My Book Notes: The Plague Court Murders, 1934 (Sir Henry Merrivale #1) by John Dickson Carr, writing as Carter Dickson


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The Langtail Press, 2010. Book Format: Paperback. Number of pages: 230. ISBN: 978-1780020075. First published in the US by Morrow, 1934 and in the UK by Heinemann, 1935.

9781780020075Book Description: The first Sir Henry Merrivale mystery from Golden Age author John Dickson Carr. When Dean Halliday becomes convinced that the malevolent ghost of Louis Playge is haunting his family estate in London, he invites Ken Blake and Detective-Inspector Masters along to Plague Court to investigate. Arriving at night, they find his aunt and fiancée preparing to exorcise the spirit in a séance run by psychic Roger Darworth. While Darworth locks himself in a stone house behind Plague Court, the séance proceeds, and at the end he is found gruesomely murdered. But who, or what, could have killed him? All the windows and doors were bolted and locked, and no one could have gotten inside. The only one who can solve the crime in this bizarre and chilling tale is locked-room expert Sir Henry Merrivale.

My Take: The story opens on September 6, 1930. It is told by Ken Blake and revolves around a house called Plague Court that belongs to the family of his friend Dean Halliday. Halliday believes the house is haunted by the ghost of Louis Playge, a hangman who lived in the 17th century and is suspected of having been buried there. Halliday convinces Blake, and Inspector Masters of Scotland Yard, the latter unofficially, to spend the night there. The purpose is to find out if what they see or hear can be explained rationally. That same day the morning papers bring the news of the disappearance of a steel dagger from the London Museum. The dagger had been donated to the Museum by J. G. Halliday, Esq, at the beginning of the century and it is believed to have been the property of Louis Playge. Finally, we learned that a charlatan called Roger Darworth has convinced Halliday’s aunt, Lady Anne Benning, he is able to free Court Plague from Playge’s spell.

That evening, when Blake, together with Halliday and Masters, arrive at Court Plague, they find that Lady Benning, Halliday’s fiancée Miss Marion Latimer, her brother Ted and an old family friend called Major Featherton are gathered there. They have come to Court Plague following Darworth’s instructions. Darworth plan is to confine himself in a little stone house in the yard at midnight to spend the night there while everyone else waits outside. In this way, he will carry out an exorcism to make the spell disappear before daylight. Not even Darworth assistant, a boy named Joseph, who accompanies him for his skills as a medium, will stay with him during his confinement. But something goes wildly wrong and Darworth is stabbed to death inside the house whose door and windows were all firmly locked inwardly. This macabre finding challenges all the laws of logic and appears inexplicable. Besides, Louis Playge’s dagger appears lying on the ground next to the body and not a single footprint is found on the great spot of mud that extends all around outside house. This is, undoubtedly, a tailor-made case for Sir Henry Merrivale.

Even at the risk of sounding repetitive, The Plague Court Murders is the first Sir Henry Merrivale mystery. However, he will only make his appearance after the second half of the story, at which point he begins to play the leading role. It also turns out curious that the first edition of this novel was subtitled A Chief Inspector Masters Mystery, and we might wonder if John Dickson Carr changed his mind as he was writing it. Be that as it may, between 1934 and 1955, Sir Henry Merrivale will be present in a total of twenty-two novels and several short stories, compiled in 1991 by Douglas Greene under the title Merrivale, March and Murder.

There isn’t much more I can add to what already has been said about this book. I very much like the perfect mix between reality and legend, the rational and the irrational, what has reminded me of the nowadays novels by Fred Vargas. I wonder whether this possible relationship between both authors has already been investigated by the critic. We must not forget that Carr was still in a learning period when this book was published, he was twenty-eight years old and his career was at its early stages. However, it can be enjoyed as if it had  been written by a more experienced author. Besides I was thinking, as I was reading it, that the plot was structured in a Matryoshka or Russian doll shape, what Xavier Lechard has confirmed me this morning when I read his article, here. And it just remains me to highlight Carr’s skill to create the perfect atmosphere in which the story unfolds. If to all this we add Carr’s talents as a storyteller, I can only but recommend reading this novel. Unfortunately, this book is out-of-print but there are used copies available. And the good news is that, if my information is correct, a new edition of this book by American Mystery Classics is scheduled to be release on 2 February 2021.

The Plague Court Murders has been reviewed, among others, at The Grandest Game in the World, The Green Capsule, Death Can Read, Dead Yesterday, ahsweetmysteryblog, Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Classic Mysteries, My Reader’s Block, and Vintage Pop Fictions.

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Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Morrow Mystery (USA), 1934)

About the Author: Born in 1906, John Dickson Carr was an American author of Golden Age ‘British-style’ detective stories. He published his first novel, It Walks by Night, in 1930 while studying in Paris to become a barrister. Shortly thereafter he settled in his wife’s native England where he wrote prolifically, averaging four novels per year until the end of WWII. Well-known as a master of the locked-room mystery, Carr created eccentric sleuths to solve apparently impossible crimes. His two most popular series detectives were Dr. Fell, who debuted in Hag’s Nook in 1933, and barrister Sir Henry Merrivale (published under the pseudonym of Carter Dickson) who first appeared in The Plague Court Murders (1934) Eventually, Carr left England and moved to South Carolina where he continued to write, publishing several more novels and contributing a regular column to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In his lifetime, Carr received the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor, the Grand Master Award, and was one of only two three Americans ever admitted into the prestigious – but almost exclusively British – Detection Club. He died in 1977.

Sir Henry Merrivale selected bibliography: (Novels) The Plague Court Murders (1934)
The White Priory Murders (1934), The Red Widow Murders (1935), The Unicorn Murders (1935), The Punch and Judy Murders aka The Magic Lantern Murders (1936), The Judas Window aka The Crossbow Murder (1938), Death in Five Boxes (1938), The Reader is Warned (1939), She Died a Lady (1943), He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), The Curse of the Bronze Lamp aka Lord of the Sorcerers (1945), My Late Wives (1946), Night at the Mocking Widow (1950). And a collection of short stories Merrivale, March and Murder (1991).

John Dickson Carr page at Golden Age of Detection Wiki 

John Dickson Carr – by Michael E. Grost

Sir Henry Merrivale at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

El Patio de la Plaga, de John Dickson Carr como Carter Dickson

coverDescripción del libro: El primer misterio de Sir Henry Merrivale del autor de la Edad de Oro John Dickson Carr. Cuando Dean Halliday se convence de que el fantasma maligno de Louis Playge está rondando la finca de su familia en Londres, invita a Ken Blake y al Detective Inspector Masters a Plague Court para investigar. Al llegar de noche, encuentran a su tía y a su prometida preparándose para exorcizar al espíritu en una sesión dirigida por el vidente Roger Darworth. Mientras Darworth se encierra en una casa de piedra detrás de Plague Court, la sesión prosigue y al final lo encuentran espantosamente asesinado. Pero, ¿quién o qué pudo haberlo matado? Todas las ventanas y puertas estaban cerradas y bloqueadas, y nadie podría haber entrado. El único que puede resolver el crimen en esta historia extraña y escalofriante es el experto en cuartos cerrados Sir Henry Merrivale.

Mi opinión: La historia comienza el 6 de septiembre de 1930. La cuenta Ken Blake y gira en torno a una casa llamada Plague Court que pertenece a la familia de su amigo Dean Halliday. Halliday cree que la casa está embrujada por el fantasma de Louis Playge, un verdugo que vivió en el siglo XVII y se sospecha que fue enterrado allí. Halliday convence a Blake y al inspector Masters de Scotland Yard, este último extraoficialmente, para que pasen la noche allí. El propósito es averiguar si lo que ven o escuchan se puede explicar racionalmente. Ese mismo día los periódicos matutinos traen la noticia de la desaparición de una daga de acero del Museo de Londres. La daga había sido donada al Museo por J. G. Halliday, Esq, a principios de siglo y se cree que fue propiedad de Louis Playge. Finalmente, nos enteramos de que un charlatán llamado Roger Darworth ha convencido a la tía de Halliday, Lady Anne Benning, de que puede liberar a Court Plague del hechizo de Playge.

Esa noche, cuando Blake, junto con Halliday y Masters, llegan a Court Plague, encuentran que Lady Benning, la prometida de Halliday, la señorita Marion Latimer, su hermano Ted y un viejo amigo de la familia llamado Major Featherton están reunidos allí. Han venido a Court Plague siguiendo las instrucciones de Darworth. El plan de Darworth es confinarse en una casita de piedra en el patio a medianoche para pasar la noche allí mientras todos los demás esperan afuera. De esta forma, realizará un exorcismo para hacer desaparecer el hechizo antes del amanecer. Ni siquiera el asistente de Darworth, un niño llamado Joseph, que lo acompaña por sus habilidades como médium, se quedará con él durante su encierro. Pero algo sale terriblemente mal y Darworth muere apuñalado dentro de la casa, cuya puerta y ventanas estaban todas firmemente cerradas por dentro. Este macabro hallazgo desafía todas las leyes de la lógica y parece inexplicable. Además, la daga de Louis Playge aparece tirada en el suelo junto al cuerpo y no se encuentra una sola huella en la gran mancha de barro que se extiende por todo el exterior de la casa. Este es, sin duda, un caso hecho a medida para Sir Henry Merrivale.

Incluso a riesgo de sonar repetitivo, The Plague Court Murders es el primer misterio de Sir Henry Merrivale. Sin embargo, solo hará su aparición después de la segunda mitad de la historia, momento en el que comienza a desempeñar el papel principal. También resulta curioso que la primera edición de esta novela estuviera subtitulada Un misterio del inspector jefe Masters, y podríamos preguntarnos si John Dickson Carr cambió de opinión mientras la escribía. Sea como fuere, entre 1934 y 1955, Sir Henry Merrivale estará presente en un total de veintidós novelas y varias novelas cortas, recopiladas en 1991 por Douglas Greene bajo el título Merrivale, March and Murder.

No hay mucho más que pueda agregar a lo que ya se ha dicho sobre este libro. Me gusta mucho la mezcla perfecta entre realidad y leyenda, lo racional y lo irracional, lo que me ha recordado a las novelas actuales de Fred Vargas. Me pregunto si esta posible relación entre ambos autores ya ha sido investigada por la crítica. No debemos olvidar que Carr todavía estaba en un período de aprendizaje cuando se publicó este libro, tenía veintiocho años y su carrera estaba en sus primeras etapas. Sin embargo, se puede disfrutar como si hubiera sido escrito por un autor más experimentado. Además pensaba, mientras lo leía, que la trama estaba estructurada en forma de Matryoshka o muñeca rusa, lo que Xavier Lechard me ha confirmado esta mañana cuando leí su artículo, aquí. Y solo me queda destacar la habilidad de Carr para crear la atmósfera perfecta en la que se desarrolla la historia. Si a todo esto le sumamos el talento de Carr como narrador, solo puedo recomendar la lectura de esta novela. Desafortunadamente, este libro está descatalogado pero hay copias usadas disponibles. Y la buena noticia es que, si mi información es correcta, está programada la publicación de una nueva edición de este libro de American Mystery Classics el 2 de febrero de 2021.

Acerca del autor: John Dickson Carr, nacido en 1906, fue un autor estadounidense de novelas policiacas al estilo británico de la Edad de Oro. Publicó su primera novela, It Walks by Night, en 1930 mientras estudiaba en París para convertirse en abogado. Poco después se instaló en la Inglaterra natal de su esposa, donde escribió prolíficamente, con un promedio de cuatro novelas por año hasta el final de la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Conocido como un maestro del misterio del cuarto cerrado, Carr creó excéntricos detectives para resolver crímenes aparentemente imposibles. Sus dos detectives de series más populares fueron Dr. Fell, que debutó en Hag’s Nook en 1933, y el abogado Sir Henry Merrivale (publicados bajo el seudónimo de Carter Dickson), quien apareció por primera vez en The Plague Court Murders (1934) Finalmente, Carr dejó Inglaterra y se mudó a Carolina del Sur, donde continuó escribiendo, publicando varias novelas más y contribuyendo con una columna regular al Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. En vida, Carr recibió el más alto honor de los Mystery Writers of America, el Grand Master Award, y fue uno de los dos tres únicos estadounidenses admitidos en el prestigioso, pero casi exclusivamente británico, Detection Club. Murió en 1977.

Bibliografía selecccionada de Sir Henry Merrivale: The Plague Court Murders (1934) El patio de la plaga, The White Priory Murders (1934) Sangre en el espejo de la Reina, The Red Widow Murders (1935) Los crímenes de la viuda roja, The Unicorn Murders (1935) Los crímenes del unicornio, The Punch and Judy Murders aka The Magic Lantern Murders (1936) Los crímenes de polichinela,The Judas Window aka The Crossbow Murder (1938) La ventana de Judas, Death in Five Boxes (1938) Muerte en cinco cajas, The Reader is Warned (1939) Advertencia al lector, She Died a Lady (1943) Murió como una dama, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) Empezó entre fieras, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp aka Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) La lámpara de bronce / El señor de las hechicerías, My Late Wives (1946) Mis mujeres muertas, Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) La noche de la viuda burlona. Y en una coleccion de novelas cortas Merrivale, March and Murder (1991).

5 thoughts on “My Book Notes: The Plague Court Murders, 1934 (Sir Henry Merrivale #1) by John Dickson Carr, writing as Carter Dickson

  1. I’ve just read this one too, and enjoyed it very much. Great review, Jose Ignacio.

  2. This one has long been among my favorite H. M. novels. Sir Henry is less of a buffoon here, and the atmosphere of evil is well created and maintained. Excellent review, Jose Ignacio!

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