Some books challenge me in terms of how to rate them. There are stories, like the Judas Window, which hold their excellence throughout and are a no brainer on a Top 10 list. Then there are stories like The Red Widow Murders, which have the promise to reach such spiraling heights, but are held short by one aspect of the story. How do you rate a book such as this? Can a story be top 10 worthy based purely on one dimension? If so, The White Priory Murders certainly qualifies.
A Merrivale story, The White Priory Murders inhabits the “footprints” category of impossible crimes. An actress is found murdered in a pavilion surrounded by freshly fallen snow. Only a single set of footprints lead to the crime scene – those of the man who found the body.
As perplexing as the puzzle is, the book suffers from pacing issues. This is the Carr story that I had the hardest time getting into, even though it starts with an immediate poisoning attempt. A while later, the impossible crime is presented, and then the story sort of… plods along. There isn’t anything too memorable about the meat of the book. Perhaps it’s that the characters aren’t particularly likable. Maybe it’s the lack of atmosphere and danger. Or, it could be the number of times Carr yanks you along with “somebody is about to say something extremely important, but it will have to wait for later.” Sure, Carr uses that one in most books, but here it feels outright abused.
The puzzle though, is enough to keep you going. The White Priory Murders is propelled purely by the strength of its impossible crime. Although reminiscent of the problem in She Died a Lady, the circumstances of the footprints (or lack of footprints) feels more sound. The challenge presented by the field of undisturbed snow seems intractable, allowing Carr to guide you in the direction of particular conclusions. Of course, H.M. is there to discredit all of the obvious solutions that you think you cleverly thought of.
And then, in one single simple sentence, the mystery dissolves. The impossible not only becomes the possible, it becomes the only thing possible. The obvious.
I doubt I’ll ever experience a feeling quite like this at the reveal of a mystery. My god, I hope I do. Jaw slack, eyes glazing over, my hands slowly lowering the book as I coldly stare out… Although the core puzzle becomes immediately clear, the mind reels at what it means in the context of the full story – in all of the turns and jags. Yes, the core trick has been solved, but as is typical with Carr, multiple mysteries still remain.
I don’t know whether everyone will experience this sudden click, but I have to think so. Merrivale, of course, goes on to explain exactly what happened in depth, but I suspect that most readers will comprehend the core solution in reading that one perfect sentence. That moment alone seals this story as one of Carr’s greatest accomplishments. The Judas Window has its perfect puzzle. The Problem of the Green Capsule has a murder committed in front of witnesses who don’t know what they saw. The Emperor’s Snuff box has the impossibility that you didn’t know was impossible. And alongside them, The White Priory Murders has the perfect moment.
42 thoughts on “The White Priory Murders”
This is undoubtedly one of Carr’s most brilliant early solutions — it is so bonkersly simple in its way, like the best of these type of puzzle, but you just don’t see it until it’s pointed out to you. And then, as you say, there’s that brilliant moment of realisation which almost makes it all worth it. The Bowstring Murders from the year before has a similar moment, and there’s a simialr feeling at the revelation of the opening shooting of The Man Who Could Not Shudder. I love, too, the rounds of false solutions herein, where the possible explanations are discussed ad dismissed (IIRC, and it’s been a while, there’s an interesting discussion about whether someone could have been hiding in the chimney), which is something Carr did better than anyone.
But, yeah, the book overall is a bit of a trudge. I’m pretty sure every chapter ends with an “Oh my god you’re simply not going to believe this!!!” which is fine in moderation but becomes rather strained over an entire book, and while I wouldn’t say that this struck me as being needlessly padded, I do get the impression that changing the order of a few events would have made it a lot more interesting (I do remember struggling at times). I also don’t remember a single character from it — I had a moment reading your review when I wasn’t even sure it was an H.M. book — and that’s never a great sign, as someone usually stands out in any book I’ve read, no matter how far back.
The solution, though, is amazing. And anything featurng Merrivale before he started to become a figure of fun — I have a feeling Carr started to bore of having two separate sleuths who were pretty much the same person, so introduced a comedy element to Merrivale to keep himself interested — is bound to have the Old Man up to his dangerous ways in a manner that very few detectives of that age ever really possessed. Even if, no, I can’t remember any of them off-hand 🙂
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Just finished reading this. Interestingly I didn’t suffer nearly as much as I did with Plague Court, nor Red Widow for that matter. Perhaps because I don’t particularly care for the more gothic tone of those titles, the chapters of historical backstory and so forth. Or maybe I’ve just finally made my peace with JDC’s style, prolix and overwrought though it is, so long as he delivers on the impossibility/solution front.
And the solution to this is certainly brilliant enough to forgive it it’s flaws. Might even be my favourite overall, and I say that as someone who much prefers hermetically sealed chambers to no-footprint based crimes. I figured out the “how” relatively early on, but then discredited the idea as it pointed to a suspect I didn’t believe was the culprit. Trust Carr to find a way to prove my theory right in a way where it didn’t have to be that person.
I so glad that you liked this one! It really feels like a book that tiptoes the line of being one of Carr’s best books. I just recall so many interrupted revelations and that feeling of “again?!?!” I’m surprised you figured out the how, as it never occurred to me, but it is totally a solution that is fair game for the clever reader.
We’re all of us going to see through the illusion at some point, just in different books. I had a feeling going into this one that the solution would involve the overturning of a fundamental assumption a reader is apt to make. And especially here, once you no longer confine the possibilities to within certain parameters – parameters which upon scrutiny don’t seem as strict as was initially thought – you hit upon the answer very soon if not almost right away. Of course, now I’ve said that, I’ll probably go and fall for a far more discernible trick elsewhere in his oeuvre.