ENTER SIR HENRY: The Plague Court Murders

One of the things I love about John Dickson Carr is that he is the perfect meta-author! He never pretends that what he is writing takes place in the world around him. In fact, throughout his career, he eschewed realism for a healthy dose of melodrama and mayhem and then called attention to the very fictional aspect of his writing. We see it most clearly near the end of The Three Coffins (1935) when Dr. Fell interrupts the breathless proceedings to present his famous locked room lecture. And we see it before that, two thirds of the way through 1934’s The Plague Court Murders, as Sir Henry Merrivale, the gargantuan sleuth whom Carr introduced in this very novel under the alias of Carter Dickson, rejects the character with the best motive to murder Roger Darworth because . . . well, because here we are, two thirds of the way through the novel and the character has not yet been mentioned! Here’s our sleuth, presented with a fiendish and impossible crime like no other, and he’s looking out for the reader’s feelings. It’s fair play all the way!

At the same time, Carr strives to create a world where crazy things happen for logical reasons. I mean, nobody in the real world actually goes about planning a locked room murder! (Real life murderers are too busy trying to either a. not get found out, or b. not get caught!) And yet, the culprits in Carr’s novels invariably attempt an impossible crime. This may have something to do with a lucky accident or incredible timing. But it also is the result of planning. And Carr supplies the logic in his mad world, when Merrivale explains:

“The person who planned this crime planned it exactly like a detective-story. It’s skillful; even I’ll admit that. But that locked-room situation is too rounded and complete, too thoroughly worked out and smacked down as a deliberate puzzle for us. It was staged for months. Everything led slowly up to just that situation, when just that crowd would be assembled under just those emotional circumstances . . . “

The mysteries of John Dickson Carr are deeply layered puzzles where the reader is asked to ponder the following:

  • Whodunit?
  • Why did they do it?
  • How did they do it?
  • Why did they do it the way that they done it?

A healthy dose of Carr was the self-prescribed antidote to some sour experiences I’ve had recently with modern crime fiction. I turned first to The Emperor’s Snuff-Box, but it didn’t turn out to be exactly the cure for what ails ya (I didn’t hate it, folks, so please don’t beat me!). Then I decided to journey even further back. Luckily, I had recently purchased an ultra-cool used copy of Plague Court, (the one with the Avon cover), and this combination of classic locked-room puzzle and Gothic horror story has been just the balm I need.

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The novel opens with Ken Blake, late of the government service, running into an acquaintance of his at the club. Dean Halliday invites Blake to a séance at a reputedly haunted house, Plague Court, in order to see if they can catch the medium, Roger Dalworth, in some chicanery. Either Dalworth has actually contacted the spirit of Dean’s long-dead brother James, or he has been pulling the wool over the eyes of Dean’s nasty aunt, Lady Anne Benning, and Dean’s fiancée, Marion Latimer. Blake suggests that they bring along a friend of his, Inspector Masters of Scotland Yard, who has made something of a hobby of exposing fake spiritualists. It is Masters who dominates the first half of Plague Court, (in fact, the front cover of my copy labels this “A Chief Inspector Masters Mystery,”) as he witnesses a gathering of friends and family to the crumbling mansion in order to exorcise a demon.

Carr delivers brilliantly on the creepy atmosphere and immediately starts piling on the incidents that may or may not be pertinent to the murder case that follows. The events that occur on this rainy evening seem inextricably linked to a gruesome figure from the distant past, a hangman’s assistant named Louis Playge, who may or may not be buried in the inner courtyard under a dying tree – and who may or may not be haunting Plague Court that night. In the courtyard stands a little stone house in which Roger Dalworth has locked himself. This is where the séance is intended to take place, but before that can happen, Dalworth is murdered. The police find a steel dagger belonging to Playge that was recently stolen from the London Museum by the body. Nobody could have gotten in or out of the hut, and the muddy surface of the courtyard is unblemished by footprints. Furthermore, the five guests meant to attend the séance were holding hands together in a darkened parlor, while Dalworth’s assistant was playing cards with a police sergeant on duty. Everyone has an alibi. Nobody could have skimmed the muddy surface or entered the hut! Holy cow! Did Louis Playge really return from the dead?

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We know, of course, that Louis Playge did not return from the dead; Carr’s world-building is realistic on that score. Thus, the author has to show us how an impossible crime was committed and blow up all the supernatural frou frou that surrounds the crime. Plus, he piles on all sorts of red herrings to indicate one person or another, and he has to explain all that away! And he has to couch it all in literary terms of pleasing appearance, spiked with nutty humor and some artful characterization. And he has to do all this quickly because it’s 1934, and he’s also got to write The Eight of Swords, The Blind Barber, and The White Priory Murders. That he does it so well most of the time accounts for Carr’s reputation as a genius in his field. (And it makes the mystery of his current lack of publication inconceivable and unconscionable.)

After a night of investigation that leads nowhere, Blake consults his former boss, Sir Henry Merrivale. Maybe it’s because he appears so late in the story that Sir Henry doesn’t have the time to engage in the ludicrously slapstick behavior that weaves through his later novels, but here he is amusing and sharp as a tack. Carr does a great job with characterization here, something I found singularly lacking in The Emperor’s Snuff-Box. Lady Anne becomes more monstrous with each appearance. Marion’s brother Ted, a “true believer” in the occult, becomes more pitiable. Lady Anne’s pal Major Featherton is a type through and through, but Carr brings him to life beautifully:

“The voice in the gloom sounded like a disembodied letter to The Times. The paunchy figure tilted slightly backwards. From the brief glimpse I had had of him, of the map-veined cheeks and cadaverous eyes, I could fill out the bigness of an outworn buck and gallant of the eighties, tightened into his evening clothes like a corset.”

The whole affair is expertly clued, perhaps overly so, and, to my mind, it is impossible to figure out. (There is one small aspect of the solution that I grabbed onto, largely the fault of a Paul Halter novel I recently read.) The solution of the how is beyond nuts, but then I’m a complete inept at figuring out impossible crimes, so I don’t even try. The “who” aspect is another matter, and I would love to discuss this at some point with others who have read the novel to see what they make of its fairness. Not that I’m saying it’s not fair – it’s just that Carr so often plays a very different game from, say, Agatha Christie, that I sometimes get thrown by his tactics. ‘Nuff said here.

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There was recently a spate of talk in the mystery blogosphere about the appropriate length of a mystery. JJ suggested 100,000 words. Snuff-Box, in my estimation, came in at 63,000 words and felt lightweight. This is just a guess, but I think Plague Court clocks in at around 93,000 words. It feels richer, more solid, yet there is no wasted space here. A few people who read this before me were arguing about the inclusion of a chapter revolving around the legend of Louis Playge, with some suggesting it was worth skipping. I’ll be honest: I waited for this “skippable” chapter to come up and then realized that I had already read the section in question . . . and had eaten it up! In my opinion, it in no way stopped the action and contributed well to the marvelous atmosphere-building that Carr accomplishes here.

Carr himself comments, in another meta-moment, on the idea that mysteries must be all-focused on the case in point. Late in the novel, Ken Blake says:

“But a real murder case is not all “Thou-art-the-Man.” There are the intervals when you suddenly realize that the business of life must go on as usual; the intervals of torture and wit-puzzling, and of futile breathings on a mirror already beclouded. For instance, I had a dinner engagement that night. It was with my sister, a gentle Gorgon, and it would never have occurred to any of the family to break an engagement with Agatha.”

And yet again, this is not a real murder case, so a wary reader had best be on his guard as he attends the dinner party with Ken. Even in the most unlikely places, an important clue might get dropped!

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Because Carr was so prolific, often writing four books a year, it’s hard to say where Plague Court falls in terms of number. Yet, even though it is the first Sir Henry Merrivale mystery, Plague Court shows us a  master of the form ascending toward the top of his game. His later works might pour on the atmosphere less thickly, but Carr knows how to imbue his tales with elements of horror, to leaven them with humor, and to juggle enough tricks to mystify his readers throughout! The Plague Court Murders does just that! It’s a gem!

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27 thoughts on “ENTER SIR HENRY: The Plague Court Murders

  1. Fine review, as ever, Brad. And I think you make a very strong point that Carr never pretended he was telling a realistic story. Rather (at least in my opinion), he was posing intellectual challenges to the reader. And that is a fascinating reason for writing. It’s something we don’t, perhaps, see as much in contemporary crime fiction as we do in Golden Age/classic crime fiction. But it’s there in Carr’s work, at least as I see it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Margot. I think the question I keep asking myself is, can an author do both: challenge his readers intellectually with the puzzle and create a strong novel driven by character and theme. Who has written – or is writing – these books? Do such novels, if they exist, cease being genre mysteries and enter the mainstream?

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      1. Well as to whether an author can challenge his readers intellectually and create a strong novel driven by character and theme, I can mention one particular mystery, but it’s from the Golden Age era — Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, which beautifully constructs a challenging puzzle to stimulate the mind while at the same time displaying in-depth characterization, more than usual, that reaches at an emotional level. But for that novel, per se, to cease being categorized as a genre mystery and enter the mainstream . . . .hmmmm . . . . . I don’t think that can happen. The Great Gatsby is a book that is in the mainstream and it involves a crime but it’s not technically a mystery. It’s not really a crime novel as some like to say it is. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote puzzles and though at times we knew whodunit, it was the how that was the main factor. So it wasn’t fully stimulating as the usual mystery leading his readers on to finding out both the WHO and the HOW. And as much as her books are more written with a more literate pen then Agatha Christie, they would still be labeled genre mysteries and not reach the mainstream audience. I hope what I’m saying is making any bit of sense. I’m kind of talking my way through your question, Brad. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has an intellectual puzzle but the book isn’t as driven by character (moreso in its theme) then Five Little Pigs. But ATTWN did enter the modern mainstream, unknowingly. The idea of people meeting as a group and getting killed one by one is often parodied used TV and film time and time again. While the idea is well-known most people probably won’t be able to tell you that Agatha Christie popularized it. Christie’s The Hollow presents a puzzle and rich characterization but the latter sparkles more. Most of the reviews I read of the book often say the mystery isn’t as strong as the characters. Anyways, most mysteries today are focused on attempting to create strong characters and themes and rather anemic on an intellectual puzzle. What enters into the mainstream today are thrillers like The Girl On The Train and Gone Girl. But they’re not true puzzlers either.

        If anybody can create an intellectual, stimulating puzzle and a strong novel driven by character and theme while at the same time entering the mainstream and ceasing to being labeled genre mystery, I take my hat off to them but I don’t think it can be done. The first half of your concern isn’t the problem Brad, because it’s been done but the second half . . . . yeah, that stumps me. Not even the best mystery writer who presents a strong puzzle, characters and theme can have “genre mystery” wiped away from them.

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    2. Today in the contemporary genre of crime fiction, realism is most bragged about, whereas a lot of the Golden Age crime fiction and the ways that some of the murders were carried out, doesn’t off convincingly in the modern era of progressive knowledge, but mysteries are a work of fiction and should be treated as such. I read mysteries not only to work my brain to solving the puzzle but to get away from the horrific events that plague modern society that is often replayed over and over on the news. I want to read mysteries in which crazy things happen in which Brad said no one in the world would ever plan or do. When everything is always played out as realistic in a story, it’s too by-the-book in my opinion. It’s when you break the by-the-book rules, you get a mystery that in turn will be memorable and most likely be the mystery that will never leave the human consciousness.

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  2. I mean, nobody in the real world actually goes about planning a locked room murder!

    Speak for yourself, Brad! If I ever felt compelled to commit a murder, I would go about the task like the main character from William Brittain’s “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr.”

    The “who” aspect of the story is a tricky, tight-rope affair and the murderer is one of Carr’s best hidden culprits, but remember the clues were all there. And this the book that turned me into a JDC-fanboy. So the solution had to be more than acceptable, but a re-read is in order.

    Anyway, great review and you can expect a review of another Carr classic to appear on my blog sometime tomorrow.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Can’t wait, TC! And I still want to discuss this one in greater depth. But to avoid spoilers, we’ll have to wait till I visit you in prison!!!

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    2. If I ever felt compelled to commit a murder, I would go about the task like the main character from William Brittain’s “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr.”

      By which you mean…unsuccessfully?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. But to avoid spoilers, we’ll have to wait till I visit you in prison!!!

        Brave Clarice! You will let me know when you stop avoiding those spoilers, won’t you?

        By which you mean…unsuccessfully?

        Hey, I never claimed I would be a successful murderer. Just someone who could commit one in style with an eye for mystery and drama. If I would murder you, your death would be a true crime classic! And how many murderers could say that to their victims?

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I think this is one of JDC’s best, certainly in terms of inventiveness, but it’s also strong evidence that it’s possible to be TOO clever in a mystery story. There are just so many threads and ideas here, all individually strong enough to support an entire mystery, but I think they interfere with rather than amplify each other.

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    1. Honestly, Rich, if I was trying to guess the solution here, I would definitely be more grumpy! I agree with what you’re saying, but I had a very good time on this wild ride.

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      1. There are a handful of Carrs — this among them — where in spite of all the evidence in front of you it is all but impossible to reason it out…and I don’t think that’s a bad thing; if anything, I think it’s waaay cooler to leave your reader completely smacking themselves in the head over how obvious it was than to make it a little bit clever so they go “Ooh, yeah, okay, that’s how it was done”. I got nowhere near the solution of this and I remember it in pretty full detail as a result despite many years and books passing since reading it.

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  4. Glad to see you enjoyed this so much. I like it a lot too; I have read it a couple of times now, and I may well return to it at some point in the future. I find it a glorious mixture of the creepy, the atmospheric, the outrageous and the logical – a killer combination.
    And, yes I think the pseudo-historical stuff about Louis is kind of fabulous.

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  5. I read this one just a few months ago and I mourn that the morsel is now consumed. What a fond memory reading this was. It really has everything that I look for in a Carr novel – atmosphere, myth, and a beyond baffling puzzle. Ok, well, actually, the solution wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, although it is good enough (check the spoiler section of my review for my full thoughts).

    If I were to produce a list of top Carr books, this one probably wouldn’t make the cut. But, if I were to list my favorite Carr reading experiences, this one would definitely be up there. Does that make sense?

    It’s a long read for this type of GAD work, isn’t it? I took this on a trip along with two other backup books and didn’t finish it until my plane was practically touching down on the way home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I were to produce a list of top Carr books, this one probably wouldn’t make the cut. But, if I were to list my favorite Carr reading experiences, this one would definitely be up there. Does that make sense?

      The second part does; the first statement is simply baffling, however… 🙂

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    2. Ben, I have repeatedly heard The Three Coffins described as the classic Carr, but that book felt like a long read to me. It’s a much more clever mystery than Plague Court, but I enjoyed the earlier book much more. Yet I get what you mean by the solution: as clever as it is, it’s overly clever, and that hurts it a little. The central surprise in Coffins is better, and the “how” is pretty brilliant, but Plague Court was much more fun for me.

      Neither moved me like my favorite, He Who Whispers, and neither would make my top five/ten list. But I’m far from ready to make that list!

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      1. You guys are calling my bluff, aren’t you? Does someone actually have to die in a highly convoluted way to proof to you that, yes, someone in the real world would plan a murder like Carr plotted his detective novels?

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      2. Absolutely not!!!!! I know where this ends up: with me (played by Farley Granger) and JJ (played by Benny Hill) on the run from a tough CID Inspector (played by Orlando Bloom in tight leather pants) as we are wrongly accused of the crime you framed us for. I’m too busy learning bridge to get involved. I acknowledge the brilliance of your criminal mind, TomCat (played by the irrepressible Dame Maggie Smith!)

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  6. Great review Brad, and I am in agreement with you about the Louis Playge chapter, I think it’s essential and super creepy. This book is a real joy, and as you say the killer and solution is pretty unguessable although all hidden in plain sight.

    Although I have always agreed with what was written on Tom Cat’s locked room guide many years ago that the locked room solution has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s one of my favorites too–and one of JDC’s best and, as you say, most unguessable jobs re: the identity of the murderer, I think. In fact, I’d say that element is even cleverer than “how,” a bit incongruous (but I’m not complaining!) for Carr’s works…

      I’d put it right under The Reader is Warned and The Red Widow Murders for my favorite Dickson. (Now that‘s a list I should make one of these days…)

      Perhaps TomCat can answer this question, but who came up with the “pinch of salt” line? I remember it from the late Wyatt James’s (“Grobius Shortling’s”) now-sadly-defunct JDC page. (https://web.archive.org/web/20090120173834/http://mysterylist.com:80/carr5.htm)

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  7. Here we go again – really didn’t enjoy this one. I re-read it last year and ended up skim-reading and didn’t bother blogging on it. Give me the Brad-slated Emperor’s Snuffbox any day! Of course it is quite right that we all have our own favourites and differing views. (Though naturally I am right.)

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