ACDC, PART SIX: L Is For Laughter in The Punch and Judy Murders

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“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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

Answers:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
  2. Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
  3. “The Ghost of A. Chantz,” a Season 4 episode from The Dick Van Dyke Show
  4. Um . . . that was my last week’s vacation
  5. Carter Dickson’s The Punch and Judy Murders

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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:

  1. The Punch and Judy Murders
  2. The Red Widow Murders
  3. The Plague Court Murders
  4. The Unicorn Murders
  5. The White Priory Murders
  6. The Bowstring Murders

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15 thoughts on “ACDC, PART SIX: L Is For Laughter in The Punch and Judy Murders

  1. So pleased you enjoyed this one — I think it’s something of an unappreciated classic in Early Carr given that it’s right on the verge of when he just belted out marvel after marvel fro seemingly ten years straight. Maybe the issues with the ending keep the likes of this and Seat of the Scornful from achieving full classic status, but Punch and Judy is most certainly my favourite example of the romp-as-detective-novel (or should that be the other way around…?). The final section, with actual clues having been sprinkled throughout, is simply beautiful, and the crowning achievement of a book that walks the line between frivolity and seriousness effortlessly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I actually just edited the final paragraph because in the rush to get this out, I posted it before reading the final chapter. It made me love the book even more – to think of the crazy farce we had enjoyed, and then to realize that every ridiculous thing that happened to Ken was significant! That was real brilliance on Carr’s part! I agree with you: best “romp-as-detective-novel” ever!

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  2. This is one of my favorite Carrs! Such a delightful mixture of comedy and mystery. And it finishes with one of the best last lines I’ve ever read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Even tagging with spoilers doesn’t quite solve the problem in this case – I’ve read Punch and Judy, and so would have plowed right ahead. The issue is that now an additional Carr book, plus a Paul Halter book, have been partially ruined for me. The best approach is resisting the temptation to say that two different novels have similar elements to their solution. Keep that little bit of trivia for yourself.

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  4. I am so sorry to do this, but I have removed a number of comments, starting with the conversation that spoiled not only a key part of the ending of Punch and Judy, but also another Carr title and a Paul Halter title.

    I do try to mark my own posts and comments with spoilers, but as Ben pointed out, one might tread into a spoilerish comment having already read the book in question and then find – as happened here – that other novels are spoiled.

    The great Noah Stewart, when preparing a spoiler, would always name the novels or stories he was covering so that the unwary could be warned. I would respectfully ask that people do the same here. And if it’s too much trouble to type all those titles out, then please refrain from commenting in an unsafe space. My apologies to those of you who were affected by this.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Okay. Not JJ. definitely positively someone who is not JJ. Nudge nudge, nod’s as good as a wink to a blind man!

        I read this 40 years ago, so don’t remember much. But I just found it at a remote used bookstore yesterday, so it’s now on the TBR.

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  5. The Punch and Judy Murders feels at home with several Dr Fell novels from this same time period where it feels like Carr was playing with the conventions of the genre. Take a look at the meta-nature of The Eight of Swords or the murder-hidden-in-a-comedy plot of The Blind Barber. Even The Mad Hatter Mystery and Death Watch feel like they have an element of this bending to them. Having focused very much on the post 1938 Fells and early Merrivale books in my initial reading of Carr, this early experimental period is fascinating to stumble on so late in my reading. I mean, you think of Carr as being the author of these crazy impossible crime novels, and then there’s this little trove of genre bending books that are anything but impossible.

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  6. The first Carrs I read were the Collier covers and – kid that I was – I thought of the author as “just another Agatha Christie.” I really didn’t focus on him as the master of the impossible crime so much as another amusing mystery author who could keep you guessing throughout and then surprise you.

    Reiterating what JJ said, the most clever thing about P&J is that you think you’re reading a romp and then segueing into a murder mystery. It’s like you’re enjoying this comic adventure and then you move onto this separate tale, only to learn that the comic adventure contains everything you need to solve the murder mystery, that the comedy elements function beautifully as central clues.

    It makes me think of how comedy and tragedy reverse each other, and then we think of how great mystery authors reverse expectations. Carr has created a perfect blend of form and content here. I know I’m stating it badly, but the realization of just how well he does it here keeps growing on me long after I wrote and posted my review!

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      1. I’d argue that the clewing in The Blind Barber wasn’t even on the same map as this one, though. Sure, Carr calls his TBB clues “The Clue of the _____”, but most of them aren’t clues at all, most are just loose inferences. Here, the clues are superb; maybe it was Carr trying to make amends, eh?

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