“They say that a soul on the lower plane, a malevolent one, is always watchful and always cunning. That this one mass of dead evil is always waiting for the opportunity to take possession of a living body, and change the weak brain for its own, just as it infests a house. Do you think, then, that the clot could take possession …?”
The house on Plague Court has been in the Halliday family for centuries, quietly falling into ruin. Lately, however, things have not been so quiet. Lady Anne Benning believes her nephew Dean Halliday is possessed by the spirit of a sixteenth-century hangman. Under the influence of an enigmatic “psychical researcher” named Roger Darworth, she and Dean’s fiancée, Marion Latimer, are drawn to Plague Court, obsessed by the thought of evil spirits. When the hangman’s dagger vanishes from a London museum, even the skeptical Halliday starts to wonder whether they might be correct. Could he really be possessed by his ancestor’s ghost?
The Plague Court Murders is a master class in terror, a horrifying yet utterly plausible locked-room mystery. Though John Dickson Carr, a.k.a. Carter Dickson, is still only a few years into his writing career at this point, he produces a perfect balance of supernatural chills, sly wit, and relentlessly logical detection, all of it buoyed along by a delight at showing the reader what marvelous toys he has to play with. Sir Henry Merrivale digs into his first case with all the vigor one might expect, building to a chilling denouement.
Determined to learn the truth about his demonic possession (and only with Carr do you get to start a sentence that way), Halliday invites his friend Ken Blake and Scotland Yard “ghost-hunter” Inspector Masters to spend the night at Plague Court. Masters knows all the tricks of fraudulent mediums—if Darworth is staging a haunting, he can surely unmask the fraud. Arriving at the house, “we all moved softly; I don’t know why. Possibly because there seemed such an absolute hush in the desolation of the house before us. Something seemed to be impelling us to move faster; to get inside those high brick walls; something drawing us on and playing with us.” After a series of spooky events, they learn that Darworth is holed up in a small house on the grounds, securely locked away behind stone walls. It turns out that something evil does walk at Plague Court—but it’s after Darworth, not Halliday.
The existence of a real murder would seem to settle the issue of whether the house is haunted. Paradoxically, as Masters points out,
This bogus ghost has definitely destroyed his ghostliness by killing Darworth. So long as it only prowled and rattled windows, it could alarm us. But here’s the funny thing: the moment it takes an extremely ordinary lethal weapon and punches holes in somebody, we get skeptical. Maybe if it had only come in and slashed at Darworth a couple of times, then killed him with fright, it would have been effective. A stabbing ghost may be good spiritualism, but it isn’t good sense. It’s absurd. It’s as though the ghost of Nelson had stalked up from the crypt of St. Paul’s, only to bean a tourist with its telescope.
The subsequent investigation only makes matters more complicated, however. Somehow, a malevolent spirit, human or otherwise, managed to enter a locked house with iron grates on the windows without disturbing the fresh mud that fills the yard. During the murder, six suspects were in the main house, waiting in darkness for their master’s return: Halliday, Lady Benning, Marion, her impressionable brother Ted (“when he was fifteen he got hold of one of the wrong kind of Conan Doyle books”), Major Featherston, and Darworth’s confederate, the drug-addled medium Joseph. But anything can happen in the dark.
A bewildered Blake reaches out to Sir Henry Merrivale, his old boss from the War Office, who comes roaring into the case with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Old H. M. is a lot to take, bellowing and leering at all who cross his path.
H. M. on a Scotland Yard case. … I thought again of that room high over Whitehall, which I had not seen since 1922. I thought of the extremely lazy, extremely garrulous and slipshod figure who sat grinning with sleepy eyes; his hands folded over his big stomach and his feet propped up on the desk. His chief taste was for lurid reading-matter; his chief complaint that people would not treat him seriously. He was a qualified barrister and a qualified physician, and he spoke atrocious grammar. He was Sir Henry Merrivale, Baronet, and had been a fighting Socialist all his life. He was vastly conceited, and had an inexhaustible fund of bawdy stories…
However, his whimsical approach is exactly what’s needed to cut through all the layers of hocus-pocus that entangle this crime. There are the murders, and there is the haunting; each creates enough confusion to obscure the other. Just how much these two matters overlap is what Merrivale must discover.
Merrivale’s summing-up scene is one of the most nerve-wracking moments imaginable, as he conjures up a midnight reenactment of the crime, complete with corpse. “Don’t look at me,” he commands, as the fire blazes hypnotically and footsteps echo in the night, “keep your eyes straight ahead, because the murderer’s nearly here…” Though the atmosphere of the ending is perfect, the solution itself has a few weak spots, including one violation of fair play that is all the more egregious because Merrivale rails against this very practice earlier in the book. While it’s true the offending element is at least mentioned, no ordinary reader could expect it to reappear in the quite the fashion that it does.
Aside from this misstep, The Plague Court Murders is a fascinating locked-room puzzle bubbling over with dread. Its supernatural trappings are all the more frightening for being relatively grounded in real life. Whether Halliday is truly possessed by a ghost, or whether all of his friends and relatives have been drawn into a shared delusion, all of the possibilities are horrifying. When it comes to staging a haunting, Darworth and his friends have nothing on John Dickson Carr.
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!
It is certain that no reader will ever get the murderer’s identity, very cleverly hidden from the reader; yet the clues are all there, as they are to the method, which, like the identity of the murderer, is thoroughly unexpected.
If I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders. No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood. Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach. To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.
The Plague Court Murders is out of print, with used copies available.