The Ten Teacups aka The Peacock Feather Mystery by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

At the start of the year, I set myself some challenges – one of which was to keep working on my Ellery Queen and Sir Henry Merrivale pages. Well, in the course of the five months to date, I’ve manage two Queens and haven’t been near a Merrivale. Go, me!

Over at Tipping My Fedora, Sergio wrote a lovely article on John Dickson Carr, and finally prompted me, partly by the quality of the article and partly by yet again singing the praises of it, to dust off The Ten Teacups. You see, I’ve read it before and I don’t have particularly fond memories of it. Yet it’s not only Sergio – The Mystery Writers of America claim that it’s the tenth best locked room mystery ever! (But don’t look at the list as it gives away one book simply by saying that it’s a locked room). Surely… I couldn’t be wrong about this one, could I?

Chief Inspector Masters receives a cryptic note : THERE WILL BE TEN TEACUPS AT NUMBER 4 BERWICK TERRACE… AT 5PM PRECISELY. The last time such a note arrived, a man was murdered. This time precautions are taken – a policeman is directly outside the attic room when Vance Keating is shot dead from close range. Bursting through the door, needless to say, the room is completely empty… apart from a table containing ten teacups… With invisible murderers and secret societies on the prowl, it must be a job for the Old Man himself, Sir Henry Merrivale.

OK, I’ll be honest. This was much better than I remembered it being. The mystery is fairly clued and it jollies itself along rather nicely. It benefits greatly by having Merrivale being present for much of the questioning, and, given that the majority of the book is made up of such interviews, it’s to Carr’s credit that it doesn’t get monotonous.

Overall, I got the feeling that there was an attempt of sorts here to emulate the Ellery Queen school of cluing, most notably those books such as The French Powder Mystery where there are countless clues put under the reader’s nose, but it is virtually impossible to actually see what they mean – or even if they are clues at all. The explanation, which is quite lengthy, contains 26 page references and an additional explanatory footnote. Normally I’d balk at this – indeed, I did in my review of The Headless Lady by Clayton Rawson, but somehow Carr gets away with it. Not sure how, but he does.

That’s not to say that it’s an unqualified success though… The suspects are irritating in the extreme, with very unconvincing motivations for a lot of their actions, and that goes for the murderer too. And as for the locked room…

Luck often has a role to play in locked room mysteries. Often it’s an unexpected small event that causes the impossibility. I’m not convinced I’ve ever seen a plan that requires so much luck to work as planned though. How the killer ever gets his plan to actually work beggars belief as it requires (going to try and be as vague as possible) at least two world-class sporting achievements and a moronic victim who does everything he is told to do. Why a criminal would assume that every possible thing that could go wrong (and hence incriminate him/her) would in fact work out perfectly, displays an arrogance beyond belief. I know the reader has to suspend disbelief, but even so…

It is clever, I’ll give Carr that. But it falls into the overly-technical category of locked room murders for me, so while it’s gone up in my estimation, it’s still not the classic of the genre that virtually everyone else thinks it is. A middle tier Merrivale for me – not as good as She Died A Lady or The White Priory Murders, but streets ahead of Behind The Crimson Blind.

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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.
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29 Responses to The Ten Teacups aka The Peacock Feather Mystery by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

  1. richmcd says:

    I really like the solution to this one. I think the central idea is extraordinarily clever. Unfortunately I think the middle part of the book, as with a lot of Carrs, is a bit of a chore. He doesn’t really seem to care very much about the characterisation of suspects who aren’t actually relevant to the solution.

    Is it really a world class sporting achievement? That’s not rhetorical. I don’t play either sport in question, but I know a few guys who are keen amateurs at both and I’m always impressed by their… [skills that would be relevant to this situation].

    What I do think is quite unfair is that, once again, it relies on the reader noticing that something quite ordinary possesses an unusual set of dimensions. There are five or six Carrs like this, including a lot of the famous ones, and I think it’s a bit hypocritical of him to expect us to notice these clues when he’s uniformly terrible at describing the dimensions of things (Castle Skull has those thirty foot thick walls, for example, and The Mocking Widow sculpture is dizzyingly, implausibly high). How are we supposed to know what’s a clue and what’s just his feeble estimation skills sneaking their way into the story?

  2. richmcd says:

    Oops. I missed out the other half of my sports pondering which is that, of course, the murderer only got one chance at it. I genuinely don’t know if that makes all the difference in the world.

    • I think I can live with the second feat working, along with the lucky result it provides but even if the forensics of the time can’t tell the difference between what happened and what was thought to happen, it would have to be such a perfect feat that some luck must come into it – which is fine except the whole plan revolved around this working. And let’s not get into the later killing – more of a circus trick than a sport, but again, so much luck for a fatal strike…

      Oh, and the strangely muffled sound of the first shot. Didn’t the police outside the building spot anything at this point?

      As for the middle section, it’s entirely possible that I could have got cheesed off by it if I was in a less receptive mood. One thing this blog has taught me is that my opinion of books is always a lot better if I was in a good mood when I read it.

  3. richmcd says:

    Wow. I totally forgot about that other murder! I guess I really did switch off until the end. You’re right, so much of whether you enjoy something depends on what frame of mind you start in.

  4. Really great review Steve because I think it points to, shall we say, a certain difference in our ‘Locked Room’ philosophies I suspect. I love the ingenuity of the idea, the sheer bravado of its conception and the deft way in which Carr handles all the clues. Which does not, in any way, take away from anything you say because clearly it relies overly on coincidence and there is some mystification just for its own sake (something Carr was definitely prone to). I too want to re-read this one and look at it int he light of what you say and see if that does get in the way of my enjoyment – i think it is definitely fair to say that the likes of THE JUDAS WINDOW and SHE DIED A LADY are less prone to these faults and so on that basis deserve to held in higher esteem.

    Cheers mate – comments to follow (though it may be a bit …) – really glad you’re going to be reviewing more Carr soon!

    • Halfway through Red WIDOW (got the name right this time) and it’s another simple but clever explanation one – unfortunately since I can remember the method, the murderer’s obvious too. Then I think I’ll dip into one of the Fell’s that I have less than fond memories of – Wire Cage perhaps?

      • I remember liking WIRE CAGE quite a lot, especially because I got completely bamboozled by the solution, having fallen into a trap that Carr laid for me and went through the last section of the books in a state of sad smugness, disappointed to have got the solution in advance – and then he went and tricked me and came up with a much better one! Having said that, I don’t seem to be able to remember much else … I wish i didn’t keep realising that my memory is really poor on some details of books I remember enjoying a lot … but then, I read a lot of these in the 80s, and that just was a long time ago …

  5. richmcd says:

    I have a real soft spot for The Red Widow Murders, so I’m looking forward to that! I think it’s my favourite for atmosphere and setup. It’s a shame that, like here, the murderer’s plan makes no sense at all. (In fact I think it’s worse than here. In Teacups, you can imagine that the murderer was cocky/desperate and then got lucky, in Red Widow the plan is cold and calculated, which means there’s no excuse for how flawed it is.)

    But… sometimes I just seem to share Sergio’s outlook. Even though I’m usually psychotically obsessed with consistency and plausibility, there are some ideas that just click with me and bypass that whole section of my brain. Because I think a lot about actually writing mysteries, it would be interesting to work out the mysteries that manage this and then see if there’s something that links them that might be distilled and emulated. Unfortunately, I think it might be random which ones just grab me.

    Wire Cage is interesting because it’s just soooo nuts. Is there a contender for a crazier Carr book? Sometimes you get the impression that he just didn’t understand how anything even slightly mechanical works.

    • It’s certainly interesting to think – what mysteries really impressed me AS PUZZLES and why?

      I’d say for me it’s the ones that are basically simple – you can explain the crux of The Judas Window in a single sentence. I’m not averse to implausibitiy – in fact, if you think about it, the critical act in The Judas Window is just as implausible as in The Ten Teacups. I think that because Teacups requires two separate and very unlikely events and the victim keeping quiet between them, it stretches the plausibility too much for me. For me, the best books are the ones where the critical part is obvious once you look at it the right way – and of course, for whatever reason, you didn’t!

      • curtis evans says:

        Judas Window reread beautifully. I’d forgotten the exact details of the method and the murderer and was impressed with the whole thing (the misdirection is practically at a Christie level). And the antics of H.M. court! It’s just superb in every way.

      • I’m saving that one for late in my Merrivale bibliography. Given I’ve got Crimson Blind, Cavalier’s Cup, Bronze Lamp and Mocking Widow to get through, I need a treat at the end!

      • richmcd says:

        I agree that the courtroom stuff in Judas Window has some of Carr’s best and most focussed writing, but I’ve always thought the solution to the mystery (both the method and the murderer) to be extraordinarily banal. Like Teacups, it’s one of the ones that relies on you noticing that something is a fairly preposterous size.

        And the preparation just seems so fiddly! It’s totally irrational, I know, but I think I maybe dislike it because I can imagine myself trying it and being really frustrated trying to get everything to line up properly (I don’t believe the physics of Carr’s explanation for how everything will slot back into place for a second!) I realise this makes me sound insane…

    • curtis evans says:

      I think the college faculty in The Dead Man’s Knock behaves like escapees from a mental asylum. And then it ends with a duel?! At this point in time Carr was making all his characters in his modern-day mysteries behave in the outsize fashion of the ones in the historicals, which is why I prefer the historicals. It’s easier for me to believe people behave in this fashion when they’re living the seventeenth century.

      None of the later modern-day books really work for me for that reason. I really found myself getting tired of the characters in Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon, for example. and all that business with nicknames. I noticed even Doug Greene, Carr’s great biographer, found that tiresome. I think as Doug says, Carr lost a lot of zest for life after World War Two and it shows in the work, which becomes kind of artificial. By escaping into the past he was able to recover it more. I think Devil in Velvet, for example, is one of his best books, though of course it shows his usual anti-Puritan bias. I’m sure the man really did want to go back in item to the seventeenth century (I thought of Carr when watching the film Midnight in Paris last summer–of course I would go back to the 1920s too if I could, or at least visit!).

      • Panic in Box C is the book that got me into Carr – when I read it over ten years ago, I really enjoyed it! I’m willing to take over the top characters with a pinch of salt – just not stupid characters, such as virtually anyone in Ten Teacups. Maybe I need to revisit Box C…

  6. curtis evans says:

    Wire Cage is much too frenetic and theatrical for me. I don’t like that much emotional tension in a classical detective novel. Unfortunately for me this presaged a soon to be dominant tendency in Carr’s works. I think he tried to hard to be TENSE! I think this was something that irritated Jacques Barzun, though I will admit he tended to be rather a stick-in-the-mud, like P. D. James, where writers like Carr were concerned. For myself, I’m probably showing the effects of ten years of reading “Humdrum” writers!

    Teacups was one where I too felt like the solution was too contrived, like Three Coffins, but it’s been a long time since I read it. Of course one I love, the Reader is Warned, has been attacked for implausibilities that I didn’t even think about at the time, so I suppose it all depends on the reader. The only thing that bothered my on rereading Warned was that the killer at the end is quite altogether too implausibly garrulous. I thought people only talked like that when they were tying women to railroad tracks or placing James Bond in a death trap.

    • Late Carr doesn’t appeal to me much either – but then neither does late Christie. Are there any great detective writers whose best works are at the end of their careers?

      • curtis evans says:

        Probably not. Of course there’s someone like Alan Bradley, but he only started writing mysteries in his seventies I believe!

        Ngaio Marsh’s Photo Finish, written when she was 85, is rather good, I think, though not comparable to her best work from the 1930s-1950s.

        John Street’s books from the 1950s on are inferior to his earlier ones and I think Gladys Mitchell shows the same trajectory, with a few exceptions. It’s not really surprising to me when you’ve been writing a book–or two or three or four–a year that you would run out of steam after two decades or so!

      • There’s also the tendency after a writer churns out a few puzzly detective books that sell well, they then see fit to start “aspiring to literature” – usually meaning that first of all, the book is twice as long. Look at the later works of, for example, Colin Dexter or Reginald Hill. One or two of their later books – The Way Through The Woods and Dialogues of the Dead spring to mind – are outstanding, but, to me at least, too many of their later books shy away from what made me fan in the first place.

      • richmcd says:

        It does seem unlikely, especially if we’re talking about puzzle plots. While writing skill definitely improves with practice, I think most detective writers create their best puzzle ideas early on. I wonder if it’s something to do with fear? Early Christie, for example, is stuffed full of ideas – probably too many ideas in the very first ones. I wonder if she felt as though she’d never run out. Later the portions are much more measly. I wonder if writers worry that the well is running dry and so start consciously spreading out the ideas that they DO have more thinly.

        I think that Reginald Hill did get better as went along, although I would say that’s mostly to do with his writing rather than the puzzles, which I think are always pretty spotty. Dialogues is fun, but I think it might actually be a front runner for the detective story with the most coincidences ever!

      • But compare Dialogues with Death’s Jest Book, which iirc is barely a detective novel. I think that’s the last Hill that I read. Must go back to that series, now I think of it.

  7. curtis evans says:

    Peter Lovesey’s books are still at a rather high level I think.

    Yes, I think the late Reginald Hill tried to be altogether too literary the last ten tears and P. D. James lost me a long time ago. Rendell’s books have taken a plunge too from the 1990s.

    I think it’s really hard for a true detective novelist to keep coming up with clever plots year after year though. In my opinion it’s easier to write a mediocre mainstream novel than a great detective novel (though I must admit I’ve never written either myself), which is what some of them end up doing essentially!

    • I would definitely agree that Lovesey and Pronzini are perhaps the only two writers I can think of still producing top notch puzzles and who started publishing when Carr, Queen and Christie were still working.

      • curtis evans says:

        That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to read some of Bill’s more recent books! There’s even one with a locked room. One thing I love about Bill is he appreciates that the classical and hard-boiled schools need not be armed, opposing camps.

      • Precisely – his talent really knows no genre bounds and we are all the luckier for it.

  8. curtis evans says:

    I think Hill was doing his best writing in the 1990s and very early 200s, with puzzle and literary writing in equipoise.

  9. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the review. I have some Carter Dickson books sitting on my shelves and I can nevr quite bring myself to read them. This one sounds quite interesting so I will give it a go.

    • Sarah – if you’ve got She Died A Lady, The Judas Window or The Reader Is Warned, I’d go for them first. Personally, I think The Ten Teacups is mid-level Dickson. Hope you enjoy whatever you pick

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