I previously covered what I consider to be the first period of John Dickson Carr’s Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries. These novels, published from 1934-1940 lean hard into impossible crimes, which distinguishes them from Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell novels from the time. The focus on impossible crimes is also a dividing factor between the first two periods of the Merrivale novels, and we’ll cover the second period here.
Carr published 22 Merrivale novels over a 19 year span, beginning with The Plague Court Murders in 1934 and finishing with The Cavalier’s Cup in 1953. My split between the era’s of the Merrivale novels takes place in 1940, which coincidentally divides these into two equal groups of 11. The latter 11 novels differ from the first 11 in terms of the focus on impossible crimes, as well as the role of humor in the novels. The first 11 novels are all about the impossible crime (with a few exceptions already covered), whereas impossibilities play a middling role in this second half. The novels also take a step down in quality. Before getting into that, let’s first take a look at the books that make up this second phase.
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944)
The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945)
The Skeleton in the Clock (1948)
Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)
Behind the Crimson Blind (1952)
You’ll immediately point out that She Died a Lady (1943) and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) are unquestionably impossible crimes, and yeah, they’re the exceptions here. You may also question my comment about the quality waning when those two same books (She Died a Lady in particular) are staples of Best of Carr lists. Carr was writing some of his best work at this time – see Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946), both Fell novels – but the rest of the books in this Merrivale stretch were a bit of a decline.
Seeing is Believing (1941) is an innocent start to it all, with a set up that’s about as good as Carr ever delivered: a woman under hypnosis is instructed to stab her husband with a fake rubber knife in an attempt to prove that people still have free will while hypnotized. The problem is that the knife turns out to be real. As a premise it’s up there with anything that Carr wrote, although the GAD nerd in me will point out that although none of the witnesses saw the knife get swapped, a slight of hand is so obviously a solution that only the most forgiving of souls would so much mention “impossible crime” in passing. Of course, this is Carr, and he’s not going to conclude things with a mere knife up the sleeve trick, but the real solution is so absolutely bonkers that it feels like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It’s quite possibly Carr’s weakest solution in the first two decades of his career and hence I see it as the beginning of the slide. Otherwise it’s a solid book.
The Gilded Man (1942) follows with a nice brisk crime story involving the attempted theft of a painting. It’s a great read, and it’s more than better than most GAD you’ll encounter, but in blurb form there’s nothing much more to say than “a crime story involving the attempted theft of a painting”. For the maestro of impossible crimes that may be a bit of a let down, but it’s fun, quick, and Merrivale has a great presence. It does start the theme of Merrivale being the target of physical humor – in this case a scene that made me laugh out loud – but that focus would snowball (please tell me you get the reference) into painful slapstick territory in later novels.
Speaking of which, we have She Died a Lady (1943). Yes, it’s a top impossible crime somewhat in the “no footprints” vein, and yes, it delivers a haunting ending that’s about as memorable as Carr ever wrote. And yet it also features a furious Merrivale in a runaway wheelchair heading towards a cliff, and that bit always stands out to me as completely unnecessary. Carr had excellent humor in several earlier novels (The Case of the Constant Suicides, The Punch and Judy Murders, The Arabian Nights Murder), but this later slapstick stuff just doesn’t make me laugh.
Plus, when we get to the solution to the impossible crime, there’s a bit of information that we receive that doesn’t make it feel so impossible in retrospect. An excellent ending to the novel, but not on account of that aspect of the solution. Lump that together with the previous two novels and you can see that the focus on an airtight impossibility is starting to fade.
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) blows that last statement out of water, with a belter of an impossible crime in terms of both presentation and solution. A man is found dead from gas poisoning, and given that the door and windows of his study were sealed from the inside with tape, we’re in fully hermetically sealed room territory. Carr delivers a completely unique solution to it all, and so this delivers on the impossibility on all fronts. As for the humor, things continue on in the lighthearted vein with Merrivale involved in some antics in the reptile house of a zoo.
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is really the final focused air tight impossible crime novel of the Merrivale novels, as we’ll see as we explore the rest of the books. The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945) is up next, and opens with a scene of Merrivale causing a ruckus in Egypt, and not of the funny kind. The rest of the novel takes place in England, and focuses on the disappearance of a woman who walked into a mansion and then seemingly vanished. Carr treats the disappearance as if it is an impossibility, but honestly, just because noone saw you leave a massive mansion doesn’t mean you didn’t just sneak out at some point. The solution is fine, but would work better in a short story.
My Late Wives 1946) follows and similar to The Gilded Man doesn’t even come close to masquerading as an impossible crime. Instead we get an interesting story about a man who married a series of women and killed them all before vanishing for good. Ten years later a play manuscript comes along that replicates the circumstances of the murders and includes details that the police have kept from the public. The characters play up the fact that none of the victim’s bodies were ever found as being impossible, but really, they could have just been dumped down a well or buried in a field.
Now please, don’t think that I’m bashing on Carr because he released some books that weren’t impossible crimes. I’m really just highlighting the distinction between this second period of Merrivale novels and the impossible crime laden stories that came before them: books like The Judas Window, The White Priory Murders, The Red Widow Murders. The books your mind goes to when you think of Carr and impossible crime (well, there’s the Fell stories too obviously – but that’s for another post). Carr gives us some great mysteries with this second era, yet while some character inevitably makes some claim of something being impossible, these are more akin to “typical” mysteries, save for Carr’s showmanship.
The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is almost a swing back to the old days: a man pushed off a roof top by an invisible force in front of a broad field of onlookers. There are also some chilling scenes as characters spend the night in a supposedly haunted abandoned prison, and this is the one book I’m covering here that probably feels closest to the first run of Merrivale stories. It’s thrown off in the end in that the solution to the impossible crime frustrates, but it’s still possibly the last great Merrivale novel.
That’s not to say that A Graveyard to Let (1949) isn’t solid. It’s a fun read featuring a man jumping into a swimming pool and never emerging, which definitely falls into impossible crime territory, although the solution may have you squinting. The Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) follows with a surprisingly excellent impossibility, but it’s tucked into the end of the story and given little focus. Carr would follow this “downplayed impossibility” pattern for much of the rest of his career, focusing his stories (in particular the historical mysteries) on some series of capers and dust ups, with some token impossibility receiving a passing glance.
Night at the Mocking Widow is also the tipping point where Carr starts to go full slapstick. Yeah, it’s been present in the last seven novels, but now the stories seem to focus more on Merrivale doing increasingly absurd things and getting into trouble. The mysteries are definitely still there, but the pages are padded by Merrivale’s antics. Behind the Crimson Blind (1952) plays it straight for the first half of the story before spiraling into some grimace inspiring scenes, and The Cavalier’s Cup (1952) is a miserable attempt at physical comedy with maybe seven pages worth reading. It’s an unfortunate conclusion for the once great detective, who never returned again in novel form. He did pop back up in the 1956 novelette The Man Who Explained Miracles (aka All in a Maze), but I’m saving that for a rainy day and haven’t read it yet, although I’ve heard good things.
So there’s the downplayed/weak impossible crimes, the slapstick humor, and a slide in quality. That’s what distinguishes these Merrivale novels from the first phase. The slide in quality is gradual – the 1941-1949 books are still great reads and in another’s author’s catalog they might be top work. The real fall off is in the last three novels.
So how does that compare to what was going on at the same time with Carr’s other detective, Gideon Fell? Mmm, that’s an interesting contrast. I’ll cover this deeper in another post, but the Fell novels actually peak between 1938 (The Crooked Hinge) and 1946 (He Who Whispers). While there’s a two year overlap with the first Merrivale era, that peak almost entirely overlaps with the books that we’re covering here. The Sleeping Sphinx (1947 – straddling My Late Wives and The Skeleton in the Clock) is the comparative weak one of the bunch, and it matches what you’d expect from these late Merrivale novels: an intriguing plot setup doesn’t quite play out to its potential, and an impossibility is present but sort of as an afterthought.
Fell’s final second period novel, Below Suspicion (1949), fares much better. It’s a solid novel throughout, although suffers from some campiness when it comes to the reveal of the villain. But hey, The Reader is Warned did too! Book for book, the second era of Fell wins out handily over these Merrivale stories. And yet, there was a third and final era of Fell that Merrivale never suffered through. A reduced caricature of a detective dropped into mysteries that could have been something great if only the plots weren’t jumbled up in so much meandering and theatrics. And yet even at their worst I’d take them over The Cavalier’s Cup.
So what do you think? Does splitting the Merrivale novels into these halves based on the criteria I cover resonate with you? Do you agree that the Merrivale novels stand out as starkly different from the Fell novels when you look at the larger patterns?
7 thoughts on “The Phases of Carr – Second Period Merrivale”
Hmm. I haven’t read enough of this lot to make a more general comment. I do think there are flashes of those horror elements in the ones I’ve read though – some very atmospheric moments in He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. My Late Wives was an early Carr read for me and I remember liking it a fair bit, weirdly. That also has its horror tinged moments.
I’ll be interested to read what you have to say about early Fell. The more early Fell I’ve read, the more interesting/infuriating I find him as a character. Those appearances certainly seem distinct from his later ones. I might hold back from saying when I think the transition point is, cause you’ll come to your own conclusions, but there seems to be a clear point to me.
I’ll let the cat out of the bag and let you know that I see The Crooked Hinge as the transition point in between two distinct periods of the Fell novels that run from Hag’s Nook through Below Suspicion. Similar to the Merrivale novels, I see specific patterns on both sides of the line although the Fell ones are different – the nature of the puzzle, and the nature of the solution.
As for Fell himself, I think it’s Death Watch where Carr really unfurls him as a character.
I recently decided to finally try John Dickson Carr (no idea what took me so long) and I was at a bit of loss as to where to begin. Your comprehensive lists and reviews have been very helpful. I’ve read Till Death Do Us Part and have purchased The Judas Window. Do I interpret you correctly that the Gideon Fell books before The Crooked Hinge are inferior to his middle group? I understand the late Fell books are not highly regarded.
I’m still considering Henri Bencolin as all of them are available on Kindle. Unfortunately The Problem of the Green Capsule/The Black Spectacles isn’t currently available in that format.
Congrats on starting with Carr – you’re where I was six or seven years ago, and yeah, he has a large library. The entire thing that inspired this site was trying to get a handle on which books to read, and at that time I found lists by various bloggers to be incredibly helpful. So I’m glad to hear it’s come full circle.
Regarding the Fell question – if I had to pick my favorite 10 Fell novels, four of them come from before The Crooked Hinge, and so no, I don’t regard the earlier Fells as inferior. It’s that the mysteries are of a different nature, and now that I think about it, I may have to push my dividing line a bit further. Where I see the divide – and darn it, I’m divulging the direction of my future posts – is that the first run of Fell novels don’t actually focus on impossible crimes (The Hollow Man being an obvious exception). Instead, they focus on bizarre crime scenes where the clues don’t make a lick of sense. The Fell novels later shifted to focus primarily on impossible crimes, whereas previously that had been the domain of Merrivale.
There’s another pattern to the earlier Fell stories (with exceptions obviously) which concerns the nature of the solution, but I feel like it’s somewhat spoilerish (read on, I’m not going to say what it is). It took me quite a few books to realize there was a pattern, and I don’t think I would have spotted it with just a handful of the stories under my belt.
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I’m pleased to see such warm praise for the likes of The Gilded Man and The Skeleton in the Clock; Carr wrote so many accepted classics that we tend to neglect how damn great some of his second tier stuff really is. Given that I’ve read these titles more recently than the ones in your first post, I feel the merits of recognising that quality when it exists — even if, as you say, the plot of TGM does sound completely uninspiring.
I have Crimson Blind and Cavalier’s Cup still to come, and I’m tempted to reread more of Carr’s highlights before venturing too far down that rabbit hole. The British Library have a reissue of He Who Whispers coming out later this year, and American Mystery Classics have just put out Th Red Widow Murders..so there’s plenty of chance to sprinkle some genuine brilliance amidst the slow decline of one of the genre’s great sleuths.
Given all of the hate it gets, I was pleasantly surprised by Behind the Crimson Blind. It’s pretty different from any of Carr’s other novels, and although it isn’t as good as most of the other books in this list, it isn’t bad. The wheels do come off a bit.
The Gilded Man and The Skeleton in the Clock are really strong books, and if you remove the expectation of Carr as the master of impossible crimes, they’re top tier. My only frustration with The Skeleton in the Clock was that I wanted a different type of solution than I got, but that’s my fault as the reader. Release that book under a different author’s name and I’d be raving about it.
Throw My Late Wives in their while we’re at it. While not quite as good as those other two, it’s a great plot.
I think if you scrub out any idea that there’s an impossibility — as you rightly say, there’s a very easy fix for a vanishing body — My Late Wives is a very, very good book indeed. Anyone else writes it, it’s a contender for Best of the Genre lists.