As soon as I got this book it went to the top of my reading list. How could it not? The premise is so intriguing – the police receive a cryptic letter warning “there will be ten teacups”. The address indicated in the note leads to an abandoned house containing a dead man amidst an odd crime scene. Only one room of the house is furnished, and in the center is a table with ten teacups arranged in a circle. The crime is never solved. Two years later, a similar note is sent, and the circumstances repeat themselves, despite the address being under heavy police surveillance.
It was the mysterious notion of the ten teacups that drew me to the book. Why were the two crimes set up in such a particular way? How could something as innocent as a teacup play into murder? Although this Merrivale novel, also published as The Peacock Feather Murders, doesn’t seem to make top 10 lists, it does appear to have a strong underground following. After reading it, I can say that the reputation is well deserved.
The Ten Teacups is an exemplary locked room mystery. Ok, so it isn’t a perfectly sealed room, but when you factor in witnesses, I’d say this qualifies. A detective, who provides the core focal point for the story, is surveilling the only door into the room in which a man is shot twice at close range. Police are posted around the house, watching each entrance and the windows. Yet, when the room is open, the victim is alone, save for ten teacups on a table covered with a peacock feather patterned tablecloth.
The start of the book is perfect – you are immediately fed two compelling mysteries. I actually thought that I spotted a subtle clue and was a bit disappointed that I had the whole thing figured out by page 40. Leave it to Carr to sink my theory several chapters later.
Although the story starts strong, it does sag a bit in the middle. Don’t get me wrong, the plot throughout the book is enjoyable, with the typical bickering between Masters and Merrivale. Yet, there is a lack of atmosphere and urgency. The reader is introduced to a set of characters that play into the mystery in one way or another, and they are interviewed one by one over the course of the novel. Although new mysteries are exposed as the story unfolds, there is a bit of predictability – “Oh, person X hasn’t been interviewed yet, I guess that’s coming in about 20 pages.”
Carr more than makes up for it in the end. I have yet to read a Carr book with a bad ending – each one wraps up with its own sequence of exciting reveals. The Ten Teacups, however, is a torrent. Carr unleashes explanation, followed by surprise, and then repeats multiple times. You come into the final chapters looking for the revelation behind the teacups and get more than you bargained for. If you were impressed by the explosive final chapters of The Burning Court, you’ll be more than happy here.
Although it has its lulls in the midsection, The Ten Teacups stands amongst Carr’s better works, bolstered by a gripping beginning and a rapid fire conclusion. I know that some find faults in the solution to the main puzzle. Me – I’m fine giving Carr some leeway. I enjoyed the ride enough to not mind some oil beneath the hood. If someone places this in their top 10 Carr, I’m not going to argue.