#255: Abridged Too Far? Comparing Texts of The Unicorn Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

Unicorn Murders

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.

1098706He 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.

At this point, we’re just about to reach the bottom of page 1 of the Mercury Mystery edition, which gives you an idea of how heavily this has been cut.  But, arguably, there’s nothing here that isn’t entirely valid in its removal — sure, there’s scope for the argument that the author included it for a reason (we’ll address that in due course), but I don’t think there’s much in this early stage which matters too greatly.

31kdv2eaeml-_sx298_bo1204203200_The top of page two sees the obliteration of the timing of these events “two days before King George’s Silver Jubilee” as well as removing the succeeding paragraph up to “the drone and chatter in the air filled with the flat quack of taxis”.  The proximity of the Jubilee is mentioned in the abridged version soon hereafter, but given that this event takes on a sort of background significance, this is the first real hint that the subtle flavours of casual clue dropping (worry not, this isn’t a clue for anything) could be imperiled later on.  But, for now, no major harm.

What’s very interesting to me is that there have been by now at least three significant removals of mood-setting, removing any explicit sense of the calmness that surrounds Blake in the moments before things go wrong.  And, in fairness, I think the manner of what occurs is so odd that there’s actually nothing to be gained by belabouring how thoroughly normal everything is — we’ll get the sudden juxtaposition of oddness again normalcy, provided you get to the former before too much of the latter dulls our interest.

We get through the introduction of the Flamande/Gasquet thread with fewer histrionics from the policeman, and are introduced to Evelyn Cheyne in a manner that excludes the specifics of the past she shares with Ken Blake while allowing it to become clear from the dialogue that they know each other enough for her to relax around him but not so much that they qualify as friends…and at this point I find myself curious as to how the rest of this abridgement is handled.  It’s true that Carr’s loquacity is at its worst in these opening exchanges, with a great deal of the detail removed above actually succeeding in the stated aim of increasing the speed of the story, but what happens when events start packing in with more significance later on?  Not that I’m suggesting whoever abridged this would do a poor job — far from it, this first chapter is excellently handled — I’m simply curious to see exactly how much of Carr’s density is deemed relevant.

Worry not, what follows is by no means as forensically detailed as the above.

Chapter 2 — no longer ‘The Red Car’ — omits Blake’s frustration at the loss of his passport and removes the atmospheric mid-article break at the unfortunate but unfatal cost of the description of streetlamps and the coming of the storm.  The newspaper article itself, however, is retained in full, as is the (to my eye overlong) description of Flamande’s derring-do and criminal genius…in a way, I feel Flamande is overdone in this opening section, coming across like a sort of Boys’ Own nemesis rather than a viable, realistic threat, but I can understand the desire to keep as much of that as possible.  Having H.M. locking horns with someone who knows how to open a safe doesn’t quite get the pulse racing, hein?

There are fewer excisions generally in this chapter — the glow of a cigarette, characters repeating something to buy time, most adjectives — though it’s interesting to note that the atmosphere of the bistro with its “frowsy wax-work figures playing dominoes over their drinks in a fog of tobacco smoke” is kept, perhaps in a deliberate decision to heighten the sense of alienation now that things are on the march, when it could easily be discarded.  Certainly this chapter feels less garrulous than the opening one, and you’ve got to wonder if this is partly Carr’s callowness in his writing: did he feel the need to spend longer on the ‘establishing’ first chapter to ensure everyone was on the same, ahem, page?  He took such joy later in his career in simply hurling you headlong into the fray that it certainly seems to be a case of lacking faith in his own setup.  Now we’re moving, he’s on happier ground; looking at this it way, it would be no surprise that it’s in this sort of form that he would write some of the finest novels this genre will ever see.

So let’s skip ahead to chapter 5, at which point the plot takes its first gigantic lurch in a new direction, and see how that fares under the abridger’s knife.

unicornmurdersWell, again, a certain amount of excision is achieve simply by not requiring characters to act as stand-ins for the reader: the shock of a couple of characters at the announcement which begins this chapter is removed, but then we as readers are equally unfooted and so that’s no huge loss.  Perhaps the only effect this does have is to reduce the pervading sense of discombobulation: there’s an implicit sense of British stiff-upper-lipness in the apparent refusal of anyone to react to the situation they are greeted with, and it would possibly be a little odd to be faced with such equanimity on the page.  At the same time, this sort of catercornered approach is weirdly in keeping with the overall oddness of what’s going on here, but it would have the effect of pulling you out of the story a little, I can’t help but feel.

There is a letter — in the epistolary sense — of particular importance in this chapter, and interestingly some of that is removed, as is a great deal of the description of other characters; the relative magnitude of the edits here isn’t far off the opening chapter, in fact, though there’s much atmosphere and reaction that is as involved in the setup of the situation as were the tonal edits of the opening of the book.  Possibly I chose poorly in the selection of this chapter, as it spends a certain amount of time on the little actions and responses of people new to the narrative, but this is one place where a couple of hugely important clues are dropped and I wanted to see how the abridging would affect those.

Naturally they are themselves untouched, and their placement in the shortened text in no ways seems odd — it’s not like we suddenly lapse into a wealth of detail following everything else being pared back to the essentials — which is testament to the wisdom of the decision to leave in the flourish here and there that enriches proceedings without really adding anything plot-wise.  Whoever abridged this — whether it was a single person or a whole committee is not revealed anywhere in the book — did a fabulous job, and given how rigorous they’ve been, this version seems likely to clear up the issues of volubility later on that marred my enjoyment of the full text when I read this recently.  Having previously viewed this with suspicion, I can safely say that it will be to the abridged version that I return when I come to read this novel again.


So, what have we learned?  That Carr had a tendency to over-write…well, we knew that anyway.  That a speedy setup can be attained?  Well, again, we saw that become more of a factor in Carr’s career fairly soon hereafter, and plenty of other authors will also have shown us this.   I think I will take away from this the idea that, as tempting as it is to scream “Sacrilege!” and let slip the dogs of indignation, an intelligent perspective on this type of undertaking can actually improve a text where word count is often given preference over relevance.  We’ve all read books that drag — some of them are almost short stories padded unrecognisably up to 237 pages — and being able to rip out a few descriptors here and there could give us a vastly improved experience.  Seeing it done this well, while not making quite the compelling read I thought it might (sorry about that), at least makes me very curious to see how this was achieved elsewhere.

Because, dude, if they did this to The White Priory Murders (1935) it could well make that book a proper masterpiece…

14 thoughts on “#255: Abridged Too Far? Comparing Texts of The Unicorn Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

  1. ” An intelligent perspective on this type of undertaking” is called editing! What were the editors of Carr’s early books doing – letting him overwrite and saying, “He’s young, he’ll learn?” I think some of this is emulation of the Gothic/Victorian style that Carr loved and at least some readers craved. It seems to me that Mercury created “E-Z Read” versions of some contemporary fiction for people with short attention spans, and frankly it does make me want to cry out “Sacrilege!”

    I’m several chapters into The Plague Court Murders, much of which is description of the Halliday mansion. It’s genuinely creepy stuff – the walls bursting with skittering rats, the discovery of the murdered cat, the hilarious description of the Major’s voice as “a disembodied letter to the Times.” It’s exactly the Gothic stuff that John didn’t like about the book, while you wished the chapter about the ghost had been excised – a chapter that Colin loved. (I haven’t gotten to it yet, so I can’t weigh in.)

    I shudder at the thought that someone has reduced a man’s work to someone else’s idea of “pure” story and that folks might read this and think they’re getting the author’s intended novel, even if it was done “with the author’s approval.” (What, is he going to say no?) Or worse – the reader is going to say, “This is better,” as you did. Dell did the same thing to Christie and seriously wounded The Moving Finger and other works. Their act was a sin because I don’t believe they marked their editions as abridgements.

    I don’t know why this bothers me so much, JJ. You’ve made it clear that we shouldn’t get on our high horses, and here I am galloping away!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Brad, I, with JJ, think that White Priory could have been better edited–there’re some grand ideas in there, hidden in a rather tedious shell, to be honest–but I’m with you completely on the idea of expunging sentences, paragraphs, whole themes from books. I would never want anyone to do something like that to any book I may write, and I think Carr’s books are, indeed, defined by the “asides,” as much as any asides Shakespeare might have written (“well, Shakespeare’s asides don’t always drive the plot forward, and how about them monologues and soliloquies..”–the mind boggles!).

      I completely understand JJ’s point, but I would never, ever want any cuts to happen unless the author, on the advice of his editor, makes them himself. Anything else seems like bowdlerizing to me, to be honest.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Karl, I’ve heard this criticism about The White Priory Murders from many quarters . . . which is probably why I chose to read Plague Court first! I totally get that some books are better written than others: Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles is one trial too long for my taste. But I’m wondering how much of what is being discussed here is based on modern sensibilities. Many of us agree that the prose style of First Period Ellery Queen has dated quite a bit, that even with the cleverness of those plots, some of the books are hard to read now. Was that the case at the time? I don’t think Mercury’s purpose was to “improve” the book but to make a version for people who were . . . what? In a hurry? Lesser readers? I’m unclear as to the point of these books. I get that the abridged version of Unicorn is an improvement to JJ, but that’s because his reading tastes differ from 1935 readers – as do all of our tastes. But in 1935, people chose whether to read the entire book or this (I like the word) bowdlerized version. Why didn’t the original editors stay Carr’s hand when he overwrote?

        I hope I’m being clear here.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No worries, you’re being clear, at least to me! While I undoubtedly believe that something like Period I EQ is hard to read (I even find something as clever as Greek Coffin heavy going), I would never big parts cut unless the author himself expressly does it. I suppose writers are sensitive to this kind of thing. You may be correct that it’s a time thing, though it may simply be a taste thing, as usual; I’m a huge fan of Carr’s asides (especially the stuff with witchcraft in The Burning Court and Beneath Suspicion and the French Revolution-set tale in The Red Widow Murders), mystery or not, but others may insist, “Damn it, enough already–get to the plot!” which is not an absurd criticism, especially with JDC, but is one with which I can’t agree. In other words, I may be fond of Carr’s “overwriting” (though some of these don’t count as “overwriting”), while others may not be. To answer your question, by the way, maybe the purpose was a bit like Reader’s Digest… || I don’t mean to put you off White Priory completely: it’s got a great solution to the classic “footprints in the snow” puzzle. But, while the puzzle is good, Carr–for once in his career–seemed to fall into the old Ngaio Marsh-trap of interview-after-interview…

          Liked by 2 people

          • Have I found another soul who shared my enjoyment of the oft reviled Below Suspicion? I do deviate from you in one respect though – the witchcraft angle is the weakest part of the book.

            The French Revolution section of The Red Widow Murders? Ah, if only that had gone on for 10 more chapters. It’s one of my fondest memories of any Carr book. Here we are, neck deep in one of Carr’s most horrifying and airtight locked room mysteries, and out of nowhere we’re sucked back into the past to discover the history of the room that kills. Pure magic.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yeah, agreed: the historical part of RWM is what the historical chapter of TPCM needed to be; for some reason it flies much better in Red Widow — if he’d gone on to tell the rest of that book in the past, I would have been perfectly happy!


          • Yes, Green Capsule, you have indeed found another such soul! 🙂

            In fact–though my blogging privileges may be revoked and all my laurels as a mystery-reader stripped from list of honors–I think that it may be among my favorite Carrs. (“What!”) Not among my top 5, to be sure, but perhaps among my top 10?

            While the puzzle is merely passable (though still clever, naturally), it has some of JDC’s best writing, especially in the action-adventure vein (the book seems unsurprisingly indebted to Dennis Wheatley). And you and I agreed about Patrick Butler on Kate’s blog, right? Should we form that illustrious organization, “The Defenders of Patrick Butler”? (We’d have precious few members, but still…)

            I’m fascinated with the witch trials and that kind of thing, so I greatly enjoyed the witchcraft material in Below Suspicion. (By the way, the Affair of the Poisons–the period in history in which our old friend Marie D’Aubray [Mme. de Brinvilliers], from The Burning Court–is a subject I’ve particularly researched.) I will say, however, that Carr borrowed all the material in Below Suspicion nearly word-for-word from Margaret Murray’s (now largely debunked) God of the Witches (’31).

            I think the French Revolution portion of Red Widow is superb, really some of the greatest writing JDC ever did. “Pure magic,” indeed!

            Liked by 1 person

        • Fundamentally, though, there’s a difference between “editing an author” and “removing all but the most relevant parts, and then ensuring enough remains to make it readable”. What this version does is much more than the second option, as it simply takes out (or so it appears) a ot of the repetition, the minor reminders about who’s who and how everyone relates to each other, and the excess material that — while atmospheric, and obviously deemed relevant by the author when written — can neverthless be removed without any significant impact.

          As to the purpose, well I imagine paper shortages played a part: there’s not a clear date on this, but it looks and feels like a product of an age when such materials were a bit more strictly controlled yet there was still a demand for this type of book — hence this middle ground. Precisey how much of this was explicitly okayed by the author or publisher (and the second deosn’t mean the first was involved, naturally) we’ll never know and so it seems fruitless to speculate upon.

          All in all, if I was happy with this being my ony experience of this book the I would have read it first and waited for the full text to read at a later date. As it happens, I got this version before the full version and waited — I’m a fan of Carr, I want the full Carr experience, but this isn’t the hatchet job some may fear. Individual feelings may vary on the liberties taken here, and I can see both sides, but at least they’re clear about this being abridged so people are free to read it without being misled….or can equally decide to seek the full version if they so wish. That, I think, is a very important distinction from what happened with Christie.


      • Now you know how I feel when the negative attitudes to race or simialr are repurposed in novels from this era by overly-sensitive publishing houses. But see post #68 for my thoughts on that; I’m not going to repeat myself even though it is the thing I’m happy to sound off on the most. Well, okay, top 5. Maybe top 8.


    • I’m horrified by your comment that Dell published unmarked abridgments. I tend to go out of my way to get the Dell editions because I love the size, cover art, and most of all, the map backs. I suppose it’s fortunate that I don’t have too many Dell versions of Carr books – only Hag’s Nook and Behind the Crimson Blind. I do have a number of Dell Ellery Queens and Kelley Roos.

      I absolutely love the creepiness of The Plague Court Murders, including the historical chapter. Possibly Carr’s best horror outside of The Crooked Hinge. I’m looking forward to your review.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. An interesting topic to take on. I had actually meant to review the short story version of The Gilded Man along with my novel review, but then somehow lost track of the idea.

    The question that I’m most interested in, which you didn’t take on, is what sort of edits were made in the actual reveal of the solution. I suspect that it would be similar to your comments from chapter 5 – all of the core content would remain with little cut.

    I can see The Unicorn Murders benefiting from some editing in the first third, prior to the arrival at the castle. It’s an enjoyable enough read, but the zany caper does create the sense of a book divided. Once the story reaches the castle and the traditional early Merrivale story begins, it’s all gold. Well, you complained that the ending was a little too talky, which I find funny coming from someone who shares my love for Death Watch…

    I personally would always try to avoid an abridged version, but I do appreciate that several of Carr’s books could have benefited from it – White Priory being a prime example.


    • I would have looked at more points to comapre, but there were time restrictions (I wanted to do this while the full text wa fresh in my mind) as well as practical considerations (it’s pretty dull reading one book, then skipping over to another one and finding out exactly how much is replicated). To get into the reveal — which, lest we forget, is about 30 pages long, all told — is prbably a three man job to do properly: one person reading each version, and a third to write down the differences. And I couldn’t guarantee that anyone would even be that interested in this in the first place… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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