A review of The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson – 221216
Carter Dickson, the nom de plume of the eminent John Dickson Carr, is one of the pre-eminent masters of the impossible murder, a death that occurs in circumstances, often a locked room, that baffles all but the most adroit lateral thinker. The White Priory Murders, originally published in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, is reputed to contain one of the finest in detective fiction. I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about.
The circumstances of the murder of actress, Marcia Tait, are all that you could ask of an impossible crime. Her body is found in a pavilion, a sort of outhouse away from the White Priory. There has been a heavy snowfall and the only footprints are those of the man who discovered the body. The doctor confirms that Tait was murdered after the snow had fallen. Never mind whodunit, how was she killed. It is a baffling set of circumstances involving a murderer with a high degree of ingenuity and one that can only be unravelled by the eccentric genius of Sir Henry Merrivale, whose second outing this is.
It left this reader baffled and Carr prolongs the reader’s agonies by putting forward a couple of theories, each pretty convincing in their own right only to knock them down again. The solution is even more left field. Clues are there in the text, in particular the architecture of the place, the characteristics of certain motor cars and the obligatory dog that barks on occasion and falls silent on others, but I was not smart enough to put it all together.
Perhaps part of that is because, excellent as the central puzzle is, the book is a bit of a slog. The crime had happened before James Boynton, Merrivale’s American nephew, a house guest at the White Priory, had arrived and whilst he was on the scene when Tait’s body was discovered, he and the police led by Chief Inspector Masters have to rely on testimony provided by the guests and residents of the house, each of whom have their own agendas. The investigation really only gets going when Merrivale, HM as he is known, arrives.
Merrivale is a force of nature, a bundle of eccentricities, rude, blunt, abrupt, more than a little sexist, but with a razor-sharp brain. The tone of the book lights up and the pace cranks up a gear or two with his arrival. It needed it.
Tait’s is not the only murder. Her director, Rainger, is strangled. There are also some near misses. One of the characters, thinking he has committed a murder off stage, so to speak, attempts suicide and Tait, before her untimely demise had survived an encounter with a box of poisoned chocolates and an attempt to push her down some stairs. Another female guest, Louise Canifest, is found in the corridor on the night of Tait’s murder raving about a prowler in the passageway. There are a lot of odd goings-on for HM to noodle through.
Tait, having bombed on the London stage, has found fame and fortune in the movie business, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Rainger and her publicist, Emery. However, she wants to rub her critics’ noses in it by triumphing on the stage and is likely to take the lead part in a play backed by Lord Camifest and written and produced by John and Maurice Bohun, whose house the White Priory is. Rainger and Emery are anxious to thwart her return. There is also some mystery as to Tait’s marital status as she plays fast and loose with some of the key protagonists. Emotions are running high, but is the motivation strong enough to result in murder?
Billed a mystery for Christmas, there is precious little festive about the story, save for the snow. There is some cheer, though, in the almost obligatory love interest as Boynton falls head over heels in love and secures his prize at the end.
The book is well worth the cover price for the intricacy of its central puzzle and the solution, but, be warned, there are some hard yards to be done before you get there.