Among my at-times multiple versions of various John Dickson Carr titles, I have four Mercury Mystery editions like the one shown on the left above — The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Red Widow Murders (1935), The Unicorn Murders (1935), and The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) — which are of additional interest to me since the novels are all abridgements. So, having just read the unedited text of The Unicorn Murders, I thought it might be interesting to see what was excised from this abridged version.
In the very front of the book, after a reminder that the books cost 25¢ each and the generous offer of buying twelve books for $3, runs the following:
Mercury Mysteries are chosen from the hundreds of mysteries published every year — for their pace, literary quality and readability. Sometimes they are reprinted in full, but more often they are cut to increase the speed of the story — always, of course, with the permission of the author or his publisher. Cuts were made in this edition.
Possibly detailing all the cuts will take up more of my life than is really necessary (plus, y’know, spoilers) so the following looks at the first two chapters and then the fifth chapter for purposes of comparison. Suffice to say, specific plot details will not be divulged, you are in a safe space if spoilers are your nemesis. Feel free to read along at home if you have a copy.
The first, arguably unimportant, amendment is the removal of the chapter titles; Chapter One is now simply ‘Chapter One’ as opposed to ‘Chapter One: The Lion and the Unicorn’ — this is fine, as there’s a tendency to give away surprises in chapter titles anyway — and we’re straight into it.
First to go is Ken Blake’s statement in the third sentence of the book:
There is nothing on your mind, and you are utterly at peace with all the world.
He has already established that ‘you’ are on holiday in Paris and out having a relaxing drink, so this is a fair removal. Next, two sentences later, is the framing that you are approached by a girl “who has always struck as rather a starched proposition, by the way” which, again, is fine; there was never very much in Evelyn Cheyne’s conduct that seemed to earn this assertion — she seems fairly relaxed from the off, and knowing this about Blake’s previous experience of her never becomes important to the plot, or, indeed, is ever mentioned again outside of this first chapter that I can recall.
Having never been that much of a fan of the Had I But Known (HIBK) school, I’m happy to see the removal of
And thereby I became involved in a series of events that which can still give me a retrospective shiver: not only because it was worse than any I ever met in the Intelligence Department years ago, but also because of the deadly things that might have been caused by a good-humored lie.
And Paris in the springtime has a way of snaring you into any foolery.
There’s nothing to be gained by promising your reader that what’s coming is going to be thrilling and devastating when you could be hurrying ahead to the actions that actually are thrilling and devastating — which I think is why the HIBK and I have never fully seen eye-to-eye, as I feel rather like that bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): “Get on with it!”.
Taking out the assertion that “I don’t like work and I admit it. Hence the career has been anything but distinguished,” helps make Blake less of a prig, I think, and if it makes him rather more bland from the off, well, he was hardly a fully-rounded human being to begin with. And in fact it makes his statement that “nobody found out about my incompetence” rather more self-deprecating when it comes a few sentences later, and he feels more endearing as a result.
We are robbed of Blake’s first description of H.M. “stumping down Whitehall, his unwieldy top hat stuck on the back of his head, his glasses down on his nose, his overcoat with the moth-eaten fur collar flying out behind,” which is less of a loss than the additional detail of him “cursing certain government officials” (the abridged version stops here)
with an audible fluency which nearly got him mobbed as pro-German
which just makes me smile. Next to go, quite understandably in my eyes, is the entire paragraph (I’m not typing out the whole thing)
A lack of guile, H.M. said, was the most invaluable asset to a Secret Service man … and if any so-and-so’s didn’t like it they could go and do so-and-so.