If I could wrap up everything that I’m looking for in a Carr work perfectly, it would be The Plague Court Murders. No, it’s not his absolute masterpiece – that designation is better bestowed on works such as The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, or even a short story like The House in Goblin Wood. Yet, in many ways, The Plague Court Murders excels in dimensions that each of those titles doesn’t quite reach. To that effect, this title – the first Merrivale tale – is the purest representation of what I search for in the author.
Let’s start with the puzzle. After all, that’s why we read these things, right? Carr’s reputation centers around the impossible crime, and he delivers more often than not. His best puzzles don’t just perplex, they leave you fixated on the problem for every last page until the solution is finally revealed. The Plague Court Murders offers that two-fold with a single crime. A man is found violently stabbed to death in a stone hut that is completely locked down. The only door is tightly barred from the inside, the fireplace is impenetrable, and the small dwelling is so barren that there isn’t a place for a culprit to hide. As if the classic locked room set up wasn’t enough, Carr add in a footprint puzzle. You see, the hut is surrounded by an expanse of untouched mud. Not a single footprint is present and none other than Chief Inspector Masters (a staple of Merrivale mysteries) was watching the grounds and could hear the murder being committed.
To say that this is one of Carr’s better impossible set ups is an understatement. We get an air-tight locked room – a la The Judas Window or The Red Widow Murders – and then combine it with a baffling footprint crime, reminiscent of The White Priory Murders or She Died a Lady. This is the one that came first though, with White Priory and Red Widow following within the next year. Similar to those other titles, the impossibility completely hooked me. From the moment it was first introduced my mind just couldn’t stop turning it over, grasping for a solution.
Ah, but there is more to this book that the impossibility. There is atmosphere – possibly the author’s heaviest. I don’t know that it fits everyone’s taste, but I personally love it when Carr lays on a thick layer of gothic horror. We saw glimpses of it in early works like Castle Skull, but he really hit his stride with 1933’s Hag’s Nook and carried it on pretty effectively through 1939’s The Problem of the Green Capsule.
The Plague Court Murders may be set against Carr’s creepiest backdrop, out-horroring (can I say that?) the likes of The Crooked Hinge and The Red Widow Murders. The Plague Court is an old crumbling mansion, deserted for decades. It’s known to be haunted by Louis Playge (after whom the house get’s its name), a hangman’s handyman who succumbed to the plague in the early 1700s. The majority of the book takes place in the dark or the dim light of a candle, compounding the already eery setting of the creaking and rotting ruins.
The sense of dread is amplified by what’s going on at the mansion. A medium has gathered a group of gullible aristocrats for a seance, at which he intends to draw out and vanquish Playge’s ghost. Things quickly go awry when the medium is found stabbed to death in the previously mentioned locked room, and laying on the floor nearby is Louis Playge’s knife – stolen from a museum days earlier.
Unlike The Man Who Could Not Shudder, where Carr fails to properly capitalize on the setting of a haunted house, The Plague Court Murders features brooding atmosphere at its best. The author adds to it by using another of my favorite elements – historical crimes of the past. Reminiscent of the French Revolution chapter in The Red Widow Murders, Plague Court has an extensive passage devoted to a nightmare from the past, this time being the tale of Playge’s death. This isn’t carried out quite as successfully as Red Widow, as the later maintains a tighter link to the modern day murders.
You may have noticed that the book is subtitled “A Chief Inspector Masters Mystery”, which intrigued me going in, as the book is well known as the first Henry Merrivale novel. The story does focus on Masters quite a bit initially. The inspector is roped in by Ken Blake (who reappeared a year later in The Unicorn Murders) to assist in debunking the medium and investigating the haunted house. Masters is presented as specializing in bogus mediums and fake ghosts – an aspect of his character that I don’t recall being mentioned in any of the other books. We experience the story through Blake’s eyes as he accompanies Masters to The Plague Court, meets a cast of potential suspects, stumbles upon the murder, and launches into an initial investigation.
Merrivale doesn’t appear until a little past the halfway point – a little late, but not unheard of in a Merrivale/Fell story. The moment of his introduction felt triumphant to me – as if being introduced for the first time to someone you know so well. Predictably, Masters and Blake have hit a wall in unravelling the impossible circumstances of the murder and seek out Merrivale’s help. HM provides an instant insight into the crime – explaining key aspects of why certain evidence was found and why certain observations were made by witnesses. This rounds out my list of desired characteristics of a Carr story – discovery.
JJ at The Invisible Event had a nice write up recently on the importance of depth and discovery in a mystery, defining the later as “how much do we find out along the way.” This has been a key element in my enjoyment of Carr’s work. At his best, the author delivers jaw dropping reveals throughout – exemplified by works like The Judas Window and Till Death Do Us Part. The Plague Court Murders doesn’t quite reach that extreme, but it does provide crucial discovery midway through the chapter. This serves well to reinvigorate the reader. More importantly, it refocuses you on the remaining aspects of the mystery, and often raises more questions than it provides answers.
Given Merrivale’s key role in solving the crime, I’m curious why the book features a subtitle focusing on Masters. The inspector’s role is similar to what you get in other early Merrivale stories – the solid good natured detective who finds himself out of his league when faced with an intractable puzzle; each of his possible solutions dashed by the curmudgeonly Merrivale. Did Carr have different plans at this point, with Merrivale only playing a role in this one book? I suspect not – three more Merrivale books were to appear within two years, one of them not even featuring the inspector.
As good as the book starts, I’ll subtract a few points for the final section. Day light breaks, the characters leave Plague Court, and the sense of atmosphere dissipates. There is more intrigue remaining (in fact, another murder), but it all feels slightly vanilla after such a brooding start.
As to the solution? Man, I thought I had the killer nailed the entire time, and I was positive that I figured out why there was a lack of footprints. Nope, wrong on both accounts. As to the actual solution – 1. Wow, if you spot the killer, then my hat is off to you. 2. The solutions to the impossibilities aren’t quite as grand as what I had in mind. I had a similar let down with The Red Widow Murders, although in this case it isn’t nearly as disappointing. In fact, it isn’t disappointing at all, it just isn’t quite the pinnacle of impossible solution that I had fantasized about. The book does end in a very memorable way – I have a feeling that one of the closing aspects will stick with me longer than most books.
Of course, I have plenty more to say, but I’ll leave that for spoilers. I’m not going to give away the actual solution, but I will be discussing aspects of the story that could ruin your enjoyment of the book. Feel free to discuss these elements in the comment section, but please have the courtesy to be vague and mark any spoilers appropriately.
So, I guessed wrong on the killer, but I was close. I immediately found a comment from the accomplice to be suspect and latched onto them as the killer. It is funny in retrospect, because even though I had the one person pegged the entire time, it never once dawned on me that their alibi relied on another person. It’s funny how you can think through so many angles and then miss something as obvious as that.
The solution to how the murder was done is pretty cool – specifically why there was so much blood and how the wounds occurred. Of course, we get this midway through the book, but it was a bit of a jaw dropper. The solution to the lack of footprints was what I didn’t like. I mean come on. There might as well have been a flagstone path that no one noticed. In that sense I felt a little robbed – I was presented with a gem of a puzzle and then the solution was dead obvious but not mentioned. Oh, to be fair it was explicitly mentioned, but I suspect most readers would agree with me.
I had an alternative solution to the lack of footprints that I was convinced was right. You’ll recall that there was a wire between the hut and a bell in the mansion, and the bell had rang twice faintly. My thought was that the killer had tightrope walked the wire (which would have made sense given the circus background that I didn’t know about at the time), and the reason the bell was heard ringing was because of the shifting weight on the wire.
That part that will stick with me in the end is the killer’s final moments – “I’ll hold these chaps until you can make it”…”Thanks”…