Noah says it best though – “I envy the reader who has yet to read this book.”

    I could almost imagine it being written backwards. At its core lies a killer impossibility, and Carr needed to find a way to make it work. Hence the spy theme, hence the chases, etc. Perhaps that’s how many of these stories are crafted, but this one in particular feels like a strange yarn wrapped around a nugget of an idea.

    The puzzle itself is one of my favorites. I saw through it within a few pages, as there was only one conceivable solution. However, as you mention, just because you’ve glommed onto the kernel of the trick doesn’t mean you have any clue how it all worked or who did it. Actually, you should know exactly who did it, and I kick myself to this day that I didn’t realize it immediately.

    I was loaning some books this weekend to a friend who has worked their way through most of classic Carr, and my fingers definitely paused on The Unicorn Murders. I went instead with The Four False Weapons and Hag’s Nook.


    • Surely most mysteries are written backwards, aren’t they? Weirdly, I realise now that what I’ve always assumed…there’s a trick or an idea tat you want to build to and so in order to work it into a plot you just retro-fit everything backwards from that. Or is that not the case? Perhaps this is why the mystery novel I’m writing is going so poorly…

      Depending on which part of the puzzle you saw through, you might be deserving of congratulations. If you spotted that he wasn’t actually killed by a unicorn, though, well…not so much 🙂


      • Some of Carr’s books seem so complex that I can’t imagine they could have been written backwards, and yet perhaps they must have been. I can’t think of a good example now, but there are cases where the story is so tight that it almost feels like it must have been written in whole and then had certain clues stitched back in once Carr figured out exactly what he wanted to do.

        As to what part of the puzzle I solved, it is difficult for me to explain without risking some element of spoiler, so I’ll try to keep it general, but skip this if you haven’t read the book – I realized that there must have been a difference between what was observed and what had happened. This led me to realize that there was a very simple explanation for what was observed.


  6. I realize today h ow much I have “the sickness” – with something like seventy plus books staring at me from my TBR shelves, I want to buy this one, especially after reading Noah’s comment which you so kindly furnished. (That’s exactly the kind of mystery I love to read.

    But I’ll resist: instead I will ask you – for I am also deeply affected by these trying times – which one I should read first: Plague Court or White Priory. (I’m sure not asking John!!!!


    • Plague Court is the better of the two. I believe you will be genuinely surprised at the identity of the murderer even at this remove. Similarly the murder method, while somewhat overdone in the next decade or two, was fresh and difficult for its time. White Priory is one where a key clue is present but so carefully hidden that I don’t think anyone has ever noticed it, upon first reading. So at the end you slap your forehead and say, “Damn! If I had only noticed [such-and-such].” But no one could really have managed it. Plague Court is more satisfying to not solve 😉

      Liked by 2 people

    • Plague Court is the better overall book — there’s ne irritating “exposition by reading an old-timey manuscript” chapter than you can (and should) skip, but the rest is just sheer insanity-to-the-walls amazing, from soupto nuts.

      White Priory has a solution of such wonderful elegance and elan that it’s actually sort of a shame the book leading up to it is a bit of a shambling wreck. Every chapter ends on a sort of crescendo of cliff-hanging and it takes on this sub-Gothic air which I personally didn’t care for. But it is a very, very good ending, that just about makes the preceding nonsense allowable.

      So I’ll let you choose…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow! I’d hate to lose the pseudo-historical document stuff in the book. I know it’s ultimately all pants but it is atmospheric and I’m a real sucker for the inclusion of stuff like that.


        • It’s interesting, innit, just how much of one’s feelings about a book can linger for years as a result of a possibly temporary prejudice or irritation? My memory is that it slowed everything down in a story that already had more than enough gothic atmosphere and foreboding in order to forebode a bit more and slap on with a trowel some more Goth make-up. It was simultaneously pleonastic and entirely removable from a plot perspective, and I still carry the feeling that it’s consequently wasted space in that book. But then everything else is pretty much perfect, so possibly I’m over-reacting 🙂


          • That’s fair enough, I can see how that feeling of overcooking the stew can come across. Full marks for nice use of the word “pleonastic” there too – a lovely term.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, man, this is the million dollar question.

      Plague Court This is probably the better book overall, and may be one of Carr’s more enjoyable reads on a page for page basis. Of course, this assumes that you really enjoy that dripping atmosphere and sense of dread that you find in works like Hag’s Nook and The Red Widow Murders. Plague Court trumps those books by a mile on that dimension.
      The puzzle itself is one of Carr’s best in terms of setup – he basically combines a locked room with a footprints mystery. With that said, I think the “how” is fairly disappointing, although it does have one extremely clever element. To that degree I’d match it with The Red Widow Murders. The “who” is pretty shocking, I definitely didn’t see that twist coming.
      I personally think JJ is over-critical of the manuscript chapter. One of the elements that I enjoy best about Red Widow, Hag’s Nook, and Plague Court is that suggestion that some crime of the past is connected to the present day murders. Sure, we know some 200 year old ghost isn’t killing people, but it adds a mythology to the read that really makes it fun.

      The White Priory Murders I, like many others, tend to be very critical of the pacing of this book. I think we’re probably being overly harsh though. It’s a good read and the puzzle is thrust front and center, which I personally like. As for the puzzle – wow. Hands down Carr’s best solution, and it isn’t even close (unless you count short stories, and then maybe The House in Goblin Wood).
      I don’t think White Priory is one of Carr’s ten best books, but it is one of the 10 that I would lend to someone. That’s a nuanced distinction and I’ll probably write an entire post on that topic eventually.

      Both books are amazing. I’d suggest reading White Priory first, because it is a book that I think could be accidentally spoiled by a careless comment (I have a whole blog post on this subject in the works as well).


    • “I’m sure *not* asking John!!!!”

      Harumph. I will be fair and say that ‘Plague Court’ has the more surprising choice of culprit, but not the better resolution to the puzzle. As for the writing… You know the answer!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve had this on the shelf unread for years – it’s one I’ve been saving for one reason or another. I do like the sound of it though and I think Carr was generally better at mixing up genres than, for example, Christie was. You seem to compare it, on some level, to Punch & Judy. It’s been well over a decade since I read that and don’t remember much about it beyond the pace and the fact it felt (to me anyway at that time) a bit different to other early Merrivale stories, which probably means I ought to reread that at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Punch and Judy Murders does the similar spy-mystery meld, though to my mind it’s more successful (I think that book might be one of Carr’s underappreciated masterpieces…but that’s a post for another time). They both rely as heavily on their man-on-the-run aspect as they do the mystery/detection aspect, which is a pretty rare feat, I just feel the tones are handled more successfully there than here — the final quarter or so, I think I say above, is as dizzying genius piece of “Oh, wow, that was a clue!!” as I think I’ve ever read.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. This review and comments are positively bubbling with potential! Really look forward to reading this one. And it seems that if the over all thing might not be up to Carr’s best, there are those lovely plotting points like the suitcase and the book, and those little side mysteries that Carr makes into an actual plot point that I love.

    The best of Jonathan Creek had amazing examples of those like why there is a fingernail in the locked room in Mother Redcap, and in Chesterton why someone would fire a blank round into a brick wall in The Miracle of Moon Crescent. Another nice one is the key that is too wide to come out of the neck of the bottle in The Perfect Insider (literally what dreams are made of..)

    Old Christie exploited that a good few times in the 13 Problems as well, it’s just one my favourite ways that atmosphere is built AS WELL AS plot being taken forward. That is a great skill, and it seems like this book is filled with it.


    • Heh, I laugh every time I think about the mystery of the suitcase being thrown out the window. Now that I think about it, this would probably be a good book to read a second time just to appreciate what is happening in all of the scenes.

      If you want a book that delivers on little side mysteries, check out the last Bencolin book – The Four False Weapons. It is death by a million cuts from these tiny little clues, and in the end, it all ties together into an airtight package that boggles your mind how Carr could have written it in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I feel the same way about Death Watch (I know, I know — jeez, JJ, stop going on about Death Watch): I just do not comprehend how someone could go about constructing and then writing that plot. FFW is the same, I agree — the density, and the reversal and then reestablishment of that density, is just boggling to watch.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I have no doubt that my reading has been littered with such wonderful incongruities, but — much like when someone goes “You read a lot, recommend me a book!” — my mind has gone blank.

      Nope, I can think of nothing. Dammit! Never mind. You have at least reminded me that I need to get back to The Perfect Insider, however, for which many thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: #255: Abridged Too Far? Comparing Texts of The Unicorn Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson | The Invisible Event

  10. Pingback: ACDC, PART FIVE/FIRST LET’S TALK ABOUT WATSONS: The Unicorn Murders | ahsweetmysteryblog

    • I think I like this one more than Five Boxes — the murder weapon is a real let down, but most of the other elements have left a favbourable impression in my leaky memory. And all that identity shfting is the exact kind of thing I live for in this type of book.

      Onwards to more happy reading…!


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