#800: The Plague Court Murders (1934) by John Dickson Carr [a.p.a. by Carter Dickson]

Plague Court Murders AMC

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The Plague Court Murders (1934), the debut of John Dickson Carr’s sleuth Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale and published under his Carter Dickson nom de plume, struck me when I first read it as among the ne plus ultra of locked room mysteries.  A decade on, having read much more of Carr’s output, I now see it differently.  Carr published five books in 1934, each one now feeling lilke an attempt to work some new wrinkle into his writing. For all the cleverness — and it is very clever — this is really an apprentice work from a man who would go on to do much, much better.

The Eight of Swords (1934) — forthcoming in this American Mystery Classics range, about which I am stoked — is essentially an alibi problem; The Blind Barber (1934) is allegedly a comedy; Death Watch (1934) feels like an attempt to boil down the one-setting mystery to its purest essence. For The Plague Court Murders, the word is Atmosphere — this is a virtuoso, titanic attempt to pile in atmosphere, trying every trick in the book to send shivers chasing and chills racing, to elicit yelps of alarm and shifts of unease. There’s so much atmosphere, even the atmosphere has atmosphere, and whenever any of the characters try to do anything, everyone is so strait-jacketed by Carr’s fealty to his intent that there’s almost no room for them or us to breathe.

One-time ne’er-do-well Dean Halliday, exiled by his family “with that happy British optimisim which decides that bad ways always change if they are practised somewhere else” to Canada, is summoned upon the suicide of his brother James to become head of a family overseen in his absence by his maiden aunt Lady Anne Benning. In that absence, Lady Benning and others in her circle have fallen under the spell of occultist and mystic Roger Darworth, and when Darworth convinces them that an old family pile once occupied by ancestor Louis Playge, “Common Hangman of the Borough of Tyburn in the years 1663-65”, must be exorcised to free James’ trapped and tormented spirit, Halliday and others are dragged along for the spectacle. Darworth locks himself in a stone shed in the garden to perform his rituals while the others wait in the house…and, to the surprise of almost everyone, the mystic ends up murdered by a dagger that once belonged to Playge despite there being no footprints in the mud around the shed, nor any way in through the grated windows, barred chimney, or treble-locked door.

My memory of this was a series of tight, well-focussed scenes that slowly piled on the terror while building a clean and clear picture of just how darn impossible and spooky the whole thing was. This time around, the setup seems hazy — I was only able to follow certain scenes because I already knew what was coming — the actions deliberately blurred, and the atmosphere crammed into every shifting, creaking inch of the house like so much stuffing in a deeply uncomfortable sofa. The house is spooky, ghosts are spooky, Darworth (only ever encountered in the narrative as a corpse) is spooky, then someone finds a dead cat, then someone gets a flowerpot thrown at them. Then there’s a deeply tedious Olde Worlde Documente just in case there wasn’t enough spooky eerieness for you. The precise details of who was where when seem deliberately unclear, and no-one seems capable of behaving like a human being for more than about three lines of dialogue. It. Is. Exhausting.

I think I was rightly exasperated, and explained in somewhat heated terms that everybody seemed to know all about what had gone on here; everybody made leering hints, but nobody had given any information.

I think it’s the characters in particular that spoiled this for me. As soon as you get a grip on someone’s personality, they suddenly behave in the precise opposite way and start screeching after their rationality has been highlighted, or seem to have an attack of the vapours after Carr has made a point of telling you how level-headed they are. Everyone behaves as is required for the next intrusion knife-chords on the soundtrack. Come the explanation there is a lot of “Well Person X would have clearly thought/done/said/wanted event or outcome Y” that should make you go “Ooooh, of course!” and instead inspired from me much more “Really, though? Did/would/have they?”. It’s a clear case of an author needing things to happen and so saying that’s what the characters made happen rather than anything that feels remotely organic or true.

There is some undeniably magnificent writing (“Some influence was about the woman: an emotional repression, a straining after the immaterial, a baffled and baffling quality that sometimes makes spinsters and sometimes hellions.”), and some lovely moments of contrast to bring out the discomfort one would feel in such a house. Carr also wears his influences on his sleeve, with references to “the wrong kind of Conan Doyle books” and an apparent inversion of the ‘foreign language’ clue in Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), plus he beats Agatha Christie to a Shakespearean reference (and its in-story interpretation) by four years. Carr’s talents are certainly on display, but it feels somewhat wilful to call this the peak of his powers when he would go on to write The Punch and Judy Murders (1936), The Burning Court (1937), The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), The Reader is Warned (1939), Death Turns the Tables (1941), She Died a Lady (1943), Till Death Do Us Part (1944)…knowing my luck I’ll reread those and bloody hate them, but you get the point.

The concluding explanation is gripping (though, yeesh, someone should lose their job over a basic miscommunicaton…) if not entirely convincing, but I got to the end of this wishing it was 20% shorter and had most of its interrupted dialogue excised, and knowing that next week I’ll not remember a single character from it. Carr is legitimately one of the greats, and I’m pleased to have reread this with a better overview of his work in order to appreciate where he would improve in the years to come — but even as possibly the greatest, perhaps five novels in a year was a bit too much to take on. Just about every other opinion you can find on this disagrees with me, though, so who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to it in another ten years and love it again.

~

Incidentally, I got this American Mystery Classics edition in hardcover, as I have with all three of their Carr reprints, and it is a simply lovely object: good paper, well-produced, clearly something put out by people who have a genuine desire to do the best by the books they are bringing to the world. I’m not even saying this because I got a free copy and want to offer consolation for a less than laudatory review — I pay for my books, and I like to give credit where it’s due. Many thanks to all involved.

43 thoughts on “#800: The Plague Court Murders (1934) by John Dickson Carr [a.p.a. by Carter Dickson]

  1. Yes, yes, and more yes. I don’t think we’ve ever agreed more on a book–including the part about the quality of the American Mystery Classics edition. Hazy is a good word for the set-up. While I remember the imagery very well (the darkened rooms are still quite clear in my mind), the myth is forgettable…and it takes so long for very little effect.

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    • It was in part your recently less-than-loving-this review of TPCM that made me want to revisit it. I remembered this being awesome and blowing me away with scene after scene of surprise and delight and menace…and here I was bored at times, confused at others, actually struggling to get through it in time to write this review. I’ve changed, man, I’ve changed…

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  2. If I have any problem with this book, it’s that the ending always felt weak in comparison to everything that went before. And I’m someone who makes no bones about my fondness and preference for the more outrageous developments and implausibilities in mystery fiction.
    Personally, I love the book and liked it even better when i reread it a few years ago – I don’t think I’ve ever found any book less appealing when reread to tell the truth. The atmosphere is sublime, that crawling dread, the weight of malignancy that permeates the house and thus the story is almost tangible. And the diary stuff delights me, it adds little to the plot I suppose, but that’s immaterial to me when it’s so stylishly creepy.
    Anyway, I rate it much higher than you do, Jim. 3 out of 5 seems incredibly harsh – I would have said 3 out of 5 if judged solely in terms of Carr’s output was harsh in itself but as a global rating it’s even more so.

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    • Yeah, one has to accept a fair amount of the ridiculous to get the most out of puzzle plots — and the developments here are great, but I found them to be so confusingly and poorly told at times. Maybe blistering summer weather and 16 months of lockdown aren’t the best backdrop for a gloomy, spooky, cold tale of vengeful spirits up to no good, or maybe even JCD can’t crank out a book every 2.4 months for a year without sacrificing quality (because none of those 1934 books are bad — the “mpossibly appearing corpse” of The Blind Barber is superb, and the framing of that story ingenious — but most of them suffer in some way).

      Whatever it was, I didn’t experience “crawling dread” so much and “dragging spOoooOOooOOkiness”. And, as I say, maybe I’m setting myself up for it to blow me away again in another decade. Right now, though, it nose-dives hard out of my top 20 Carrs.

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      • Hmm, now I wouldn’t want to place this and Blind Barber side by side. Even granting that I found the latter marginally better after a reread, I really don’t like it and the humour leaves me very cold indeed. Actually, I’m not sure I much care for the humour injected into Fell stories – it seemed to blend far more seamlessly into the later HM stories in my opinion and suited the character better. I know the consensus is that Constant Suicides is amazing, but I still think the book is just OK overall and I consider the humour mostly tiresome. That said, revisiting Eight of Swords last year was largely enjoyable and the humour there was neither as intrusive nor as annoying as my memory had suggested. I think the comic aspects in Arabian Nights might be the most successful for me.

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        • It always seemed to me that H.M.’s humour was mnied from situations (snowball fights, being chased by dogs, a magic show going disastrously wrong, etc) while Fell is funny because of his character quirks. The scene of Fell having made a cup of tea in He Who Whispers is one of the funniest things in the whole Fell canon, as is the revelation he drops towards the end of Man Who Could Not Shudder — they’re little moments, but the humour really works for me.

          If you put Fell in a wheelchair and send a bunch of dogs haring after him…dunno, it doesn’t work for me — he doesn’t have that same insistence on dignity to hoist him by his own petard again and again that makes H.M. such rich fodder for the overblown. For all the similarities between the two, you’ve made me realise that this is one of the key places in which they are polar opposites.

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          • Yes, it basically comes down to HM taking himself quite seriously and the consequent indignity that invites, whereas Fell is much more willing to embrace the preposterous. And just let me clarify, I don’t say I dislike humor wholesale in Fell stories, but I don’t get on with the kind of slapstick, knockabout stuff seems more successful (or less grating for this reader anyway) in a HM yarn.

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            • I agree. H.M. pratfalls well; Fell, Bencolin, March, Kinross, Gaunt etc. would not be so well suited to such shenanigans, which is not to say there’s no room for humour in the books at all (though are there any jokes in those Bencolin novels?).

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          • In the 30s, the humor was as Colin describes, where you have this overblown brash character and his wounded dignity (“looking like a boiled owl” – I love that line). It was around the time of Seeing is Believing and The Gilded Man where the humor starts to become situational, and I never felt it worked as well.

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            • You’re probably right, as I’m trying to tie those events to particular books and they seem to be later ones. There’s not much humour in The Unicorn Murders or The Red Widow Murders, is there? Not that they’re bad books for it, but there’s certainly a deliberately more sober and sombre tone in those early H.M.s.

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  3. I remember the Shakesperian reference in this novel (and Carr will later suggest that it is in fact not much of a clue) but I don’t see which Agatha Christie novel you are referencing.

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  4. It may be 20 years since I read this one. I remember liking the atmosphere and thinking it was a very solid debut. But I also remember thinking it wasn’t in the same class as THE JUDAS WINDOW say, but then so few are. Love the sound of the new Penzler editions, will put them on my birthday wishlist!

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    • The wonderful thing about these Penzler editions is that they’re not just recycling the Rue Morgue reprints for a few years back — we’ve got Mad Hatter, Plague Court, the forthcoming Eight of Swords (and, yes, Crooked Hinge, which was a Rue Morgue title). And they’re not only printing Carr or only printing Dickson, either, so my hopes for some of the titles mentioned in this review coming back into circulation might not be complete pipe-dreams for once.

      I find it interesting, too, that the two sleuths Carr introduced after Bencolin and Fell — H.M. here and John Gaunt in The Bowstering Murders — both fail to appear in their own book before the halfway point. Well, okay, “interesting” might be a bit strong, but it’s curious nonetheless.

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      • The Avon edition of this that I have specifies it is “A Chief Inspector Masters Mystery”, although I’m not sure if that positioning was used in other editions. It’s interesting though if you approach the book in that way, as it does seem to fit other than the fact that Masters doesn’t actually solve the mystery. I do love how HM comes into the story late in this one, and I wish I could have read this completely ignorant of who his character would turn out to be.

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        • I think, in much the same way that a synopsis sometimes seems to describe a different novel to the one it’s found on, that someone probably wasn’t paying attention when that cover was created. Or someone opened the book at random (probably in the first half!) and saw Masters as the policeman and so just assumed he was the main investigator.

          I’d forgotten about Masters’ interest in close-up magic and debunking the occult as mentioned early on. That never went anywhere, hey?

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  5. Well, burn me, son! Lookee here, that’s downright blasphemous. Of all the blinkin’ cussed cloth-headed straw-stuffed dummies! Gobble gobble. Garoo garoo.

    Plague Court Murders is one of Carr’s grandest performances. Creepy atmosphere – I read this straight off the back of Poison in Jest, when I was 14; I had some interesting dreams… Memorable puzzle – locked room, surrounded by mud, no footprints, apparently a ghost. And a smashing solution – surprise murderer, surprise accomplice, surprise method. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

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    • Memorable puzzle – locked room, surrounded by mud, no footprints, apparently a ghost. And a smashing solution – surprise murderer, surprise accomplice, surprise method.

      I don’t disagree with any of this, but the manner of the telling really made it feel like so much less than the sum of its parts. However, I’ve loved it once and been thoroughly meh’d by it once…a rematch in ten years is definitely on the cards.

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      • I agree with Nick. This reeks of blasphemy! I think The Plague Court Murders is to the H.M. series what The Three Coffins is to the Dr. Gideon Fell books. A grand, almost otherworldly, performance as Carr tiptoes across a slippery wire to a solution very few mystery writers could have pulled off without making it feel like a huge letdown or even a cheat. It almost feels like nobody else could have written it except the Grand Master himself.

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        • Well, let us not conflate “no-one else could have written this” and “this is of an unimpeachable standard” — the first applies to virtually all of Gladys Mitchell’s work, the second does not.

          And, had I loved this, you and I would have found ourselves in agreement for the second time in as many days. Could the universe withstand that?!?

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          • I don’t think the universe would be offended and tear itself apart, if we agreed Carr was a one-of-a-kind genius backed up by The Plague Court Murder as documentary evidence.

            “…the first applies to virtually all of Gladys Mitchell’s work, the second does not.

            You obviously never read Come Away, Death and St. Peter’s Finger. 😉

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  6. I read this for the first time back in February (also in the American Mystery Classics edition) and really enjoyed it. I admit to having a predilection toward Carr’s creepier efforts and, as you said, the atmosphere in this novel cannot be denied. In my comparatively limited acquaintance with JDC, this novel feels like the closest that we get to an actual M.R. James-inspired ghost story flowing from his pen and, as such, the set-up and build up are sublime. When I first realized how far into the story the murder was going to take place, I was a little concerned, but the time that Carr takes in setting the stage really does make it all worthwhile. (On a side-note, “The Plague Court Murders” is one of those GAD novels that really reminds us twenty-first century readers just how dark a room can be when only lit by candles.) And, I was happy that that sense of foreboding and unease extended well beyond the initial set-up: there is something intangibly eerie about H.M.’s office and the quiet unraveling of clues that takes place against the backdrop of the rain on the windowpanes.

    In my own on-going ranking of JDC’s body of work, I have “Plague Court” at number six, but that is simply because the titles above it are – I think -stone-cold classics, untouchable by Carr and, perhaps, by few other writers. “Plague Court” may not be the perfect title, but as an exercise in sheer, unrelenting terror, it is pretty unique in my reading experience. I genuinely welcome any recommendation for a GAD novel of the era that is as creepy as this. I really could go on and on, but this is the first time that I have commented on your blog and I have wanted to discuss Carr with you for a while, so I will save the other thoughts till – as Brad said recently – we can discuss all these things in person.

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    • Firstly, Nick, welcome to the blog — I started writing TIE precisely because I wanted to talk about GAD with people who knew it, and it’s always lovely to see new names crop up and fulfil that intention.

      Secondly, my response to this was exactly yours when I first read it, which is why I’m so fascinated to reread it expecting to be giddy with delight and instead find myself genuinely struggling with it at times. I maintain that Carr was the finest proponent of the art of detective fiction, and this is one of his most-loved books…so how in the hell have I come way from it so unimpressed? I’m as baffled as the majority of people reading this review will be, but I can only say what I felt, It is a question that’s going to chase me around for a long time 🙂

      As to creepy GAD novels, I can recommend some (probably obvious) examples that may be what you’re after — and, indeed, have likely already encountered:

      The Dead Are Blind by Max Afford
      The Devil Drives by Virgil Markham
      Mr. Splitfoot by Helen McCloy
      The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsely Rogers
      Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe
      The Hangman’s Handyman by Hake Talbot
      The Howling Beast by Noel Vindry

      My very limited reading of Cornell Woolrich suggests he has a great sense of creepy, moody tone, too, but I’d have to leave it to others to recommend anything beyond his short stories.

      And swathes of Carr, too: He Who Whispers, The Burning Court, Hag’s Nook, Poison in Jest, the first four Bencolins…

      Happy reading!

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      • Thank you very much for the list provided. I have actually not read any of those titles (though “Red Right Hand” is on my shelf waiting to be read – I’m waiting until I have an opportunity to read it straight through as has been recommended by a lot of people). When it comes to Carr, I have most certainly dipped into his creepier works and – unsurprisingly – they top my list. “He Who Whispers” is my number one, followed very closely by “The Three Coffins” – the backstory to the Carpathian Mountains is some wonderfully chilling stuff. Though it does not have the same supernatural bent, “The Problem of the Green Capsule” shares with “The Burning Court” a sense of unrelenting evil which elevate both novels (already excellent reads) to the top of the list as well. I remember being incredibly creeped out by Carr’s description of discovering the corpse in the eerily-lit house in “Green Capsule.”

        The only one of Carr’s “creepy mysteries” that has underwhelmed me thus far has been “Hag’s Nook” which I was hoping to like a lot more than I did. It is not a bad book by any means, but it is clearly a journeyman effort from a writer still mastering the genre. Though I can speak only with the authority that comes with ignorance (there are great swathes of Carr’s bibliography which I have yet to read) I would say that “The Plague Court Murders” is his first fully-fledged masterpiece, setting him on the course to write “The Three Coffins” and many of the other titles I listed above.

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        • Yeah, I remembe the MacGuffin in Hag’s Nook being quite astoundingly pedestrian, which sort of sucked the heart of menace out of the bok for me. Not read it in many years, though, so I could be wrong about that. “Journeyman” is a good word for it based on my memory, though.

          Carr can rarely get through a book without unnerving you about something or other — Below Suspicion does some great work with a sinister chapel — but the mysteries aren’t always fully up to snuff. Still, there’s been far more good than bad in my reading of him to date (I have about 15 or so left to read, I think).

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      • Other creepy GAD novels:
        The Red Widow Murders by John Dickson Carr
        The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr
        Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot

        I wouldn’t say that Christianna Brand’s novels are creepy, but I always felt that she could take the idea of a hidden killer and send a chill down my spine.

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  7. Re-reading this right now and I feel like I have the same problem with it I had the first time. The gothic horror stuff in Carr (and all impossible crime novels, to be honest) is just window dressing. It means nothing, because we the reader know we have picked up a mystery novel where the characters we are being introduced are suspects not victims, there is no “ghost/vampire/witch”, the “horror” atmosphere is just there as a red herring and will be dispelled once the detective shows up. And frankly Carr is coming at it from the place of such exaggerated side-show barker routine (although his description of the house as having a “senile, appearance as of a brain gone…cornices with horrible gayety in cupids and roses: a wreath on the head of an idiot” is fantastic) that it never really feels essential. It’s what you have to sit through patiently to get to the good stuff.
    I will say though the last Paul Halter novel I read: The Madman’s Room, did do the “horror atmosphere” a little better by letting it sneak in slowly in the end, where a literal dead man is seen by multiple people, and his body is exhumed in a “fresh” state. It’s weaved into the mystery and is absolutely essential to its construction. This may also have been me personally not knowing the authors work very well and being fooled by it.

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    • This is a fair point — if the author doesn’t sell you on the eldritch aspects, the book is going to struggle to convince. What I meant to mention above, and thanks for reminding me, is how hilarious it is that Carr goes to this extra effort of front-loading the book with so much menace and so many horrors, and as soon as the murder is done someone turns around and goes “Well, a ghost that stabs people is a bit rubbish, innit?” and just completely deflates the balloon Carr’s been cranking the bellows on for 90 pages.

      Byrnside’s The Strange Case of the Barringotn Hills Vampire does a great job of working in the mythos required precisely because the main character refuses to believe in it from the off. And then begins to…

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  8. I recall feeling that The Plague Court Murders was a bit overly long, although I think that was more a sense of “dang, I still have 100 pages left?” rather than thinking that any specific bit was padded out. I did enjoy the atmosphere quite a bit, but I also read the book at night in a darkened room of a somewhat creepy hotel that I was staying in by myself. The Crooked Hinge would have been a lot more scary if read in a similar situation.

    Overall it’s a great read, although not in Carr’s very top tier. There’s the fact that one of the impossibilities relies on the reader not really understanding something (although the rest of the solution is quite brilliant). I also wish that the book had ended during the initial night, which would have allowed it to keep its atmosphere throughout.

    I recall a bit of a thrill when Merrivale finally came on stage. The other highlight that stands out in my mind is the final scene with the killer. But, yeah, the Merrivale books that came after this in the next few years were all a step up.

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    • …but I also read the book at night in a darkened room of a somewhat creepy hotel that I was staying in by myself.

      Crikey; did every page simply say “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over?

      Your point about it dragging on a bit too long date-wise is a good one. Something like Death Watch takes this and improves on it, by the first half being this piling of mystery upon mystery over the course of one evening, and the second half being Fell gradually unpicking it all the next day. That tight focus can sometimes make a real difference, eh? Case in point: The King is Dead by Ellery Queen…

      And, yeah, the showdown in that final scene is faintly devastating, eh? Not quite He Who Whispers, but it packs a punch even after the preceding tale has dulled the mind somewhat.

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  9. I think you’ve simply joined the majority of readers with this new opinion. This is very much an apprentice work. It’s got a zinger of an impossible situation which is so memorable that it outshines everything else in the novel.

    However, the solution doesn’t live up to the premise, and what’s worse, this is one of the greatest examples of Carr’s main weakness – the killer’s identity. It is so very, very disappointing, and in many ways, not clued very well.

    Overall, I still have positive feelings about this book and I think I’d put it in the top half of Carr’s works, but it definitely does not belong among his masterworks.

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    • I’m relieved at the preponderance of opinion leaning this way — not because I’m worried about bucking the norm, but because my memory of this was so positive that this reread shook my faith in my memories of the other Carrs I’ve loved.

      I haven’t reviewed The Eight of Swords on here, I don’t think, so I might make that the next test case: when the AMC edition comes out, if I enjoyed it as much as I seem to remeber, I shall trust that all is well and the brilliant titles I mention above are indeed briliant.

      Fingers crossed, eh?

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  10. Thanks for the review, JJ, and I confess I was quite pleased to read it. ‘Plague Court’ was the second Carr novel I read, and I confess I didn’t enjoy the histrionic characterisation, and found some scenes genuinely difficult to get through. The choice of culprit I thought was very clever, and while the solution did feel somewhat far-fetched, it was nonetheless entertaining. But neither were sufficient, I felt, to save the novel as a whole. In fact, by the time I finished the novel, I had decided I liked Queen over Carr – a decision that has been reversed since then.

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    • by the time I finished the novel, I had decided I liked Queen over Carr

      Ye gods, you poor man!

      I was legitimately under the impression that this was universally adored (Mr. Byrnside aside), and had no idea that so many people had such a difficult time with it.

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      • I recall you weren’t overly-impressed when I shared my unfavourable opinion of ‘Plague Court’ in the past… I think I even said some scenes and outbursts in the novel were like cheese graters pressed against my eyes. So I confess I’m pleased with this review.

        As for preferring Queen to Carr – that only happened in the initial stages of working through their respective oeuvres. Admittedly, Carr’s dramatics took some getting used to for me…

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  11. I have written about this book twice (2017 and 2019). Nobody defended it more than James Joyce Noy! Ben argued that 1) it’s not in my top ten Carrs, and 2) it IS in my top ten Carr readings. Colin liked it more, too. Even Santosh got into it. Only Moira found the whole thing a bore. It must be the pandemic – you can no longer tolerate books with characters named Playge!! Seriously, though, a lot of ninety-year-old mysteries feel like a slog after enduring the past fifteen months. Stay tuned for my post where I call Agatha Christie an utter disaster . . .

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