The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson (1934)

The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

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 by Carter DicksonThe 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.

Second Opinion

ahsweetmysteryblog

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!

The Grandest Game in the World

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.

The Green Capsule

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.

Availability

The Plague Court Murders is out of print, with used copies available.

 

It Walks By Night (1930) by John Dickson Carr

It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Somewhere in the house, unsuspected behind a familiar mask, was walking a man who had no heart or brain, but only a mechanism tuned to kill.”

It is the wedding night of Raoul de Saligny and his bride Louise, yet this couple is far from happy. Louise’s violently insane ex-husband Laurent has escaped from the asylum. All they know is that he received plastic surgery, then killed the surgeon. Threatening letters claim that he has infiltrated their inner circle. Seeking safety in crowds, Louise and Raoul spend the night of their wedding at Fenelli’s casino, under the watchful eye of magistrate Henri Bencolin.

A gruesome locked-room murder leaves even Bencolin confounded. “I often kill,” Laurent has told his psychiatrist. “I have a way of getting into houses, Herr Doktor, which nobody knows but myself.” Could a werewolf be roaming the streets of Paris? Continue reading “It Walks By Night (1930) by John Dickson Carr”

Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

10 Stars (10/10 stars)

“Whatever your interpretation of the facts, don’t you find this situation just a little suspicious? Just a little unsavory?”

Dark clouds are threatening the village fete. Newly engaged Dick Markham and Lesley Grant are too much in love to care, however. Dick shows off his prowess at the rifle range, while keeping a fond eye on Lesley as she heads for the fortune-teller’s tent.

When she emerges from the tent, deeply shaken, it’s clear something has gone wrong. As thunder crashes and lightning throws their shadows on the walls of the tent, Dick confronts the soothsayer. Only this is no ordinary fortune-teller, but a figure from Lesley’s past. Before the man has a chance to share his revelations with Dick, a gunshot rings out. The fortune-teller has been shot—by sweet, shy Lesley. In the days that follow, Dick must face village gossip, a series of impossible crimes, and his own doubts. Is his fiancée a cold-blooded killer? Continue reading “Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr”

The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) by John Dickson Carr

The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr 1933

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’ve got to separate the nonsense and the happenings of pure chance from the really ugly side of the business. Chance started it, and murder finished it; that’s what I think.”

London is paralyzed by an unprecedented crime wave—someone is stealing hats from the heads of prominent men and replacing them in ridiculous locations. Reporter Philip Driscoll has seized on the story of the “Mad Hatter” with special glee. His uncle, newspaper magnate Sir William Bitton, has already lost several hats, but that isn’t why he’s consulting Chief Inspector Hadley and Dr. Gideon Fell. Sir William has lost something far more valuable, the manuscript of a previously unknown Edgar Allan Poe story.

Before Fell can begin his investigation, however, the Mad Hatter strikes again. This time the prank has turned fatal. Driscoll is found dead at the Tower of London, his body sprawled at Traitor’s Gate with the bolt from a medieval crossbow protruding from his chest. In a final, macabre touch, the casually dressed corpse is wearing his uncle’s missing top hat. Continue reading “The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) by John Dickson Carr”

The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr

Book Cover of The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr 1937

10 Stars (10/10 stars)

“This is April, not Halloween. Women on broomsticks are a little out of my line. If you tell me that a woman put a spell on Mr. Miles Despard, and rubbed herself with ointment, and got into a dress several hundred odd years old, and consequently walked through that wall—well, all I’ve got to say is, I want a case that’ll at least get past the grand jury.”

Ted Stevens is a happy man. He loves his job as a book editor, his weekend home in a quaint Pennsylvania village, and, most of all, he loves his wife Marie. The only small shadow on his contentment is the recent death of his neighbor, Miles Despard—a bit untimely, but surely natural.

Then one day he opens a book and his life changes forever. Ted begins reading a manuscript about historical crime and sees the photograph of a woman executed for murder seventy years earlier. The woman in the photograph is his wife.

Continue reading “The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr”