The Unicorn Murders by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

unicorn-murdersTwo mighty combatants on either side of the law – Flamande, the master thief, and Gasquet, the master detective from the Surete. Both are masters of disguise and nobody knows what either one looks like (despite one of them being a policeman from the Sûreté – bear with me, it’s going to get a bit sillier). Their duel seems to be coming to a head as arrangements are made for a plane to crash near a French chateau where a trap has been laid – but who has laid it for who?

But there’s a fly in the ointment – a large fly with a bald head and a top hat. Sir Henry Merrivale, along with Ken Blake and Evelyn Cheyne, has contrived (somehow) to be on the ground as the plane lands and is determined to stick his nose in. But when a man is murdered in plain sight – nobody or nothing was near him, but he has been speared through the forehead by an invisible weapon. A weapon that, by its shape, resembles a unicorn’s horn…

To commemorate John Dickson Carr’s 110th birthday (if he hadn’t, you know, died), JJ over at The Invisible Event has asked for posts celebrating this. I was going to look at The Demoniacs (and cheekily tie it in to the Tuesday Night Bloggers Mystery and History theme) but I ended up running late, so instead I thought I’d take a look at Sir Henry Merrivale’s fourth outing.

Why this one? Well, a) it’s short and b) I thought I couldn’t remember much about it. Turns out I was wrong on the second count. But also it’s not a book that I’ve seen talked about much and a comment over at the JDC-dedicated blog The Green Capsule (well worth a look, by the way) pointed me in this direction. The writer said that the problem with She Died A Lady was that Merrivale was portrayed as a buffoon. That’s a bit unfortunate as Merrivale, after a couple of “straight” performances, develops a large streak of humour very quickly – at least from here in fact, and this is only book four! But the buffoon is a little harsh anyway – when faced with an investigation, I think it’s clear that any buffoonery is to put off his opponents. Although his behaviour away from a case can be off-putting…

Like the following book, The Punch And Judy Murders aka The Magic Lantern Murders, this has a massive element of farce running through it. The two masters of disguise, coupled with Ken Blake pretending to be the secret service agent assigned to the case because he’s a bit bored and clearly fancies Evelyn, add a madcap element to the story which is fairly necessary as there isn’t really much there.

The murder weapon (SPOILER: It’s not an invisible unicorn!) is thankfully revealed early, but the mechanism of the murder should be familiar to readers of the genre. It’s nice and simple, but Carr has to do some cartwheels with the plot to make it work. Still, it’s a damn sight more feasible than the SWEARWORDING Ten Teacups – seriously, am I the only person with a problem with that book?

So, a reasonable amount of fun, although solving it “properly” would require the reader to make the same leap in logic (i.e. guess) that Merrivale makes. You have to question to motives and methods of both Gasquet and Flamande, who, rather than being masterminds, come across as idiots who are quite handy with a dressing-up box. Not the finest Merrivale outing (although he does become the only person apart from Gideon Fell to say “Archons of Athens” – did Carr forget who he was writing about?) but still streets ahead of the last few. Well Worth A Look.

For more on Merrivale, do check out my Top Five, although it’s horrendously out of date – namely there’s at least one book that really shouldn’t be there. You never know, I might update it very soon…

Advertisements

45 comments

  1. I love that cover! Thanks for pitching in to the 100th celebrations, and making this sound even more intriguing than ever — stil haven’t tracked a copy down, though I live in hope. And I seriously love Ten Teacups, as you are possibly aware — maybe I need to have another look at it, it was an early one for me, but I suspect that the problems you have with it are the things I love about it…funny how that happens sometimes, eh? I’m the same with Rupert Penny, who no-one seems to quite share my enthusiasm for. And Paul Halter, now I come to think about it. Hang on…is it…is it me who’s got the wrong end of the stick. Oh my god…

    Like

    • The Ten Teacups issue is the hoops that Carr had to jump through to set up the problem. The rest of the book is fine. But for the plan to work requires so much luck and genuinely impossible feats that it falls apart for me. It’s on a par with Wire Cage for me – fun but let down by the ending.

      Oh, and there are a couple of Unicorns on abebooks for a tenner inc p&p if you’re desperate

      Liked by 1 person

      • If I start allowing myself to buy secondhand books online then I’m sunk — money will simply vanish from my accounts, albeit with a thoroughly rational and predictable explanation…

        Like

  2. I have the same hardback edition as you Doc – great one to pick because it does seem to be a neglected title it seems to me. I love the old man and agree, not a buffoon in my view – besides, the jollity usually helps hide a clue!

    Like

  3. I regard this as one of the most convoluted of Carr novels. In fact, the question of who is who is more perplexing than how the murder was committed !
    There is a discrepancy regarding the depth of the wound in the man murdered at Marseilles. In chapter 2, it is mentioned as 4 inches , but in chapter 6, it is mentioned as 6 inches. Also, according to chapter 2, the wound is “the exact shape and size inflicted by a shot from a revolver of high caliber”; whereas according to chapter 6, the ” orifice was much bigger than any largest caliber of firearm”.
    One of the clues requires one to know a peculiarity of French matches !
    The method of killing of a previous book is revealed in chapter 10 of this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I quite like this one, especially when viewed as a response to The Mystery of the Yellow Room, which has a similar master detective/master criminal setup and which I know Carr admired very much. But it should probably be shorter. I remember a lot of waffling round in circles in the middle sections.

    I think Ten Teacups has one of Carr’s top three ideas, and it’s so clever that I’m happy to overlook almost everything else (the insane coincidences, the fact that the secret society stuff is stupid and dull, the fact that it’s one of about ten otherwise clever Carr setups that relies on a normal item having utterly bizarre dimensions). I wonder if it’s possible to come up with a better plot that uses the same kind of idea?

    Interestingly, it didn’t occur to me until I read your review that the solutions to the impossibilities and Unicorn and Teacups have the same central conceit. So that suggests it would be possible to crib the idea and repackage it into an entirely new context.

    Like

  5. The good doctor and I don’t agree about TEN TEACUPS – He is right that it is incredibly improbable, but it is so ingenious and it has so many other great scenes (love that scene with the chairs covered by sheets) that I have never stopped loving it.

    Like

  6. I think I’m on JJ’s side concerning Rupert Penny’s novels, and on Puzzle Doctor’s side concerning ‘Peacock Feather Murders’. The latter was… not very plausible *euphemism*. 😛

    Like

      • I find it more an interesting book than a good or enjoyable one, because of its cleverness and the reactions it provokes. I think it’s a good data point for thinking about other detective fiction and the place of implausibility and coincidence in solutions.

        It’s certainly very flawed, and if I’d been the editor it I’d have sent it back to try and fix some of the problems (same with the far superior Three Coffins, which despite its brilliance also relies on preposterous architecture for no good reason). I’m sure there’s a way the core of the idea could have been used in a way that satisfies all of us.

        But I think there’s a crucial difference between implausibility and impossibility, and I think that ingenuity is a mitigating factor. Compare with, say, The Red Widow Murders, which has similar flaws but which I’d say is just flat out broken as it requires the murderer to be psychic, rather than just ludicrously optimistic. I expect people’s mileage will vary here, and it would be interesting to learn how and why.

        Sadly, that’s an impossible discussion to have in a spoiler-free space like this.

        Like

      • I’m made ever more curious to give The Ten Teacups another look. Hae been hitting the Carr fairly heavily of late, but I might look to tee up a very spoiler heavy discussion on my blog at the start of next year so we can really get to grips with it…

        Like

      • I’ll be honest, I’d probably have to read the ending again to remind myself of the stupidity/cleverness (delete as applicable) of it. There probably isn’t another book that I’d want to spoil (as a discussion, not for fun) as much as this one…

        Liked by 1 person

      • So you guys are talking about picking apart Ten Teacups? If so, I will try and read over the holidays. I LOVE getting in on spoilerish conversations.

        Like

      • I shall announce it via m’blog at some point to give people a chance to pitch in…no idea what for it will take, but rest assured that thins will be spoiled all over the place. Things that pertainto the plot of that specific book, I mean. I won’t be trashing my kitchen (or will I…?).

        Like

      • Could we make it that month’s Verdict Of Us All post? At least three of us have read it – although I wonder if it would work better as a joint post just between two people and run the rest via the comments. It’s harder to have a cohesive email conversation joint post thing with more than two voices

        Like

      • The VoUA works, I think, because everyuone can pick their won title or thing for each post…imposing a specfic title on it seems countermanding to that. A joint post sounds like a much more organic idea, emailing it back and forth to get a structure and a set of points and then throw it open to the comments; I’m game if you are…

        Like

  7. Oh dear, Doctor, they’re really pushing Ten Teacups over at my place, and here you go with an alternate point of view. To top that off, my one and only Rupert Penny is gathering dust after my failed attempt to get past page five. So now I don’t know who to believe!

    Like

      • Yeah, I make sure to keep spoilers from my reviews as well (or at least flag them).

        The problem here is that I’m midway through the book and can’t allow myself to be swayed by opinion. It would be different if it was a month before I read the book, but now I’m in the intimate stage of experiencing it.

        Like

      • Oh, I quite understand. And all it takes is a “unoriginal trick” offhand comment or something similar to start the reader overthinking things. You never know what might set the reader on the right track – but I try to be as careful as possible.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I really anguished over that with my review of The Red Widow Murders. I felt that it was really hard to give a final opinion on that book without potentially ruining it for someone who hadn’t read it. I feel that the puzzle is so air tight that just knowing that it is going to disappoint at the end could potentially ruin the experience.

        Like

      • Yes. There’s an infuriating plot device that I so want to bang on about but it comes out of nowhere towards the end and is a crucial part of the solution… I originally included this in my Merrivale Top Five post but the memory really cheated.

        Like

  8. “(although he does become the only person apart from Gideon Fell to say “Archons of Athens” – did Carr forget who he was writing about?) ” Merrivale uses this expression only in this book.
    There is another expression used by Fell “Harrumph” which is used by Merrivale only in The Red Widow Murders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad that you caught that reference to Archons of Athens. I was reading the book this weekend and noticed that Merrivale had said it. It immediately made me question whether Carr had slipped up. I would argue that he couldn’t have repurposed a Fell story into a Merrivale story, as Merrivale’s entire involvement in the plot hinges on his job post. I have to take it as a momentary lapse. Well, either that, or the phrase was actually common back in the day and we mistakenly attribute it only to Fell.

      Like

  9. What a delight to see someone else appreciates Sir Henry Merrivale. I have been reading/re-reading Carter Dickson books for over 40 years. Thank you for reminding the world about him.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s