Review: The Plague Court Murders, by John Dickson Carr

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John Dickson Carr (who also wrote under the name Carter Dickson) is known justly as the master of the “locked room” murder, capable of constructing plots filled with chilling atmosphere and seemingly impossible crimes. I had read and enjoyed many of his novels, so when I was in the mood for a bloody, creepy Golden Age murder mystery I decided to read one of his earlier novels, The Plague Court Murders, which also happens to contain the first appearance of Sir Henry Merrivale.

The plot runs thus: our narrator Ned Blake is invited by his friend Dean Halliday to investigate the Plague Court, Halliday’s supposedly haunted family estate. The medium Darworth is holding an exorcism there that night, and Halliday brings along Blake and the police inspector Masters, hoping to expose Darworth as a fraud. The night ends in bloody murder as Darworth is brutally killed—alone in a shed with walls made of solid stone (and no secret entrances), the only window fitted with iron bars and the only door bolted on the inside and padlocked on the outside. Blake and Masters are sure that it is human and not ghostly hands which hastened Darworth to his end, but with no ideas on how it was possible for the murder to be committed, they decide to call in Sir Henry Merrivale for help.

I found this particular book rather underwhelming. The best part is undoubtedly the solution to the locked room murder itself, which is both original and imaginative. As in most of his books, Carr also drops plenty of hints beforehand, so a creative reader could figure out the solution to this seemingly impossible crime before the reveal. I did notice a tiny plot hole/wrinkle in the solution, but it could be explained by forensic technology being less advanced at the time. The creepy atmosphere of the Plague Court itself was also very nicely conveyed through the writing.

Unfortunately, though the solution to the locked room was very nicely done, I did not like the reveal of who the murderer was. I normally have a pretty high tolerance for complicated plots which depend a great deal on chance and coincidence, as they are a staple of mysteries and especially Golden Age fair play mysteries, but there is a difference between complex and convoluted, and this is the latter. This particular murderer’s motives and actions came out of the left field, far enough to break my suspension of disbelief. It didn’t help that in this book almost all the characters were paper thin and only really existed for the plot. The only character which made a lasting impression on me was Lady Bennings, Dean Halliday’s malicious, grieving aunt. It also didn’t help that two characters made several casual racist slurs in the middle of the book, which almost made me drop the book right there.

      The Plague Court Murders follows my general impression of Carr thus far in that the mystery plot and the atmosphere are strong while characterization is very thin and the pacing uneven, but this is a very weak example of what he is capable of. If you’re looking for a Carr with a similar supernatural/horror atmosphere, I would recommend reading The Burning Court or He Who Whispers instead, otherwise He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is a fantastic “impossible crime” novel and a better book overall.

Rating

How much I enjoyed it: 5

How good I thought it was: 5

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