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.