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.