The Magic Lantern Murders
When I first started reading John Dickson Carr, I leaned heavily on the top tier titles. Part of that was intentional – wanting to read the best while first exploring an author – and part of it was the dumb luck of stumbling on a few not-as-renowned titles simply because they were readily at hand. The consequence though was that I burned through nearly all of the early Henry Merrivale books published prior to 1940. As I would later come to realize, this run of Carr’s novels features his most over the top impossibilities.
Each of the early Merrivale titles (published under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) stands out for an outlandish puzzle. A man stabbed to death in a locked hut surrounded by untouched mud (The Plague Court Murders); a woman found dead surrounded by untouched snow (The White Priory Murders); a room that kills anyone who spends the night inside (The Red Widow Murders); a man stabbed by an invisible force in plain view of multiple witnesses (The Unicorn Murders). These are simply the first four plots in a nine book run. Not only is Carr delivering some of his best impossibilities, but his books pack a brilliant pace and some of his best writing.
With The Punch and Judy Murders (alternatively titled The Magic Lantern Murders), I sadly punch my final ticket with pre-40s Merrivale. I’m happy to say that it was a worthy last outing, although not for the reasons that I was expecting.
The story finds us reunited with Ken Blake, the main character from The Unicorn Murders (1935). Blake is called to Torquay on the eve of his wedding by Sir Henry Merrivale and tasked with an urgent mission. Unfortunately, Blake isn’t given many details, other than that he needs to break into the house of a German immigrant who may be involved in espionage.
Things go awry the moment Blake steps out the door, and he encounters one enormous set back after another. Everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong, and then some more. I’m reminded of a John Cleese movie, Clockwise, that I watched as a child. I can’t quite vouch for it, as it has been decades since I saw it, but I remember it being a wall to wall onslaught of excruciating situational comedy. That’s how I’d describe The Punch and Judy Murders as well – and it’s flat out hilarious.
Now, I’m the first person to complain about the awful slapstick comedy that crept into Carr’s later Merrivale novels starting in the 1940s. The once enjoyable detective became a bumbling fool involved in all sort of antics – cutting off ties, riding suitcases, teetering over a cliff in a runaway wheel chair… The final novel in the series, The Cavalier’s Cup, is 95% hijinks with a morsel of an impossible crime thrown in to appease the reader.
The thing is, Carr actually wrote some extremely funny comedy in his early career – The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Arabian Nights Murder being the best examples. Rather than relying on cheap gags, the author drew humor from the excruciating situations the characters found themselves in, or from the pompous nature of the characters themselves. Out of all of Carr’s books, The Punch and Judy Murders may well be the funniest. The situations that Ken Blake finds himself in are horribly awkward and they always come about at the most disastrous time.
I can’t get into the details of the hilarious setbacks that Ken encounters, as the fun is in the unexpected happening. Our disheveled hero eventually stumbles upon a murder at a very strange crime scene, and it’s a murder that will drive much of the rest of the plot. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to avoid the specifics, because again, it’s all about how the story unfolds. I’ll offer up a comparison though. This is another one of Carr’s “crime scenes that don’t make sense” – a theme he started with 1934’s The Eight of Swords, and then continued on in Death Watch (1935), The Arabian Nights Murder (1936), The Four False Weapons (1937), To Wake the Dead (1938), and Death in Five Boxes (1938) (you’ll note that he packed these all into a five year run).
Strangely for a 1930’s Merrivale novel, there isn’t an impossible crime, although at times it seems as if the story is heading in that direction. JJ at The Invisible Event had posited that Carr had used the Carter Dickson novels to each focus on a different flavor of impossibility, but this seems like the one exception (although I’d argue whether Death in Five Boxes is impossible either). In that sense, this feels like more of a Dr Fell novel, as the early entries in that series focused much more on the incoherent crime scene and seldom feature an impossibility.
While we’re not dealing with an impossible crime, it’s still an extremely intriguing one. That intrigue is amplified by the unpredictable flow of the plot. As much as I laude Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part and The Judas Window for featuring non-stop chapter ending earth-shakers, The Punch and Judy Murders contends for that belt as well. This is a book that you want to tuck away until a time when you know you’ll be able to finish it in two days max.
Although it’s a page-turner throughout, the story comes back to earth towards the end. Eventually the mad capers end and we settle into a bit of conventional detective investigation – oddly positioned in the last quarter of the book. There’s a quick round of interviewing all of the suspects and then the denouement unfolds over a nicely done chapter titled “The Five Solutions”. You can interpret that for yourself.
Where things sag though is that the mystery ultimately can’t live up to its own hype. After thirteen chapters of pure madness unfolding, there isn’t actually too much mystery remaining at the end. The final unmasking of the killer is nicely done, and the culprit is a nice choice, but I couldn’t help thinking “I wanted there to be more to it.” You see, Carr constructs this towering mystery, but then so little of it really matters in the end. It’s all very nicely explained, and you’ll be well engrossed while it is, but it unfolds in some sense outside of expectations. Of course, this criticism is based purely on who the author is. If this was anyone else whose name isn’t tied to impossible crimes, then I think this would be a perfectly successful finale.
While the ending is a bit of a nit-picky disappointment, I rate The Punch and Judy Murders as “will recommend”. By that I mean, I will be lending this book to people I know outside of this sphere with the knowledge that they’ll enjoy it.
A few asides
It has dawned on me that Ken Blake may be Carr’s second most used point of view character. I have Jeff Marple at five books – the first four Bencolin novels plus Poison in Jest. Ken was featured in The Plague Court Murders, The Unicorn Murders, The Punch and Judy Murders, and The Judas Window – plus he earned a passing mention in Death in Five Boxes. Carr’s point of view characters are for the most part interchangeable, and so this is mostly interesting trivia.
I love both editions of the book that I have – a 1964 Berkley Medallion and a 1988 IPL edition. I have the complete set of that Berkley vintage and I’m a fan of the cover art style that was used (The Peacock Feather Murders may be my favorite). I ended up reading the IPL edition because the printing is much easier on the eyes. The IPL’s can be tricky to get hold of at a good price – the only other one I own is The Judas Window – but they all feature great artwork.