“The first thing is to determine the murderer’s motive. I don’t mean his motive for murder, but for creating an impossible situation. That’s very important, son, because it’s the best kind of clue tothe motive for murder. Why’d he do it? Nobody but a loony is goin’ to indulge in a lot of unreasonable hocus-pocus just to have some fun with the police.”
Sir Henry Merrivale, The White Priory Murders
Okay, here we go: Book Three of A Carter Dickson Celebration. If you are following my adventures with the alter ego of the Golden Age King of the Impossible Crime, I appreciate it . . . and I can’t for the life of me figure out why! Unlike most of my blogging cronies – JJ, Daniel, Ben, Tomcat, Sinister John – I am in no way, shape, or form an expert on locked room mysteries. Sometimes I’m not even sure if I like ‘em! You see, my mind is not of a mathematical or mechanical bent, which is often where one must travel on the thorny but footprint-less road of a howdunit! Most locked room authors give especially short shrift to those aspects of a mystery that I prefer, like character interplay and establishing motives. There just . . . isn’t . . . time for everything when you have to focus on footprints and matches and locked doors and dark stairways and – oh, all the stuff you find here.
I had heard the rumors that The White Priory Murders (1934) had a fabulous solution but that the journey there might be one of those bumpy ones. I found it ominous that Douglas Greene barely mentionsthe book in his authoritative biography about Carr. But not everyone agrees with the negative assessment: check Daniel’s review out here.) Clearly, I had to find out for myself; but then that’s exactly what ACDC is all about!
For me, by far, the best thing about White Priory is . . . Sir Henry Merrivale. Although he makes his debut in the previous novel, The Plague Court Murders, Sir Henry does not appear until the halfway point; one can argue, therefore, that his character is not fully formed there. Here, H.M. shows up on the first page! We meet him through his American nephew, James Bennett, who has been warned by his father, H.M.’s brother-in-law, what to expect:
“Don’t under any circumstances use any ceremony with him. He wouldn’t understand it. He has frequently got into trouble at political meetings by making speeches in which he absent-mindedly refers to their Home Secretary as Boko and their Premier as Horseface. You will probably find him asleep, although he will pretend he is very busy. His favorite delusion is that he is being persecuted, and that nobody appreciates him. His baronetcy is two or three hundred years old, and he is also a fighting Socialist. He is a qualified barrister and physician, and he speaks the world’s most slovenly grammar. His mind is scurrilous; he shocks lady typists, wears white socks, and appears in public without his necktie. Don’t be deceived by his looks; he likes to think he is as expressionless as a Buddha and as sour-faced as Scrooge. I may add that at criminal investigation he is a good deal of a genius.”
I can’t tell you what a fascinating experience it is to come across one of the classic GAD detectives when you’re all grown up with years of reading experience behind you. I met Poirot and Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Dr. Fell, Inspectors Alleyn and Cockrill, Nero Wolfe and Albert Campion, and many others, between the ages of eleven and sixteen. Their authors’ descriptions trickled over me like water and settled at the bottom of my memory as a series of lists: “Poirot: egg-shaped head, moustaches, patent leather shoes, syrup de cassis;” “Nero Wolfe: corpulent, gourmand, orchid loving, crabby.” In Plague Courtand here, the descriptions of Merrivale are as amusing as the man: he lives up to every element listed here, but he never boils down to a series of tics and mannerisms. He inhabits the page like a film character, meaning that Dickson brings him to life brilliantly – perhaps even better than Dr. Fell, although it has been some years since I read a Fell novel. (That re-reading project will come in due time, my friends!)
Bennett has a problem to lay before the master’s feet, and what he has to say made me look forward to the story even more because it all revolves around an actress, Marcia Tait. I love mysteries containing theatre folk. Agatha Christie gave us some humdingers: Jane Wilkinson, Marina Gregg, Sir Charles Cartwright, Magda West . . . the illustrious list goes on. Ngaio Marsh set some of her best books in the world of the theatre. There’s a built-in artifice about this world that is heaven sent for mystery writers.
Given what we learn in the first couple of chapters through Bennett, Marcia Tait’s shenanigans promise a welcome addition to this pantheon: drummed off the London stage due to lack of talent, she set sail for Hollywood, where she ended up making it big. Now she has run away from her movie contract and returned to England to star in a new play about Charles II – and to rub the faces of her critics into the dirt if she can.
A whole entourage of folk surround her who seem destined to make a nice list of suspects should, you know, anything happen: Maurice Bohun, an Oxford professor turned playwright, whose debut opus, “The Private Life of Charles II”, will star Miss Tait; John Bohun, Maurice’s brother and the play’s producer, who has fallen in love with Marcia; their lovely but troubled niece Katherine; Lord Canifest, an American tycoon who is backing the play and inconveniently develops a pash for the actress; his plain, quiet daughter Louise; Jervis Willard, Marcia’s aging co-star in the play, and two men from Hollywood, film director Carl Rainger and Tait’s press agent, Tim Emery, who are chasing after Marcia to hopefully bring her back to her senses and return her to Los Angeles.
Most of these people end up during the Christmas holidays at White Priory, Maurice Bohun’s home. Recently, someone sent poisoned chocolates to Marcia, and certain other events are in motion which might jeopardize the success of the play. Although Sir Henry, somewhat curiously, doesn’t express much concern over his nephew’s story, he encourages Bennett to accept John Bohun’s invitation down to White Priory. Bennett drives all night through heavy snows to get to the mansion, and when he arrives we are treated to a lovely scene where a dog is howling, John Bohun paces outside an ancient pavilion, and a woman lies dead inside that very building. Bennett accompanies his friend into the pavilion and finds Marcia Tait – murdered. The only visible footprints belong to the two men. Did John kill the woman he loves? Or do we have an impossible crime before us?
As I said, Sir Henry is my favorite part of this novel. Unfortunately, after Bennett departs for the White Priory, H.M. disappears – for ten chapters. That’s half the book. Again! And until H.M. shows up again to put things right, I have to tell you that, for me, this book was . . . a bit of a slog. The main issue for me is that all the action of the story occurred beforeBennett arrives, so rather than being treated to a variety of interesting scenes, like the attempted murder on a secret stairway, or the brush with a ghost in the hall, or even just the growing tension amongst the dramatis personae, we get lots and lots and lotsof testimony as to what happened. I found myself clinging with hope to the fact that the title of the book has the word “Murders” – plural – in it, but when the second murder occurs it’s – well, it’s a sad affair and not particularly necessary to the proceedings.
The main thing that happens during those ten un-Merrivale chapters is that Bennett falls in love, and here I’d like to talk about something. I love it when different aspects of my mystery reading/blogging life intersect. On their podcast, The Men Who Explained Miracles, JJ and Daniel have been discussing Van Dine’s Rules, and one of them has to do with the presence of romantic interludes in detective fiction. Look, I’m not against love in the least. I think the rule is silly. But this romance was beyond the pale: it felt like that Gorey cartoon that opens Masterpiece Mystery; you know, the one with the woman waving her handkerchief and crying out in fright?
Bennett meets this woman, knowing full well that she is a suspect in Marcia’s murder, and falls head over heels. That’s fine – we’re not in Patricia Wentworth territory, and I’m not about to cross the character off my list just because she appeals to this simpering boy. But the melodrama around these two is thick and slow as molasses. For eight chapters they say almost nothing to each other, and then Bennett offers to cover up for her no matter what she’s done. And when it finally dawns on her that he’s interested in her, he says:
“’Say I’m ‘interested’ in you. Say anything you like. Just how ‘interested’ I can’t tell you now; because there’s murder here, and the whole house is poisoned, and dow there’s the room where somebody you’d known all your life tried to kill himself in your own home not an hour ago. I can smell that smoke from the gun too, and neither of us would dare talk about Interests here. But the house won’t stay poisoned, and then maybe by God you’ll know why I think you’re the loveliest thing in the world! – so if somehow you’ve got yourself into any false position, and whatever it is you did that never mattered and never would matter, don’t do any such fool thing as admitting it.’
“’I know,’ she said, after a long silence. ‘All I’m gald of is that you said what you did,’ her eyes brimmed over, ‘you – you —–!’
“’Exactly,’ he said. ‘Steady, now. Let’s go downstairs.’”
Fortunately, H.M. is downstairs at last, and he couldn’t have arrived soon enough. This brings me to the best part of the novel, and it also connects to JJ and Dan, who plan to put together a series of rules pertaining to the locked room mystery for their next episode. They should certainly consult Sir Henry Merrivale because in Chapter Twelve here, he gives us a humdinger of a rule. I hold fast to this one because if I’m going to go to all the trouble to read an impossible crime mystery, I want some justification for my efforts. When H.M. starts talking about why people commit impossible crimes, his lecture is vintage Carr and a pure delight and actually more interesting to me than the plot. So let’s spend a moment elucidating the reasons HM lists:
- There’s faking a suicide. This seems to me to be theprime reason for a murderer to go all locked room on everyone: to make it appear that a person locked themselves in to do themselves in.
- “The ghost-fake.” This is the nostalgic option because nowadays we are not too likely to buy the idea of supernatural intervention. But as late as the 1960’s and Scooby-Doo, readers and viewers were perfectly willing to buy the idea that a community could at least believeit was plagued by spooks!
- The accident. This often turns out to be a favorite of mine because it tends to involve characters acting out of concert with each other, whose actions create a great confluence of events and cause the semblance of an impossible crime.
Interestingly, Sir Henry stops there. I wondered what he would make of –
- The Conspiracy Theory, where the crime is committed by two people. This was a favorite of Agatha Christie. It makes me wonder, by its exclusion, whether some of the crimes I’ve taken to be “impossible” in her books are anything but, at least in the eyes of try impossible crime fans. It’s something to discuss!
Okay, okay! Back to The White Priory Murders. H.M. arrives and things get crackling a bit more. There’s the second murder, and Sir Henry sets a trap, and we have the denouement and the final reveal, and it’s all . . . just fine. It wasn’t the shocker I had been set up to believe it might be, and although I didn’t get any part of the solution – I didn’t stand a chance here – I kind of guessed the murderer because of a Carr-ian trick that, once you have read and studied the guy, you shouldn’t fall for again. Obviously, I won’t mention it here, but if somebody buys me a creampuff . . .
So there you are. I’ll admit to feeling a bit disappointed with this one. But even if The Bowstring Murders was a snappier read, White Priory feels richer, both in its set-up and its mystery. You can feel all of Dickson’s cylinders clicking with this one. I think I had more fun with Plague Court until the end, when I still suspect Dickson didn’t quite play fair. Still, I think we’re still at a point in Carr’s career when he does Gothic better than a modern day set-up. Which explains the rankings:
Next up on ACDC: I’ve already read The Red Widow Murders, but I’ll be back soon to add it to the rankings list and give my reasons why.