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.