Monday, June 11, 2012

The White Priory Murders

Hollywood star Marcia Tait wants to pay the British producers back who did not believe in her talent back then, so she plans on playing the lead in a play of the Bohun brothers. One night, while she stays in their 17th-century pavilion on their property, she is beaten to death and only the footprints of the man who discovered the corpse are found outside in unbroken snow. However Marcia clearly was murdered before it stopped snowing that night. James Bennett, another guest of the Bohuns, calls Inspector Masters and his uncle Sir Henry Merrivale to solve this impossible situation.

Following the first Merrivale novel The Plague Court Murders, this features another one of Carr's classic tricks that in its basic points got modified by both other writers and Carr himself, the latter most obviously in She Died A Lady, which is an overall better novel both due to its plot and trick. He wrote that one almost a decade later so I don't really want to compare them too extensively, but then again it does make for a useful thread through a review.

First off a rather subjective remark though which kind of drifts into spoiler territory concerning the solutions (mark to read): In both novels the solution actually isn't a trick worked out by the murderer to create that seemingly impossible situation by himself. There are several factors both stemming from the culprit, the victim(s) and other characters that constitute the absence of footprints. If I recall correctly Nikaidou Reito also created his murders without footprints like that. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (even though I would like to see a different case), as long as you can figure out these certain aspects for yourself with sufficient clues. She Died A Lady achieved exactly that while the novel discussed here... I'm not entirely sure what to think. There even is a clue that's so inconspicuous it needs a page reference during H.M.'s explanation at the end and the other hints were so arbitrary I wouldn't exactly call their interpretation logical. I wouldn't say the explanation is not deducible, but there is a difference between this and Queen-ish fair play. And it's not like Carr isn't capable of the same. The whodunnit in She Died A Lady actually is a perfect example for that as nobody else could have been the culprit. So all in all the mystery is enjoyable and the solution does not involve a (mechanical) gimmick and is not contrived in any way. The explanation feels very natural and imaginable. It's just the clues and hints that are definitely there but kind of a mixed bag.

Other than that, even though the tone is fundamentally different to The Plague Court Murders, I had a similar problem concerning my personal enthusiasm while reading. Plague featured an eerie setting and the murder happened rather late. Priory's murder happens a bit earlier, but Carr's trademark atmosphere is almost completely absent. Generally speaking I don't mind the latter, but in both books I kind of lost interest as soon as H.M. showed up. And it's not because of his character, but because I simply thought it's way too late into the story where I didn't really care anymore and just wanted to know how it was done. Priory has false solutions and dialogue that keeps you interested, so this might compensate for the lack of atmosphere or interesting setting, but apart from that I enjoyed both books in a comparable manner. Meaning: Definitely not my favorites and I figure I just prefer Carr in the 40s.

I can recommend this as a classic of the no-footprints-variety of impossible crimes, but in general this might not be everyone's piece of cake, just as it wasn't mine compared to other Carr novels I've read recently.

I should read more Queen before leaving the country and my (English) books behind for a year, but thanks to Kagi no kakatta heya (which I'll review once it finished airing) I'm in the mood for locked rooms. As for Carr, I'm rather indecisive concerning what to read next, so I might as well start with some Herbert Resnicow since I can't think of many remaining (full-length) Japanese novels featuring locked rooms I purchased in the past and want to read desperately except one by Arisugawa Alice (ignoring Nikaidou's bricks and Shimada Souji's debut novel which I apparently got spoiled by Kindaichi Shounen...).


  1. Your assessment of this book is a fair one and thought this was a competent effort myself. Your explanation (in the spoiler) of the no-footprints trick is what I liked most about this book, and it's one of my favorite sorts of impossible tricks. It's very a believable type, but you need a good plotter to pull it off convincingly (see also the novella "The Third Bullet," collected in the mini-anthology Locked Room Puzzles, which also has excellent stories by Pronzini, Hoch and Rawson's masterpiece).

    The early H.M. titles (The [XXX] Murders) are a mixed bag: The Unicorn Murders and The Punch and Judy Murders are perhaps the best of the lot. The former is a grand detective story with spy-thriller elements creeping in the background and has everything, from people being gored to death in plain sight by an invisible unicorn to a fabulous rival detective and a master criminal in the tradition of Lupin and Flambeau, while the former is a funny madcap chase mystery with an excellent plot.

    The Peacock Feather Murders is always praised as one of his best locked room mysteries, but I have to disagree as it relies the actions of an incredibly dense character. The Red Widow Murders is an excellent take on the cursed room that kills, but I remember the solution having one or two problems (its been a few years). Well, you know my opinion of The Plague Court Murders and the one you discussed here.

    Oh, and I approve of your choice of which locked room specialist to put on the top of your list. I guess you're going to tackle The Dead Room first?

    1. I do like this kind of trick as well, but as you also mentioned it needs good plotting and graspable clues so the reader can reconstruct what actually happened for himself. She Died A Lady did an awesome job at that.

      I randomly dropped Peacock after the murder happened and knowing that many readers criticize the likeliness of the murder method to actually succeed, I'm not that eager to pick up the book again right now. Red Widow and The Third Bullet and other stories (except Goblin Wood) are also waiting to be read.

      Unfortunately I still don't have a copy of The Dead Room, but I have the first two novels of the Gold Series and already started reading The Gold Solution and hope to read both of them consecutively, knowing how fond you are of The Gold Deadline and being interested in the setting myself ;)

  2. I'm very fond of The Gold Deadline, which I loved for its sheer originality, but remember, it has a knotty and complex solution for its impossible situation. Resnicow adequately motivates why the murderer went through a lot of trouble in order to create the locked room illusion, but don’t expect something as simple as The Judas Window.

    The Gold Solution was a good read, especially the background of the victim and how he became a world renowned architect (almost charmingly cynical), but the main concern of the novel is to establish the series characters – and the locked room is basically is an updated version of an old trick. But you should judge that for yourself.

    Hopefully, you will be able to find a copy of The Dead Room.