Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing

Moss Rose by Joseph Shearing

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Christmas Day, thought Belle, and things going on just the same. People at the mortuary ready to bring round the hearse, doctors and policemen on duty, and all that crowd of idlers in the street, with nothing better to do than just stare at the house where a stupid woman, for whom nobody cared, was murdered last night.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and Belle Adair is about to cut her throat. Once a lady (more or less), Belle is now reduced to the most sordid poverty. Dancing in the pantomime when she’s lucky, walking the streets when she’s not, spending more and more of her meager funds on gin–it’s no kind of life, she decides. Due to a strange twist of fate, however, it isn’t Belle who is found with her throat cut on Christmas morning, but her neighbor Daisy. Belle is sure she knows more about the murder than Scotland Yard. If she plays her cards right, this could be the chance of a lifetime, but the slightest miscalculation could lead to Belle from the gutter to the grave. Continue reading “Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing”

The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson

The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“This is your own home, isn’t it? Nothing to be afraid of in your own home.”

Centuries ago, the king’s mistress would wait for him in the Queen’s Mirror, a white marble folly surrounded by water on the estate of White Priory. Now, movie queen Marcia Tait awaits her lover there on Christmas Eve. And it’s there that her body is found on Christmas morning, her beautiful face smashed in. But with only one set of footprints in the snow, how did her killer escape? Though murder is the last thing Sir Henry Merrivale wants for Christmas, he is the only one who can solve this impossible crime.

The White Priory Murders has one of the most brilliant and satisfying solutions I’ve ever read. Merrivale effortlessly bats away theories of the murder, some of them quite plausible, before dropping a bombshell so perfect he could have stopped after one sentence and still left the reader convinced. Nearly every fact established early on holds up, yet within that framework, John Dickson Carr (writing as Carter Dickson) is constantly adding new information that changes the meaning and significance of each piece of evidence. White Priory as a whole is not as perfect as its solution, with stodgy pacing and fractious suspects slowing the story down early on. However, these issues fade into insignificance next to the pure delight of the denouement.

The White Priory Murders by Carter DicksonBefore heading down to White Priory for the holidays, James Bennett consults his uncle Sir Henry Merrivale. (Sadly, after this brief appearance, Merrivale will disappear from the story for quite some time.) Bennett has fond memories of meeting Marcia Tait and her circle of admirers during their visit to the United States, but back in England, the dynamic has changed. Despite her Hollywood success, Marcia hasn’t forgotten the humiliation of an early theatrical flop. She is determined to conquer the West End no matter what. She has even convinced newspaper tycoon Lord Canifest to invest in the show, though his interest in Marcia is more personal than professional. Fledgling producer John Bohun is also in love with Marcia. He plans to star her in a play by his scholarly brother Maurice, much to the disgust of film executive Rainger, who is threatening to cancel Marcia’s contract. All of these people are invited to the Christmas festivities, along with John and Maurice’s niece Katherine and Lord Canifest’s emotionally unstable daughter Louise.

Bennett has already witnessed one attempt on Marcia’s life. He is worried that bringing this volatile group to the Bohuns’ ancestral home may lead to something even worse. “You can’t describe an atmosphere,” Bennett tells his uncle, “any more than you can describe a sultry day. And it’s atmosphere that Tait carries with her.” Marcia’s costar Jervis Willard is even more explicit: “She inspired devilishness wherever she went. If you didn’t love her, she was just as willing to have you–or anybody else–hate her.”

Bennett’s premonition is correct. Following a drunken and exhausted pre-dawn drive to White Priory, he arrives just as John Bohun discovers Marcia’s body in the Queen’s Mirror. The silent white house is completely surrounded by “thin ice and unbroken snow.” The only footsteps visible are the ones John has just made. Police determine that Marcia was killed after the snowfall. What they can’t explain is how this was done without leaving tracks behind. Scotland Yard Inspector Humphrey Masters is on hand to play Santa Claus for the local children, but the group of hung-over, argumentative suspects at White Priory all wind up on his naughty list.

In desperation, he summons Sir Henry Merrivale. This is what readers have been waiting for, especially as it comes rather late in the book. Thanks to “his weird, childlike, deadly brain,” Merrivale has “an unholy reputation of being able to see through a brick wall.” Before his trip overseas, Bennett’s father warns him what to expect from his legendary uncle.

“Don’t, under any circumstances, use any ceremony with him. He wouldn’t understand it. He has frequently got into trouble at political meetings by making speeches in which he absent-mindedly refers to their Home Secretary as Boko and their Premier as Horse face. You will probably find him asleep, although he will pretend he is very busy. His favorite delusion is that he is being persecuted, and that nobody appreciates him. His baronetcy is two or three hundred years old, and he is also a fighting Socialist. He is a qualified barrister and physician, and he speaks the world’s most slovenly grammar. His mind is scurrilous; he shocks lady typists, wears white socks, and appears in public without his necktie. Don’t be deceived by his looks; he likes to think he is as expressionless as a Buddha and as sour-faced as Scrooge. I might add,” said the elder Bennett, “that at criminal investigation he is a good deal of a genius.”

Carr often uses his characters to expound on philosophies of detection. Here, Merrivale is delighted to have a real impossible crime to sink his teeth into. He describes the three possible reasons for staging such a crime. The first two, a false suicide and a “ghost-fake” with supernatural elements, are obviously not applicable in the Tait murder. The third option is the most intriguing, that of an accidental impossible crime, “the murderer who creates an impossible situation despite himself, without wantin’ to.” Merrivale uses his observations of both victim and suspects to reconstruct the psychology behind the crime. If the impossible circumstances are not the premeditated plot of a criminal mastermind, then there must be some other reason why the murder turned out this way.

This is a slight problem because the suspects are reluctant to expose themselves to either Merrivale or the reader. Despite Bennett’s lengthy explanations of all the relationships, once the murder actually takes place, it’s difficult to keep everyone straight. In part, this is because a surprising number of suspects manage to avoid engaging with Masters or Merrivale in the first place due to illness, inebriation, or just plain orneriness. One major suspect never even appears at White Priory, another belatedly turns up after we’d forgotten their existence, yet another takes to their room and refuses to emerge until the end. The ones who do deign to be questioned don’t actually want to answer questions themselves; they only wish to share their own theories of the crime. Even Bennett hides information from his uncle because he’s sweet on one of the suspects. Merrivale is surprisingly tolerant of all this bad behavior, but it doesn’t make things easy for the reader.

The White Priory Murders is not a perfect novel, but it does have a perfect ending. This isn’t a cozy country-house mystery. It’s a bleak and cold one, with characters who are too wrapped up in their own concerns to worry about the murder. For a long time, it sort of plods along, feeling like no progress is being made with the case at all. It’s not until Merrivale makes his full entrance halfway in that the story picks up, leading to a spectacularly eerie finish that fits exactly with the personalities of the victim and the killer. There’s nothing better than being fooled by a master. In The White Priory Murders John Dickson Carr pulls off some truly astonishing sleight of hand, all of it in plain sight.

Second Opinions

ahsweetmysteryblog

I’ll admit to feeling a bit disappointed with this one. But even if The Bowstring Murders was a snappier read, White Priory feels richer, both in its set-up and its mystery. You can feel all of Dickson’s cylinders clicking with this one.

Crossexamining Crime

Overall, I think the material in this book had a lot of potential but was not fully developed or utilised, in particular the characters and their relationship dynamics at the White Priory.

The Green Capsule

I don’t know whether everyone will experience this sudden click, but I have to think so.  Merrivale, of course, goes on to explain exactly what happened in depth, but I suspect that most readers will comprehend the core solution in reading that one perfect sentence.  That moment alone seals this story as one of Carr’s greatest accomplishments.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Now this is how you plot a mystery – there are a multitude of clues littering the story, some of which, when you examine them in hindsight are really obvious – but I’d be impressed with anyone who spots the murderer. The killer is remarkably, but fairly, well hidden but you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t spot who it was. None of the clues are particularly obscure (except for the one that needs a page reference – points off for that!) which is the charm. You feel after reading this one that you’ve been hoodwinked by a master.

The Reader Is Warned

It felt to me that each scene made sense being there, characters or dialogue didn’t seem superfluous, and even with the extended page count, each piece fitted together in a gorgeous plot with simple but shocking turns over the chapters that it kept me going at high pace. 

Availability

The White Priory Murders is out of print, with used copies available. It was reprinted in the early 1990s by International Polygonics.

 

The Line Up (1934) by Helen Reilly

(6/10 stars)

“Telegraph Bureau? Inspector McKee. Homicide. Timothy Arden, Hotel Grantham, Fifth Avenue off the Square, Apartment Thirteen A.”

That was all. It was enough. In that long room at the top of Police Headquarters, Operative Eighteen, a green eyeshade tilted over his forehead, repeated the same message over and and over and over again. To the commissioner himself, the borough commander, the deputy chief inspector, the precinct, the district attorney’s office, stenographers, fingerprint men, photographers, in a voice as empty as a train announcer’s: “Homicide, Timothy Arden…” The New York police had been presented with another case.

There is nothing surprising about Timothy Arden’s death. After all, he was an elderly man with a bad heart. Still, Inspector Christopher McKee finds it strange that Arden should die just as the New York City police are about to ask him about a $10,000 check, bearing his signature, that was presented by a man who fled the bank the moment he was questioned. Strange that Arden’s children should be in such a hurry to cremate their father. And, strangest of all, why Arden, a nonsmoker, would have four cigarette butts hidden in his bedroom—all different brands. In fact, nothing seems quite right with this household. McKee is starting to think that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Continue reading “The Line Up (1934) by Helen Reilly”

The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton

The Night of Fear by Moray Dalton

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“He stopped when he had nearly reached the gates and looked back at the house. From that distance it was beautiful, shining like a pearl in the pale wintry sunshine against the russet and umber background of the leafless woods. Since last night a house with a secret. If walls could speak, what would they have to tell?”

It’s almost Christmas and countless creatures are stirring in the country home of George Tunbridge. His guests have scattered throughout the dark house for a game of hide and seek. Though blind World War I veteran Hugh Darrow isn’t really in the mood to play, he’s willing to go along with the group. That is, until a mysterious dripping sound reveals that he is sharing his hiding place with a bloody corpse. The mood is anything but festive as Superintendent Hugh Collier investigates a Yuletide murder. Continue reading “The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton”

The Thin Man (1934) by Dashiell Hammett

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Murder doesn’t round out anybody’s life except the murdered’s and sometimes the murderer’s.”

“That may be,” Nora said, “but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.”

Former gumshoe Nick Charles and wife Nora have planned a decadent Christmas holiday in New York. Instead, the disappearance of a former client leads them into mayhem. The wisecracks fly as fast as the bullets as the irrepressible Nick and Nora romp from the Ritz bar to the sleaziest speakeasies in search of a killer, without ever missing cocktail hour. Continue reading “The Thin Man (1934) by Dashiell Hammett”

The Hundredth Door (1950) by Rae Foley

The Hundredth Door by Rae Foley

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Are you aware that people usually feel that asking me anywhere is tantamount to an invitation to murder? At least, they seem to want me when murder is in the air.”

Meredith McGrath doesn’t remember her mother. That’s because she and her lover were executed for murder when Meredith was only three years old. The victim was Meredith’s father. Eighteen years later, she is excited to finally experience her first Christmas with her father’s family, but it’s been a long, dangerous journey to the family lodge in the Adirondacks.

A strange man on the train seems to know exactly who Meredith is, and where she’s headed. “Neither of us, Miss McGrath, has friends where we are going.” Hours later, he is murdered just outside her berth, but the body vanishes, leaving only a bloodstain behind. Meredith soon learns that the stranger is right about the McGrath household—she finds few friends there, and at least one very determined enemy. Christmas day is Meredith’s twenty-first birthday. It may also be the last day of her life. Continue reading “The Hundredth Door (1950) by Rae Foley”

The Long Shadow (1975) by Celia Fremlin

The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“How Ivor would have loved being dead! It was a shame that he was missing it all.”

Three months after her husband’s death, Imogen Barnicott is preparing to face her first Christmas alone. It’s a relief to be left to mourn in peace. Things don’t work out as planned, however. Her husband Ivor left a complicated legacy of children and ex-wives, who all descend upon Imogen for the holidays. And there are some questions about Ivor’s death, questions his widow is at a loss to answer as she finds her Christmas haunted by ghosts of the past. Continue reading “The Long Shadow (1975) by Celia Fremlin”

Dead of Winter (1959) by Constance Cornish

Dead of Winter by Constance Cornish

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“It looks, she thought bitterly, like a movie scene of some Old World Christmas, a fairy-tale Christmas. Surely the whole thing was something out of Grimm. Or Kafka. Kafka with snowflakes.”

Recent widow Abbey Humphrey is relieved to have found a refuge in the charming Colonial village of Deepford, Vermont. She doesn’t know how she would have gotten through the last few months without the support of her friends Jenny and Emma, not to mention the upcoming Christmas holiday.

Deepford seems so safe and peaceful compared to New York City, but appearances can be deceiving. Abbey comes home to find a dead body in her bedroom. And not just any dead body—it’s Stacey Harrington, Jenny’s husband. As the rumors swirl around her, Abbey learns that she may not be so welcome in Deepford after all, as this small town is hiding big secrets. Continue reading “Dead of Winter (1959) by Constance Cornish”

The Late Clara Beame (1963) by Taylor Caldwell

Book cover of The Late Clara Beame by Taylor Caldwell (1963)

6 stars (6/10 stars)

Christmas proceeds as scheduled, come snow, darkness, alarms in the night, bullets and Borgia cups! What a wonderful spirit America has. Disaster to the right, disaster to the left, disaster fore and aft, and America beams at Christmas and pretends all is deliciously right in this worst of all possible worlds. How about some drinks?”

Last Christmas, Sam Bulowe died of poison. Police have closed the case as suicide, but Sam’s “ice-blue” widow Alice and her hard-as-nails brother are determined to find his killer. At least that’s what they tell each other. Brother David is convinced that their relatives Laura and Henry Frazier know more than they’re saying about the death. Something will have to be done about them, one way or another.

Christmas is coming again—what better time to find out exactly what happened to Sam? However, the situation becomes increasingly fraught as a snowstorm traps the family in their country home with a mysterious stranger. Who will survive to ring in the new year? Continue reading “The Late Clara Beame (1963) by Taylor Caldwell”