It speaks volumes about the excitement that the work of John Dickson Carr provokes in me that, with still around 20 of his novels unread, I’m revisiting some favourite titles from his output. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the likes of the American Mystery Classics and the British Library Crime Classics ranges are putting out such lovely new editions — and who wouldn’t want to revisit Carr in his prime?
As the saying implies, one often struggles to go home, and one unforeseen risk of these second readings is that — as with The Plague Court Murders (1934), the debut of Carr’s detective Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale, written under his Carter Dickson nom de plume — I might find a less compelling book than I remember waiting for me. To a certain extent this is not a genuine concern — they’re just books, it’s not like we’re dividing up Europe after a generation-shattering war or anything — and, given how one’s tastes likely evolve over time, I could easily read them a third time in another 10 years and absolutely love them all over again. But what about books that I didn’t love first time round? How would rereading one of those be? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The White Priory Murders (1934), the second of H.M.’s cases and a novel which inspired in me something close to apathy upon first encounter several years ago.
I remembered the setup well…how could you not?! Hollywood star Marcia Tait has abandoned Tinseltown, walking out of her contractual obligations and risking legal action in the process, to star in a play on the London stage because, it is rumoured, she wishes to stick one in the eye of those critics from her pre-fame days who thumbed their noses at her talents. In the midst of rehearsals, over the Christmas break, she travels to the eponymous country pile of John and Maurice Bohun — the play’s producer and author, respectively — where she is found dead one morning. But not just found dead, oh no; found dead in circumstances that defy rational explanation: hit over the head in the guests’ pavilion that sits in the centre of the house’s garden with “a hundred straight feet of unmarked snow on every side”. And so, since she was definitely murdered after the snow stopped falling, how could her assailant have possibly escaped the scene of the crime without leaving a mark behind to show their passage?
The setup is ingenious, and the solution delightful, but lor’ didn’t I ever remember a lot of meandering filly-fally to join those two points. It seemed to me that a lot of chapters meandered around just to terminate at a last line surprise, only for this to repeat over and over, resulting in a lot of what went on having no real bearing on the central crime and thus leaving the whole thing feeling a little empty. So this British Library reissue was the perfect chance to see what I’d make of a book that hadn’t exactly blown me away at first encounter, with perhaps my knowledge of the end point of everything giving me patience through the drawn out middle section.
And, y’know what? I absolutely loved it.
Sure, there’s one chapter wherein the servants are interviewed, and the matter of whether a dog was inside or outside at a particular time — and whether it went in and then came out, or came out and then went in — appears to drag out for approximately seven or eight years, but it’s of such minor importance that you can safely skim over all of that without following it too closely and get back to enjoying the spectacle of Carr piling up events within the house on the fatal night so that suspicion points in just about every direction going. Yes, it must be said, very little of what results actually has any bearing on Tait’s murder, but at least half the fun of these sorts of stories is seeing someone with, say, sooty marks on the front of their shirt which definitely prove one thing about their actions unknowingly offer up an explanation to deflect the boulder of suspicion that had been rolling inexorably towards them, sending it curving off towards another, unsuspecting party.
I could talk about certain other elements of this, like Carr’s increasingly mature invoking of atmosphere…
Momentarily this interruption broke the tension, but it was as though the room were full of wasps, and you could hear the buzzing.
…or the fun he’s having summoning up eldritch horrors to sit alongside the plain, practical, very real world of his setting…
No movement, no creaking, in the dense shadow: as though the gallery itself were holding its breath. A window-frame rattled in the rising wind. Somebody had turned those lights out very recently. He had that feeling which sometimes comes to those who sit in old houses with darkness beyond the door: a feeling that the darkness shut him off from human kind, and that he must not venture beyond the light of his own fire lest there should be things he would not like to see.
…but honestly, the biggest thing I took away from this was how fully, in only his second case, H.M. comes through as a character, and how wonderfully Carr casts him as the rock to which one anchors oneself when lost on the sea of frank inconceivability.
H. M. was here. However he had contrived to get here, his presence was the one thing that lifted a burden and made you feel inexplicably that matters would be all right now. Others…had known this feeling. Let the impossibilities go on; that didn’t matter.
Sure, we’re told by Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters that H.M. is the very man to have in such a situation, but Carr also makes you believe it, both in the language he uses to describe H.M. and the way H.M. conducts himself when presented with an increasingly complex web of actions and events. It’s almost as if the Old Man, “although largely ornamental in these slack days [at the War Office]”, has been waiting exclusively for this murder, has been poised this whole time in anticipation…not, of course, that he’d want you to know that.
“Lord knows, my boy, I’d like to give you a bit of help if I could. Strikes me that with a straight-out, frank, rounded impossible situation slap in front of you, you need it.”
And, lummy, isn’t he enjoying himself? Never over-awed, never struck dumb by any development, possessed of nouse enough to instantly see through the various false — well, incorrect — solutions offered, having apparently truffled out the truth of the murder very early on, you can almost feel his glee when holding forth on the doozy of a problem Carr has set him (“If you only had the locked room situation you could carry on with a cheerful heart. Everybody knows several trick ways of locking a door from the outside…”). Some of the threads may be underdeveloped (the, er, situation which is so wonderfully reversed at the end of chapter 10, for one — a magnificent idea sadly underdeveloped in light of the busy-ness of everyone in the White Priory that night) and some of Carr’s clewing might be on the decidedly dodgy side (the sole footnote assuring you that you’ve been given a key piece of information is…doing a lot of work, shall we say), but this is a triumph where his detective is concerned, and sets a high bar that would see H.M. feature in some of the most wildly entertaining cases Carr could cook up over the next few years.
And so — hurrah! How wonderful to revisit a book I had misgivings about and find it far stronger than I remembered. Of course, I’l now spend the next ten years telling everyone hoe marvellous it is, build it up as a masterpiece in my mind, and rereread it and be thoroughly disappointed…but, for now, it’s a source of great joy and — in these dark and miserable days…will winter never end? — a joy I intend to seize with both hands. Many thanks to the British Library both for reissuing this and for providing me with a copy, and — in case it’s not obvious — I urge you to give it a(nother) go: firstly because it’s great fun, and secondly because then some of the ensuing Merrivale cases might get reissued, and that’s where the fun really begins. God, I hope we get The Unicorn Murders (1935) before too long, that really is one of the most crazily playful books put out by this most crazily playful of authors…
24 thoughts on “#1018: “If it’s a new wrinkle in the art of homicide, I want to know all about it.” – The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson”
There are few books that really drop your jaw, and this is one of them. I’ll forever remember the moment of revelation and the shocking simplicity of it all.
I’m the first to bag on the traffic jam of chapter ending surprises that seem to go nowhere, and I’m happy to see that didn’t drag down your impression on a second read. I feel like this is the prototype for a book that came a decade later – Til Death Did Us Part, in which Carr absolutely nails each chapter ending climax. He didn’t really heap that on in other books – which is me downplaying his cliffhanger talent on a number of occasions – but I see a parallel with these two.
The White Priory Murders is a mean contender for Top 10 Carr. I look forward to you revisiting The Problem of the Wire Cage, where I think Carr brings a mean pace.
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I’m ashamed to realise that I rated this last out of the first 10 Merrivales a while ago…but, in my defence, I’m an idiot and prone to mistakes.
Upon rereading, I don’t know if it would make my top 10 Carrs, but it stands a significantly better chance than it did before. And, yes, on this evidence a reappraisal of Wire Cage is definitely on the cards…albeit not for another couple of years.
So glad this holds up – been planning a re-read since the BL reprinted it (gave copies to loved ones at Christmas in fact) and am looking forward to it even more now.
PS Just ordered myself a copy of the BL edition – don’t want to damage my lovely old Berkeley edition.
Be sure to tell them that I sent you 😄
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I need to reread more books like this — ones that didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The pressure’s off and it’s really rather freeing.
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I read this sometime back in 2021, for the first time. I thought the setup and detection were solid, and the solution (both to the footprint problem and the whodunit) was genius to me. My problems came with the plotting (those aforementioned last-line reveals) and how none of the characters felt likable. The nice thing about the lesser-loved Carrs (at least, pre-1950) is that while they don’t reach the level of his masterpieces, there are still great aspects in them.
Yeah, your response is largely what mine was when I first read it — so give it a decade, try it again, and you may well love it…!
I remember liking this book well enough, but the fact that I can’t recall much of the logistics of the solution (fairly rare for me) I consider significant.
Very little of what happens in the book actually ties into the solution, which might be a contributory factor in recall. Considering how much many of Carr’s book rely on what happens in the lead-up to the solution — even the likes of weaker books such as Seeing is Believing — it’s going to suffer in that regard. But a second visit, when you have the time, comes highly recommended, as I had a lovely time with it.
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That may indeed be the reason. I don’t recall having a major problem with it (as I do Crooked Hinge), or even being particularly disappointed with it (as with And So To Murder)— I just can’t remember any of that logistics of the impossibility— or really much else.
My physical copy is falling apart, so it is nice to have the ability to buy a new one.
I agree; having sourced many less-than-stellar condition Carrs down the years, I’m hopeful that a few more reissues will allow me to replace them. How lucky we are, eh?
You and your ever-shifting opinions . . . I can’t keep up with you!
I can’t believe it has been nearly four years since I read this, but I went back to my review (which, I have to say in all modesty, I thoroughly enjoyed reading), and I can’t see myself revisiting this one any time soon. Frankly, since I started reading Carter Dickson so recently, I’m far less likely to return to these old titles than I would be for Carr novels I read as a teen. In fact, the ONLY Carr re-read I have done is The Crooked Hinge</i., a childhood favorite that has seen a lot of shade in the past few years. And I loved it even more.
Like you, I found HM to be marvelous, especially after being shortchanged of his presence in The Plague Court Murders. He’s easily the best thing about the book. But those ten chapters in-between his appearances were molasses to me, largely due to a truly dull love affair between the Watson du jour and the pretty niece.
Hmm . . . In my review, I referred a great deal to your PREVIOUS review, and now I’m wondering if I have to change MY review to re-reflect your later – oh, never mind!
How do you think I feel? I spent years telling everyone how magnificent Plague Court was and how poor this was, and it turns out I’ve been wrong all this time. My reputation may never recover!
Here’s hoping there’s a chance to revisit The Judas Window before too long, so that I can have my opinions of the merits of that — amazing mid-book reveal that’s better than the final solution — throoughly up-ended as well.
I agree with that opinion, though I don’t consider the mid-point reveal so much stronger than the last chapter revelations that the ending comes off as a disappointment.
I did find The Hollow Man to be easier to read on the second go-around. I can’t imagine that happening for White Priory though, even with your example to follow. It’s one of the stories where the love interest stuff really does drag it down because it’s all done so poorly. I found the book so difficult first time round that I didn’t understand the solution. I knew it was supposed to be a brilliant one but it made no impression on me at all. With the help of Adey’s Locked Room Murders and re-reading the ending, I did figure it out in the end.
Anyway, I’m 100% behind reprinting Unicorn Murders. And then moving on to Punch and Judy Murders (please?). I’ve never found a copy of either of those.
Yes, a diagram to explain elements of the solution here wouldn’t hurt…especially in the matter of observation, which I don’t feel is quite clear in the text. But then we can always cavil; if the book as a whole didn’t appeal to you, the ending being a little unclear is likely to only frustrate on further.
I’ve read The Hollow Man one-and-one-third times, and am really looking forward to revisiting it with a far, far better understanding of Carr’s career.
One third? That bad, eh?
Oh, no, it’s the other way round — perhaps I should say one-third-and-one times. The first time I read it I only got about a third of the way in, then I came back to it later and tore all the way through. So it’s more positive than it sounds!
I posted a comment here seconding your desire for a reprint of The Unicorn Murders, but it seems it got lost. Fallout from finally attempting to set up a blog?
Anyway, Unicorn Murders is tough to find a copy of as far as I can tell, and Punch and Judy Murders is as well, so I’m hoping for a reprint of both of them eventually.
If I were to actually guess though, I reckon He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is in with a shot with the British Library, with its wartime setting.
Btw did they already announce Suddenly at his Residence? They’re doing Suddenly at his Residence.
Congrats on starting the blog, I look forward to your thoughts.
And, yes, Unicorn and Punch and Judy would be dream titles to have reissued. We can but hope — we’re getting Red Widow, after all, and those two titles are superior to that.
Glad to hear you say that about Unicorn and P&J, I thought Red Widow was pretty decent so it’s good that I’ve got two quality books to read when I eventually find them.