“Burn me, you’ve been leaving things behind in a way that’s scandalous. All anybody’s got to do to follow your trail across England is just to walk behind and pick up the pieces . . .” (H.M. to Ken Blake in The Punch and Judy Murders)
We begin with a quiz.
Can you identify the source for each of the following scenarios?
- At a vaudeville show, an aimless man allows himself to be picked up by a mysterious beauty, who ends up getting murdered at his home by spies. Chased by the police and the bad guys alike, he wanders across England, risking his life to bring down the spy ring, and finding true love in the process.
- During a game of golf, an amiable minister’s son comes across a dying man, whose final words plunge the young fellow into a murderous conspiracy, which he brings down at great risk to his own life, finding true love in the process.
- A writer takes his wife and business associates to a vacation cabin that is reputed to be haunted. One by one, the members of the group disappear, until only the writer is left to uncover a conspiracy led by a member of his own circle.
- A debonair but frustrated professor travels overseas in search of meaningful connections in his life. After a long, nightmarish voyage he is plied with coffee laced with oat milk and wanders through the city groggy and dazed, spilling his secrets to a friendly stranger and allowing himself to be indoctrinated into a weird cult and finding true love in the process.
- A former secret agent’s marital future is threatened by his boss, who orders him to burglarize the home of a former traitor in order to find an even bigger traitor, leading the young man into a surprising series of adventures that culminate in the joining of true love.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
- Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
- “The Ghost of A. Chantz,” a Season 4 episode from The Dick Van Dyke Show
- Um . . . that was my last week’s vacation
- Carter Dickson’s The Punch and Judy Murders
That little questionnaire is the segue into a point I wanted to make about today’s title. If you’ve been following my Carter Dickson Celebration, you know that the first four Henry Merrivale novels were straight up impossible crime mysteries. The room that nobody could get into, the absence of footprints in the snow, the invisible killer on the stair . . . each idea demonstrated the mastery of bizarre circumstances that the author had honed in only five years as a professional writer. (It’s true that in those five years, he had published an astounding sixteen novels, under this nom de plume or his real name, John Dickson Carr.
If there is anything that can be said to vary in the adventures of Sir Henry Merrivale, it’s the rapid evolution of tone. While debut novel The Plague Court Murders resembles the baroque darkness of a Bencolin mystery, the atmosphere begins to lighten up by Red Widow Murders and is positively hilarious by contrast when we get to Unicorn Murders.
But nothing can prepare you for the romp that is The Punch and Judy Murders (a.k.a., The Magic Lantern Murders), which to my mind resembles for much of its length nothing less than a classic Alfred Hitchcock film. There are murders, yes; there are clues – some pretty delightful ones, actually. There’s a gathering of the suspects at the end, a proposal of various theories, and a dramatic unmasking of the killer. And yet, for most of the way, Punch and Judy is a remarkable “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” of adventure, which for once puts the hapless male sidekick in the starring role and subjects him to enough travails and reversals to have you roaring with laughter.
To reiterate the set-up mentioned in the quiz above, Kenwood Blake, who figured prominently in The Unicorn Murders (if you call being set up as the major suspect a prominent role), ended that case by capturing the heart of the woman of his dreams. His marriage to Evelyn Cheyne is set for the morning of June 16: it is to be a huge affair, and friends and relations have been pouring in to England all weekend. Yet, on June 15, Ken receives a telegram from his former boss, Sir Henry Merrivale, ordering him to travel immediately down to Torquay to help with a case.
It‘s a complicated affair, so thank your lucky stars that I’m determined to leave as much of this plot a surprise as possible. Suffice it to say that a reluctant Ken, armed with the permission of his fiancée, accedes to H.M.’s belligerent request and finds himself drawn into the craziest evening of his lifetime. It’s as if Dickson set it as his goal to develop a plot that turns on its ear on every single page! And he succeeds. As lively as The Unicorn Murders was, this unofficial sequel is, hands down, the most fun so far. It’s also distinctive in that, as Robert Adey himself pointed out, it isn’t quite an impossible crime novel. But don’t let that stop you because the bizarre elements of the crimes are every bit as delicious as you will find in the best of locked room murders.
And if you start to feel that, despite the bodies that keep cropping up, this is more of a comic thriller (a word Carr/Dickson himself rejected), rest assured that in the quarter of the book, H.M. the detective asserts himself with breakneck speed, interviews the suspects, and exposes the killer, but not before Dickson even provides another one of his fine meta- moments when Merrivale essentially explains the book’s title and its alternative structure to the reader, by way of Ken:
“Y’know, my fatheads, every time I play this game of chase-the-murderer I find I’m in a new path or two. I learn something. You called this case a sort of puppet show affair; and, by a stroke of intelligence that ain’t usual with any of you, you’re right in more senses than one. It’s also like a Punch and Judy show in that everything is the wrong way around. In an ordinary murder-investigation, first of all we stumble over the corpse on the floor, with six suspects gibberin’ around it. Then we line up the suspects, and we question them thoroughly. If you, Ken, were chronicling the case, you’d devote the first half dozen chapters to an exhaustive questioning giving intimate details about the suspects, a suggestive leer or two they might make, and their replies to the query as to where they were on the night of June fifteenth. Afterwards you could go skylarkin’. Afterwards you could go off to the house in the marches, the fight in the dentist office, the rescue of the wench (if any), and let the evidence rest until it had to be pulled out of the hat at the end.
“That’s normal. But, burn me, in this business we got it all turned round backwards. The skylarkin,’ the Harlequinade-in-Suburbia, had to come first. You acted your summer pantomime before anybody (including myself) quite knew what was goin’ on. And when we did learn what was goin’ on it still didn’t make sense about the murder.”
The final chapters are pure delight, as each member of the sleuthing team proposes a theoretical solution. And, of course, it is up to Merrivale to set the course straight and to provide a dazzling finish, where we are presented with a surprising killer and learn the delicious significance of every element of the disastrous farce Ken has experienced. And while it was inevitable that Merrivale would solve the mystery, Dickson saves one of the best twists for the final page, a twist that completes the book in the perfect way.
The latest rankings deviate a bit from the last time. I had such fun with Ken and Evelyn that it took me back to how enjoyable their troubles were the last time. Therefore, I switched The Unicorn Murders up one:
- The Punch and Judy Murders
- The Red Widow Murders
- The Plague Court Murders
- The Unicorn Murders
- The White Priory Murders
- The Bowstring Murders