The 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 Cage. Seeing 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.