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 Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr

The Eight of Swords by John Dickson Carr

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Of all the motiveless and unenterprising sluggards to gather up as suspects, the rest of us are the worst! At least, in a crime story, you get a lot of motives and plenty of suspicious behavior. You have a quarrel overheard by the butler, and somebody threatening to kill somebody, and somebody else sneaking out to bury a blood-stained handkerchief in the flower bed. . . . But here we’ve nothing of the kind.”

The Bishop of Mappleham has lost his mind. This worthy gentleman, previously known only for his interest in criminology, has turned the country home of his host Colonel Standish upside down with his antics, from sliding down the bannisters to throwing inkwells at the vicar. No one seems to know whether the Bishop is going mad or there’s a poltergeist on the loose. Still, it’s hardly a matter for Scotland Yard, until the Colonel’s neighbor, Septimus Depping, is found murdered in his study after a late-night thunderstorm, with all the windows wide open.

Dr. Gideon Fell doesn’t think it’s his kind of case. It seems far too ordinary. His interest is piqued, however, when he learns that a card depicting the eight of swords was found beside the body. Dr. Fell sets out to investigate, along with a host of fellow sleuths that include the crime-loving bishop and a detective story author, but will too many cooks spoil the murder? Continue reading “The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr”

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? Continue reading “The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson (1934)”

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”