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:
- 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.
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?
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.
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!
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!