The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

And so, inspired by A Graveyard To Let, one of  Sir Henry Merrivale’s final flings, I thought I’d go back and have another look at one of his early adventures.

A British actress, Marcia Tait, having made it big overseas, has returned to star in a West End play, feeling she has something to prove, having had awful reviews in the past. She is staying at the author’s house, the White Priory, and for some reason decides to sleep in the nearby pavilion. Cue one snowstorm, surrounding the pavilion with a clear carpet of snow. The only footprints are fresh ones belonging to the man who raises the alarm – but Marcia has been dead for a few hours. Certainly she died after it stopped snowing – so how on earth could the murderer have crossed one hundred feet of snow without leaving a footprint?

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 impossibility, to be fair, isn’t that hard to work out, but unlike most of them, this won’t lead you to the murderer. Similarly Carr makes sure to include a reason for the impossibility – often overlooked by writers – and it’s a reason that makes a fair bit of sense.

There are a couple of drawbacks – Merrivale isn’t in the first half of the action, and the book does suffer a but without him (what book doesn’t?) but we do have Masters to keep us occupied. There are a couple of characters who have a habit of saying that they know something important and then wandering off before saying it – not convinced Masters wouldn’t have just stopped them and told them to say what they know.

Having read this though, it makes me realise how slight A Graveyard To Let was. That was a bit of fun. This is how you really are supposed to do it. A masterpiece of plotting.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Carter Dickson, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Sir Henry Merrivale. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

  1. Karyn says:

    I have quite a few of these old Penguins, some published as Carter Dickson, and some as John Dickson Carr, but I haven’t read any of them yet. Are there any you particularly recommend for a beginner?

  2. TomCat says:

    Karyn,

    I hope you won’t mind me answering the question directed at the doctor, but I recommend He Who Whispers and She Died a Lady as introductorily works to the mad, mad world of the grandmaster of all things impossible.

    • I’ll let you off, TomCat, as there is much wisdom in what you say.

      Karyn, if I could direct you to a couple of my old posts, one on Sir Henry Merrivale, one on Gideon Fell and one on non-series novels, there should be plenty of food for thought there. There also my Merrivale page here, summarising (eventually) all of the old man’s exploits, presuming I can bring myself to read Behind The Crimson Blind.

      I’d also note the ones to avoid as first timers. If the first Carr book I read was Death Watch, for example, I doubt I’d have returned… But for the absolute pinnacle, in my book, I’d go for Til Death Do Us Part and She Died A Lady. Both very clever, very well-written and not gimmicky giving them the edge for me over some of his other highly rated stories, such as The Judas Window or The Hollow Man.

      Do let us know what you choose. Hope you enjoy it!

  3. Definitely one of the great Carter Dickson titles of the 1930s – but then, in that decade, there are none that aren’t top drawer as fair as I’m concerned. Like you I remember figuring out the crime method a bit early but being totally hoodwinked as to the identity of the murderer – it does feel good when you’re in the hands of a master like Carr!!

    • It’s certainly true about the books written as Dickson in the 1930s being of a high quality- And So To Murder was published in 1940 after all – but I’m still not convinced about The Ten Teacups – the impossibility was too contrived for me when I read it. Also I don’t rate a number of the books published under Carr’s own name during that decade – I’ve already mentioned Death Watch but there are a number of others than need a re-read as I read them far too long ago.

      • Let’s put it this way – It is a lot easier to count the handful of Carr / Dickson books from the 30s and 40s that one is dissatisfied with that not! Even The Ten Teacups / Peacock Feather Mystery I think most would agree is a superbly entertaining and atmospheric work even if you are not convinced by the central gimmick – of the Carter Dickson titles from those two decades, My Late Wives is the only one that I remember being really disappointed with at first reading – although I know what you mean about DEATH WATCH there is much in it that I remember liking (though it does need re-reading for me so I shan’t say anymore – i can’t even remember who the culprit was, though this is the one with the last reference to Fell’s wife I think?) and until Fell resurfaces in the late 50s I never really found any that i considered to be more than decent.

      • Somewhere on my to-do list is a re-evaluation of those early Fell books. After reading some of the classics, they fell short of my expectations when I first read them, but I think they need to be looked at again. So, after many Merrivales, Dohertys and Queens, expect a Fell page to appear in the semi-distant future.

  4. Bill says:

    Interesting about Merrivale not showing up until halfway through. I’m reading Nine – and Death Makes Ten and it’s pretty much the same there. Not for any good reason that I could figure out.

    • To be fair, Merrivale is in the first chapter, where his nephew explains all of the backstory, and then reappears after the first murder. It’s one of my bugbears in crime fiction, the late-appearing central character, but I think a book full of Merrivale in full flow would be difficult to take seriously, so I’ll let them off.

  5. Come to think of it, let’s have some recommendations – which of the pre-Hollow Man Fell books should I read next? I can remember next-to-nothing about them, apart from a vague sense of disappointment. Now that I’m older and wiser, what should I re-read next?

    • TomCat says:

      Doc, the pre-Hollow Man entries jotted down in Dr. Gideon Fell’s case book are indeed a tad bit disappointing, but the first two novels, Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery, come very close, tone-wise, to a vintage JDC epos – especially the doctors first on-stage appearance that takes place against the backdrop of an abandoned prison complex. It’s also apparently haunted and a deadly family curse is going strong even after several generations. There’s also a disturbing diary entry very much like the one from H.M.s first recorded case and foreshadows his second career as a pioneering author of historical mysteries.

      The Mad Hatter Mystery also benefits from bizarre plot twists and a strong atmosphere, but the special attraction of this book is probably the chapter in which Carr conjures up an excerpt from a lost Auguste Dupin manuscript – and it reads like the genuine thing.

      I remember very little of The Eight of Swords, except that it was surprisingly tedious and a botched attempt at combining the country house mystery with thriller elements. The Blind Barder has its moments, but it depends on your sense of humor whether you’ll like it or not and Death Watch is kept from a position in the first ranks by unfairly hoodwinking the reader (i.e. planting a blatant lie in the first chapter).

      There’s also Poison in Jest, which is not a Dr. Fell novel but a great read nonetheless and one that put a bizarre (or just a silly and farefetched) theory in my head – and should blog about that one of these days.

      • The Mad Hatter Mystery is the one I have fondest memories of, so it might be that one.

        As for Death Watch, don’t forget that the impossibility utilises the one thing that should not be used – ever – as another point in it’s disfavour.

        Glad it’s not just me that’s a bit unsure about these…

  6. Bill says:

    I haven’t read many of the Fell books but I liked Hag’s Nook quite a bit. Apparently that was the first one.

  7. Patrick says:

    I now feel like the Jewish man in the old joke, who came to the rabbi complaining he had no room in his house. The rabbi told him to bring into his house a cow, five chickens, a dog, and a cat. After a week, the man returned, telling the rabbi it was no good- the house was even more cramped than ever before. So the rabbi told him to get rid of the animals. After a week, the man returned, thankful, telling the rabbi his house was ever so much roomier.

    Yup, I moved back into my room, and the first order of business was looking back at my notes for “White Priory”. I liked the book a lot; the ingenuity is there and it all feels inevitable and logical. H.M. is missed for the most part, and there’s a nasty sibling character who is effectively misleading, but Masters is the competent official he was in the early books, a far cry from the buffon who stumbled around in “The Cavalier’s Cup”.

    Incidentally, Doc, I see you’re approaching the 100-post mark as well. It looks like the upcoming week will be most interesting! I wonder if I can coax you into a crossover review, as I’m planning several on my blog to celebrate my 100th post? If you’re interested, you can give me a shout at my e-mail address: ohl.patr@gmail.com

  8. Pingback: The Ten Teacups aka The Peacock Feather Mystery by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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