The Phases of Carr – First Period Merrivale

The Judas Window.  The White Priory Murders.  The Ten Teacups. The Red Widow Murders.  Nine, and Death Makes Ten.  Five heavy hitters that trump the best of most any other mystery writer’s library.  John Dickson Carr published these all in his first decade, and the one hand tied behind his back is that these are just a selection of the Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries from the time period; I’m not even looking at the equally (if not more) revered Dr Gideon Fell series.  Carr had a career that spanned five decades (granted most output came during the first three), but it’s the 30s where he’s swinging fast and landing his punches.  While his alternate detective Dr Gideon Fell will always remain my favorite, I hold that Carr’s best streak came in the first stretch of eleven Henry Merivale mysteries that constitute the era we’ll cover here.

Carr opened his career with four Henri Bencolin novels before releasing two standalone mysteries: Poison in Jest and The Bowstring Murders.  That brief exploration forked into the Fell and Merrivale series, with two Fell novels being released in 1933 before introducing Sir Henry Merivale in 1934.  After that, both series took off like rockets, with Carr releasing two books from each in most years up until 1941.  At that point, the pace slowed a bit, but we’re still talking a novel per year in each series for the most part.

This first era of Merrivale is what I’d consider to be Carr’s strongest overall, and I’ll explain why I consider it to be an era in a minute.  First, let’s establish which books I’m talking about.  It’s a straight forward run from the first Merrivale novel – The Plague Court Murders (1934) – through 1940 with Nine, and Death Makes Ten.

The Plague Court Murders (1934)

The White Priory Murders (1934)

The Red Widow Murders (1935)

The Unicorn Murders (1935)

The Punch and Judy Murders (1936)

The Ten Teacups (1937)

The Judas Window (1938)

Death in Five Boxes (1938)

The Reader is Warned (1939)

And So to Murder (1940)

Nine, and Death Makes Ten (1940)

So what makes this a distinct era in Carr’s writing?  I’m going to have to break that into a few parts:

1.  The distinction between the Merrivale and Fell novels of the time.

2.  The distinction between these initial Merrivale books and what I consider to be Second Period Merrivale.

You’re more than welcome to consider me lazy for splitting Merrivale and Fell into two separate phases.  Carr released 12 Fell novels between 1933 and 1940 vs 11 Merrivale novels, and so he’s basically equal in output between them.  Read a random sampling of these books and you might say that we’re dealing with the same type of story with a mostly interchangeable detective.  If you look closer at the full body of work though, I think you’ll see there are broader distinctions.

The Merrivale novels that I’m covering here lean hard into impossible crimes.  Locked rooms, no footprint problems… locked rooms combined with no footprint problems.  Ok, there’s more to it than that – death by invisible assailant, a man killed 30 minutes before he could have possibly died, murder by telepathy.  Carr’s getting creative, and it seems like with each book he’s trying to challenge himself with a new angle on the impossible crime.  Let’s take a look:

The Plague Court Murders – a man stabbed to death in a locked hut surrounded by an untouched field of mud

The White Priory Murders –  the quintessential no footprints murder – an expanse of pristine snow surrounds a small house where a woman has been bludgeoned to death

The Red Widow Murders – a locked room murder echoes a pattern of death that stretches back centuries

The Unicorn Murders – a man stabbed by an invisible force in front of a group of witnesses

The Ten Teacups – a shooting in a locked room despite a policeman posted directly outside the only entrance

The Judas Window – the quintessential locked room murder

Death in Five Boxes – a man is poisoned, but nobody had a chance to poison him

The Reader is Warned – murder by telepathy, with the killer repeatedly announcing the victim and time of death, despite being nowhere near the crime scenes

Nine, and Death Makes Ten – a fingerprint left at a crime scene doesn’t match anyone on board the inaccessible ship

That’s all and good you say, but Carr was equally pumping out impossible crimes with Dr Fell during this same period.  Was he though?  Take a good look, and I think you might find that only The Hollow Man and The Problem of the Wire Cage actually fit the bill in terms of featuring air tight impossible crimes.  The first phase of Fell books focus more on inexplicable crime scenes where things simply don’t make a lick of sense, plus a second pattern that’s best not divulged until you’ve read them all.  It isn’t until The Problem of the Wire Cage in 1939 that the fulcrum tilts towards impossible crimes in what I’ll explore as the second phase of Fell in another post.

You may not have thought of it until now, but this first phase of Merrivale novels is the embodiment of Carr’s reputation when it comes to impossible crimes.  Yes, throw in The Hollow Man.  Throw in his first novel It Walks By Night.  Throw in The Burning Court (non-series), The Case of the Constant Suicides (second phase Fell), He Who Whispers (second phase Fell), She Died a Lady (second phase Merrivale), and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (second phase Merrivale).  This six year run of Merrivale stories from 1934-1940 is the meat and potatoes that really establishes the impression of the maestro of impossible crime.  Out of roughly sixteen stories where Carr goes all in on writing an impossible crime centric novel, half of them come from this first run of Merrivale novels.

As always, there are some exceptions to the rule.  The Punch and Judy Murders (1935), Death in Five Boxes (1938), and And So to Murder (1940) fall more into the “inexplicable crime” category rather than qualifying as true impossible crimes.  Death in Five Boxes in particular feel much more like it belongs to the Fell camp that’s going on at the same time, with a crime scene scattered with such nonsensical evidence that it feels more at home with The Eight of Swords (Fell – 1934), The Arabian Nights Murder (Fell – 1936), To Wake the Dead (Fell – 1938), or the late Bencolin standalone The Four False Weapons (1937).

The Punch and Judy Murders is a bit of anomaly regardless of where you try to fit it.  It finds Carr writing a successful situational comedy, with a sense of humor only matched in glimpses during The Arabian Nights Murder and The Case of the Constant Suicides.  Because honestly, come 1941 (not coincidentally after this phase), Carr’s humor wasn’t that great.

That brings us to the dividing line between what I see as two phases of Merrivale.  Carr went on to write 11 more Merrivale novels, splitting the detective’s output neatly in half.  I didn’t draw this line though based on the number of books, and this coincidence is just dawning on me now as we do the math.  The true split between eras is because there are two shifts that take place around 1940: the use of slapstick humor and the prominence of impossible crimes in the plots.

While Carr featured humor in a number of his earlier stories, it was mostly situational humor that in my mind worked well.  The latter Merrivale novels shift towards slapstick, with the focus being on Merrivale doing outrageous things (riding a suitcase with wheels through town and giving children cigars) or being the target of a physical calamity (nearly riding an out of control wheelchair off a cliff).

As slapstick humor becomes more and more the staple of Merrivale novels, the overall atmosphere also lightens.  The first era Merrivales weren’t all dark, but you have hair raising moments and threads of horror in the likes of The Plague Murders, The Red Widow Murders, and Nine, and Death Makes Ten.  The latter Merrivale novels were much lighter fair, with only The Skeleton in the Clock sending a chill down the spine (although perhaps Night at the Mocking Widow tried).

The other shift in the Merrivale stories is that the mysteries drift away from impossible crimes, or, if impossibilities are present, they aren’t nearly as prominent in the story.  She Died a Lady and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience definitely fit the heavy central impossible crime focus of the first Merrivale era, but they’re really the exceptions.  Seeing is Believing, The Gilded Man, My Late Wives: these are much more the norm.  While aspects of the crimes can’t easily be explained (The Skeleton in the Clock or The Curse of the Bronze Lamp), they are hardly impossible.

That isn’t to say that impossible crimes don’t figure at all in the later works, but they’re more side puzzles than central to the story.  Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) features a really nice impossibility, but it feels more intended for a short story, and the puzzle barely gets a dozen pages of focus.  The Cavalier’s Cup (1953) also features a minor impossibility, although it’s nothing special and gets lost in the sea of slapstick humor that makes up the rest of the novel.

The difference between the two eras of Merrivale novels is stark in my mind, although where to draw the line is a bit fuzzy.  You could argue that And So To Murder (1940) is the real start in the drift of story focus, feeling much more a brethren to The Gilded Man or Seeing is Believing.  Nine, and Death Makes Ten though stands out to me as distinctly first period (for the impossibility as well as heavy atmosphere), and it came out several months after And So to Murder, and so I draw the line there.  I mean, it’s not like these are hard rules or anything.

First period Merrivale though – this is where the stories are at.  If you were to limit yourself to only five Carr stories, this is where you should be putting your attention.  Sacrilege perhaps, but for the experienced Carr reader, really mull that over.  My follow on choice would be one of the first two periods of Dr Fell, which I’ll be covering in the not too distant future.

7 thoughts on “The Phases of Carr – First Period Merrivale”

  1. I think of Fell vs. Merrivale as more of a yin/yang than that they are “interchangeable”, & that HM is the more developed character of the two. He took on a ‘life of his own’ in his author’s mind in a way that Fell never did &, because of this the ever-percolating, plot-devising brilliance of JDC gave HM a wide berth before, with reluctance, released him into the aether. The tension between HM & Masters is sublime throughout the serìes &, after reading hundreds of other works of detective fiction & immersing myself in Carr rather recently, I’d contend that HM is the greatest creation of a great author. So let them continue floundering about with Poirot, & Holmes on screen. All rather tiresome when you know that there is this behemoth waiting in the wings.


    1. Ah, well the user name suddenly makes sense.

      I’ve always been a partial to Fell, although Carr never really did much to advance him as a character. In fact, he tends to repeat the same descriptions of him over and over. Merrivale did mature more as a character, although I’m personally not that big on the last quarter of his career.


      1. ‘The Cavalier’s Cup’ is a real hack-job, probably to fulfill a contract. Yet, it’s not as dismal as ‘In Spite Of Thunder’. Perhaps he just had a better deal under his own name, & thus continued with Fell? Even in the penultimate H.M. we read fantastic character development. He kills a criminal & we’re told that he has done so in the past. What a hook! Compare that with Fell who just remained a Presence.


        1. The final Merrivale novels are all brisk reads, and it’s really only The Cavalier’s Cup that has nothing redeeming about it. The final Fell novels are absolute marathons to make it through, which is unfortunate, because with the exception of The Dead Man’s Knock and In Spite of Thunder, they have some really good ideas at the core.


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