The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)

CaveliersCupThe Cavalier’s Cup doesn’t have the best reputation as far as John Dickson Carr books go.  Oft-derided, it tends to be lumped in with the other common undesirables – The Hungry Goblin, Behind the Crimson Blind, Deadly Hall, Papa La-Bas, and a handful of other titles.  Is it a fair reputation though?

I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the stigma attached to supposedly lower-tier Carr books.  I flat out loved The Problem of the Wire CageSeeing is Believing was a killer read up until an ending that I’ll admit was comical at best.  Below Suspicion?  How could anyone not enjoy it?  Dark of the Moon?  Yeah, it was a rambling slog, but the end spun me around so bad that I’m half tempted to recommend it.

Across forty-some Carr books that I’ve read up to now, I’ve only really read one book that didn’t work for me at all – Night at the Mocking Widow.  As such, I’m fairly open to trying a book with a bad reputation.  In fact, I look forward to it.  Even if the story doesn’t fire on all cylinders, maybe there’s a gem tucked in there to be appreciated.

At this point, I’d normally give you some level of summary of the plot of The Cavalier’s Cup followed by a dive into my overall thoughts.  I’m afraid that I have to reverse that in this case.  It’s simply not possible to discuss this book without doing it in the context of how painfully awful it is.

The way the book starts, you’d think it was the first Henry Merrivale novel published in 20 years.  Carr takes pains to reintroduce Inspector Masters and Merrivale as if the book buying public somehow forgot that Behind the Crimson Blind hand been published the year before in 1952.  We’re treated instead to what seems to be intended as some triumphant return, bolstered by numerous references to past novels such as The Curse of the Bronze Lamp and My Late Wives (both quite mediocre by Carr’s standards).  The first several chapters are entirely focused on re-establishing Masters and Merrivale, rather than telling any actual new story.  There’s one quirk here for anyone who has read the Carter Dickson series up until now – apparently, Masters and Merrivale deeply hate each other.

Yeah, Merrivale’s always been a bit of a cuss, but it used to be fun.  And, yes, Masters was alway the straight man, doomed to be snared by a false lead and flummoxed by Merrivale’s intellect.  In The Cavalier’s Cup, things are different though, and the relationship is one of pure spite on both sides.

In terms of plot…well, there really isn’t any.  Merrivale has taken up a hobby as a singer, continuing a trend dating back to 1941’s Seeing is Believing, where the detective is engaged in various pursuits, such as painting or magic, that Carr clearly thought were quite funny.  But they weren’t.

The comedy in this case is that Merrivale is an awful singer and has a predilection for bawdy tunes.  Oh, and his music instructor is Signor Ravioli – quite possibly Carr’s worst character of all time.  Cast as an embodiment of 1950’s Italian stereotypes, Signor Ravioli (clever name, eh?) speek-sa in-a clever-a accent-a that can best be described by the phrase “eesa my-a meatball.”

Let’s see, what else do we have in this mess?  There’s a young teenage lad that Merrivale is encouraging to mischief.  It comes to light by the maestro teaching the boy to shoot people in the behind with a bow and arrow.  This is only topped in poorly intended slapstick by a visiting US senator chasing a member of the Labor party around a garden in various states of undress.

Oh, you assumed there was a mystery?  I suppose there is somewhere in there.  These next few paragraphs will save you about 200 pages of reading for the setup alone (my Zebra Mystery edition ran 302 pages.)  You’re welcome.

Telford Old Hall is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Sir Byng Rawdon, a 17th century cavalier who fought for the honor of King Charles the First.  Carr spins a respectable yarn of Rawdon’s heroic deeds at The Battle of Naseby and his eventual defeat.  Before dying, the cavalier etched an incomplete message in the glass of a window of ”The Oak Room” at Telford Hall.  Since then the room has been reported to be haunted by his ghost.

This one passage concerning Rawdon is classic Carr, and was written during the heights of the author’s historical mystery years.  Unfortunately, this section is only about three pages long and embodies the entire worthwhile content of the novel.

Ok, so mystery-wise – there’s some bejeweled goblet, named The Cavalier’s Cup, being locked up temporarily in The Oak Room before being transferred to a bank for safe keeping.  The lord of the manor attempts to stay up all night to keep it safe from burglary, but ends up falling asleep.  When he awakens, the cup has been taken out of the safe that it was locked in and is placed on the table in front of him.  The mysterious thing is, the room this all took place in was completely locked from the inside.  So how did the cup end up outside of the safe?  Better yet, why was it moved yet not stolen?

Inspector Masters investigates, and after about 60 pages of pure filler, locks himself in The Oak Room with the cup sealed away in the safe, under the apparently natural assumption that events will repeat themselves.  He comes to the next morning, having been knocked unconscious.  Yet again, the cup is sitting on the table outside of the safe, despite the room being completely secured from within.

This probably sounds like it has potential.  To be fair, it should.  And yet, this glimmer of a mystery is tucked within so much dross that I never found myself really captivated by it.

“Who got into that locked room?  And how was it done?  And why should the cup have been moved again?  We’re up against the essential detective problems of who, how, and why.  Simply because there was no murder or near-murder, does that make the mystery one bit less baffling?”

Well, no, the lack of a murder doesn’t necessarily lessen the mystery, but it would help if there was some plot surrounding all of it.  At least with a murder, there would have been the sense of loss and repercussion.  In the case of The Cavalier’s Cup, it all comes across as a minor prank wrapped in 300 pages of farce, and it’s difficult to ever feel engaged.

Carr makes it apparent that he’s playing fair with the reader, which is to be expected from his typical work.  We know the clues are buried somewhere in the text, but it’s difficult to keep an eye open for them when you’re reading hundreds of pages of filler.

“They’ve got to be proper detective stories.  They’ve got to present a tricky, highly sophisticated problem which you’re given a fair opportunity to solve.”

Cut out all of the crap, and you might have a twenty page short story.  I say this despite the fact that the denouement alone stretched over 40 pages in my edition.  I was hoping for a clever ending to all of the escapades, but the solution is completely forgettable and definitely not worthy of a work of even 1/5 this length.  If you want to read a rambling mystery that actually delivers a real twist, have a try with Dark of the Moon.

That The Cavalier’s Cup is so bad is probably the biggest mystery to me.  Published in 1953, it came out one year after The Nine Wrong Answers – considered by many to be a top 15 Carr work.  It was released during the ten year run in which Carr provided his strongest historical output, including The Bride of Newgate, The Devil in Velvet, Captain Cut-throat, and Fire, Burn.  How could such a dud be packed into a period during which the author was releasing such strong work?

It’s unfortunate, as The Cavalier’s Cup was the final Henry Merrivale novel.  The detective returned once more in novella form for the reportedly strong All in a Maze – collected in the 1963 compilation The Men Who Explained Miracles (but when was it actually written?)  The Merrivale books seemed to undergo a steady decline starting in the 1940’s, as Carr injected more and more slapstick humor, while at the same time lessening the atmosphere that permeated the earlier titles.

I’ll always remember Henry Merrivale best for that string of works starting with The Plague Court Murders in 1934 and running through Nine – and Death Makes Ten in 1940.  There were a few respectable works that followed over the course of the next decade, but none really captured the stark impossibilities and the sense of dread of the early titles.  As much as I prefer Carr’s other detective – Dr Gideon Fell – I don’t know that he ever captured the same tightness of that initial run of Carter Dickson books.  The insane double impossibility of The Plague Court Murders; the quintessential locked room of The Judas Window; the audacity of The Unicorn Murders; the face melting set up of The Ten Teacups; the definitive room that kills – The Red Widow Murders; and perhaps, in a way, the pinnacle of all solutions – The White Priory Murders.  That’s not even to mention Carr’s masterpiece, the short story perfection of The House in Goblin Woods.

Yeah, the end run of Merrivale appears to have been rough.  I still have a few late works that I’m holding out hopes on – The Skeleton in the Clock and A Graveyard to Let.  I have no illusions that these will be masterpieces, but I’d be happy to settle for something along the lines of The Gilded Man or Seeing is Believing.


A note for the curious – early on in The Cavalier’s Cup, Inspector Master receives a call from a character named Herbert Armstrong.  This reference would have completely passed over my head if I had not recently completed The Arabian Nights Murder – a book in which Armstrong features prominently.  Assistant Commissioner Armstrong is the character that narrates the second portion of the book, which in my opinion is one of Carr’s comedic highlights.

The reference ties together the world of Dr Fell and Merrivale.  Of course, this isn’t the first time that Carr’s various detective works have referenced each other.  Michael Tairlaine of the lone John Gaunt work The Bowstring Murders later winds up in the Merrivale tale The Red Widow Murders.  Also, towards the end of Death Watch (a Fell novel), a reference is made to Carr’s first detective – Henri Bencolin.

28 thoughts on “The Cavalier’s Cup – Carter Dickson (1953)”

  1. I have a copy of this on my shelves – it’s been there maybe a decade and a half, to be honest – and I’ve yet to read it. I’ve never heard a good word about it and seeing as I had a pretty poor time with Behind the Crimson Blind I never felt desperate to find out if CC could actually be worse – something I have a hard time believing.

    Personally, I don’t mind the humor running through the Merrivale books, even as it got gradually broader. Mostly, it amused me and offered a break from the grim business at hand. I haven’t read Night at the Mocking Widow, which you didn’t like but, that aside, I don’t believe there’s much wrong with the Merrivale books up to the 50s. Those last few appear dire but I’ve not come across anything else up to that point that I could honestly refer to as bad – some were stronger, obviously, but all were quite enjoyable.

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    1. Colin, my experience as I read them was also that “Behind the Crimson Blind” was much worse than “The Cavalier’s Cup” (and this was also the general opinion that I remember reading from other reviewers). As I said in my reply to Ben, it was a while since I read them, so I might change my mind when I do re-read them, but at this point in time I’d still see “CC” as a (minor) step up from “BTCB”.

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      1. Interesting, Christian. Hand on heart, I’d be stunned if anything was actually worse than Behind the Crimson Blind, which I remember as simply dire. A lot of people seem to put the boot in quite hard when it comes to Papa La Bas but I don’t remember that as being anywhere near as bad either – a bit dull in places and solidly lower tier, but not the crapfest it’s sometimes labelled as.

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      2. Well, you definitely don’t have me excited for reading Behind the Crimson Blind… Of course, I knew it was supposed to be bad, but I’m always an optimist holding out hope that these derided books will really be good.

        The Cavalier’s Cup was so bad because:
        1. It has an enormous amount of filler. The entire book is almost all filler. Once the mystery has been presented, you could skip right to the denouement and you wouldn’t have missed anything of interest.
        2. The filler is horrible. My review hardly scratched the surface, and left out all of the political bickering about both sides of the Atlantic. Carr has other books that are heavy on filler (Panic in Box C), but at least the filler is mostly interesting.
        3. There isn’t really much of a payoff after all of that filler.

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  2. Ben, you don’t mean to say you haven’t read my write-ups of Carr’s short fiction? I mean, I stated outright there that “All in a Maze” (AKA “The Man Who Explained Miracles”) was published in 1956. 😉

    It is indeed H.M.:s final hurrah, and a good job that it is.

    Now I can’t really comment on this novel, because it was too long since I read it, and it’s still some ways before I reach it in my re-read, but I don’t remember it as being quite as bad as you describe it. Yes, it felt like mainly filler, but I think I tolerated it a bit better than you did. We’ll see what I think when I actually re-read it.

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    1. I have been religiously reading your short story posts and really enjoyed the ones on Carr. I had actually intended to consult your post to see if you had the publishing date, but it slipped my mind.

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  3. I’ve been waiting for this review! I well remember what a letdown this book was when I first read it, even though I’d already read Mocking Widow and Crimson Blind. (And for my money, this one really is worse than Crimson Blind, if only because Carr isn’t constantly trying to be funny, and failing, in that one.)

    I really didn’t get why Carr felt he had to turn H.M. and Masters from friendly rivals into outright enemies. Masters had not appeared in an H.M. novel since The Skeleton in the Clock, but things were as usual between them in that one. I do find it interesting that in Cup, Masters talks enthusiastically about the socialism Carr hated so; I don’t remember him expressing any political opinions previously.

    It’s odd that Sir Herbert Armstrong, one of the stars of Carr’s funniest sustained piece of humour, also pops up in the least funny thing he ever wrote. I guess re-using him didn’t inspire Carr to reread The Arabian Nights Murder and ponder if maybe he’d lost his way.

    The solution to the locked-room mystery is not bad and could have been perfectly acceptable in a good novel, but as you say, here it’s surrounded by almost pure dross.

    The Signor Ravioli stuff gets even funnier at one point when Masters refers to him as Signor Spaghetti. Get it? Almost as good as when the Congressman disparages people who know Latin, or French, or admire Britain, even though it’s clear that he’s one of the people he’s condemning. Har-har-HAR, as Jackie Gleason used to say, de-har-har.

    So how did The Cavalier’s Cup ever get published? I wonder if it was something like this…

    WILLIAM MORROW AND COMPANY: Mr. Carr, the H.M. books aren’t selling as well as they used to. We’re afraid the next one will be the last we publish.

    CARR (thinking): In that case, screw it, I’m going to forget about writing a proper detective story for once. I’ll write the hilarious comic novel I know I’m capable of.

    (The manuscript comes in)

    MORROW: This is awful. Well, screw it, it’s going to be the last one anyway. Instead of getting into a long argument with Carr, let’s cut our losses and publish it as is.

    Of course, Fear is the Same came out from Morrow three years later, and that one’s a pretty good Carr historical, so probably my theory is way off base. I do wonder, though, if the fact that it’s the only Carr historical by “Carter Dickson” is due to its being submitted to fulfil some kind of contractual obligation.

    Oh, well, you still have The Skeleton in the Clock and A Graveyard to Let on your unread shelf – neither one a perfect book, but both light-years ahead of this one. There really was a steep decline between Graveyard and Widow.

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    1. Your theory about Fear is the Same is actually pretty interesting. It’s a bit of an oddity that it was published under the Carter Dickson name and I could definitely see it being some form of contractual obligation.

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  4. Sir Herbert Armstrong is also mentioned in The Problem of the Wire Cage and “The Proverbial Murder,” but I hadn’t realized he got a mention in an H.M. story too.

    The following doesn’t give away any solutions, but may give away possible red herrings, so sensitive readers may want to skip it.

    When I read The Cavalier’s Cup, at first I was irritated by Signor Ravioli’s annoying stereotypical Italian dialect (I’m allergic to dialect in general). Then I remembered that in the previous H.M. novel, I’d been irritated by the stereotypical Amurrican speech of a character, who was then exposed as not being actually American, but spaking “fake American” he learned from “films and cheap fiction.” So I figured Signor Ravioli would turn out not to be Italian, but an impostor speaking bad fake Italian dialect. But no, apparently Ravioli is supposed to be speaking genuine bad Italian dialect.

    Like Douglas Greene, I’m glad Carr wrote “All in a Maze.” It isn’t “The House in Goblin Wood,” but it’s enjoyable if minor Carr, and didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth as did Behind the Crimson Blind (H.M. indulging in hijinks that may offend some readers, cutting a sneak thief’s throat, and then at the end he SPOILERs) and The Cavalier’s Cup (I rather like Masters as a character, and in The Curse of the Bronze Lamp Masters admits he likes H.M., but in The Cavalier’s Cup Carr makes him unlikable in order to get some digs in at Labour).

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    1. Come to think of it, All in a Maze mentions a bit too much about the ending of Crimson Blind for my liking. (It also tells a little about A Graveyard to Let, but nothing that’s close to giving away any secrets.) I just added it to my post about Carr and Queen spoilers.

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  5. Another thought: you mention how strange it is that Cup was published so close to The Nine Wrong Answers and many of the best of Carr’s historical novels. Maybe this was a period when Carr was experimenting – Patrick Butler for the Defence could also fall into this category – and the historicals were the result of the most successful experiment, while Cup was the result of the least.

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    1. Given that it is one of the last Carter Dickson books, I’m curious if Carr was trying to work his way out of a contractual obligation with the publisher. You may have heard of musicians rushing out a few garbage albums to break a contract with a label they’ve fallen out with.

      At this point in his career, Carr didn’t seem to have any interest in his series detectives (Fell doesn’t appear again until The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958). Perhaps he was committed to a few more Carter Dickson novels, so rushed out a few Merrivales (on the backs of plots more suited for short story form) and then negotiated Fear is the Same as his final book.

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      1. I’d like to think that Carr had more respect for his work, even when he was writing what we consider his poorer books… but it’s certainly possible that that is what he was up to. I wonder if Carr’s papers are stored at some academic library for researchers to peruse? A quick Google search makes me think not, unfortunately. No doubt letters from his publishers – and copies of his contracts with them – would shed some light.

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  6. I like the idea of detective novels without murder but I agree that the Cavalier’s cup was not a very successful version. There are other cross-references in Carr’s work by the way. Panic in Box C mentions both Fay Hammond (née Seton) and Ted Stevens though I can’t find the latter reference myself right now. I think the Burning Court mentions a book by a Professor Grimaud.

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    1. Yeah, there are tons of cross references in Carr’s books. A few of them are captured in the comments of this post:
      https://justiceforthecorpse.wordpress.com/2018/01/20/carter-dickson-john-dickson-carr-the-third-bullet-1937-1947/

      Noticing these is naturally influenced by the order you read them. I recall when I was first reading Carr, the early Carter Dickson novels seemed to feature a number of cross references. Of course, I hadn’t read enough of the books at that time to really understand the specifics of the references. I’d be curious to reread some of those books to see what names crop up.

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