The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson (1934)

‘I want you to go with me, tonight, to a certain house in London; to tell me whether you see or hear; and, if you do, whether you can explain it on natural grounds.” 

And when Ken Blake is approached by Dean Halliday with that request he jumps at the chance. Plague Court, is a derelict London property held by the Halliday’s, has a dark history of death. When they arrive, accompanied by Detective-Inspector Masters, they are startled to find the house already occupied. Halliday’s aunt, Lady Benning, his fiancée Marion Latimer, her brother Ted, and family friend Major Featherton have come to hold a vigil. Devotees of psychic Roger Darworth, they have brought him to Plague Court to exorcist the house of its ghosts. Before the night is over there is bloody murder as Darworth is brutally killed, alone in a small house on the grounds.  Its walls are made of solid stone, the window unreachable from the ground, fitted with iron gratings, the door padlocked on the outside and bolted on the inside. Knowing that this was not the work of ghosts, but unable to explain how the murder could have been committed, they apply to Sir Henry Merrivale or help.

Am I the only person in the world who was underwhelmed by Plague Court? Okay, maybe underwhelmed is too strong of a word, because it is really a great book. But, it felt like a book of two halves. The first half felt uneven and erratic…the cadence just felt off. There were too many moving parts, and the narrative had a disjointed feeling that was distracting. It read like any other mystery, by any other good writer, and it wasn’t until Merrivale steps onto the stage that I found myself really pulled in. 

But there are great things to be found in that first half. The ghost story quality that Dickson generates is remarkable. With imaginative passages, he is able to construct an intense atmosphere which is full of darkness and decay. Like the damp and fog, it bleeds into everything, and is unescapable.

…there seemed such an absolute hush in the desolation of the house before us. Something seemed to be impelling us to move faster; to get inside those high brick walls; something drawing us on and playing with us. The house—or what I could see of it—was made of heavy, whitish stones, now blackened with weather. It had almost a senile appearance, as of a brain gone, but its heavy cornices were carven with horrible gayety in Cupids and roses and grapes: a wreath on the head of an idiot.”

And while Dickson can never be accused of remarkable work regarding his characterizations, his caricatures are fabulous. Most notably here in the forms of the reptilian Lady Benning, with her cold malevolence—

…the small face, which suggested wax flowers, was unwrinkled except around the eyes, and it was highly painted. The eyes were gentle—and hard…her jeweled hands, lying limply along the arms of the chair, were twisting and upturning as though to begin a gesture.”

And the bumptious Major Featherton, the very image of a Regency fop gone to seed—

The paunchy figure tilted slightly backwards. From the brief glimpse I had had of him, of the map-veined cheeks and cadaverous eyes, I could fill out the bigness of an outworn buck and gallant of the eighties, tightened into his evening clothes like a corset.”

So once H.M. picks up the baton, he just runs away with it. All the little hints that Dickson dropped in at the time of the murder are slowly teased out by Merrivale as he goes over the evidence, prodding Masters (and the reader) to think harder about the facts. Oh, and the solution to the locked room murder itself, is so fabulous and imaginative, never even entered my mind. My solution originated in a mechanism that was found at the scene, putting me in mind of a certain honkaku work which I read earlier this year, but I was way off base. And I thought I had the murderer tagged too. But while I was close…I was of course wrong. This will be a hard one, even for the most avid of readers to figure before the reveal.

OK, so looks like I enjoyed this more than I thought. I think the quibble I really have is with Masters whose character just didn’t tweak my interest in the slightest. So, I’m just glad that Carr went with H.M. as his detective and not Masters.  A great impenetrable locked room murder nestled very neatly inside a first-rate ghost story. 

Prior Rulings – Ben @ The Green Capsule, Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery Blog, Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2015 Bingo—Read one book with a place in the title

16 thoughts on “The Plague Court Murders by Carter Dickson (1934)

  1. I think there’s an element of reputation that comes along with this — it’s commonly (and rightly, in my opinion) held as an excellent example of what Carr did best, and it’s difficult to pick up (especially as a GAD blogger!) without being told how gosh-darned wonderful and mind-blowing it is…and so, inevitably, it will disappoint just a little.

    Hopefully that didn’t mar your enjoyment too greatly, and hopefully you’ll stumble across a Carr that most people seem to think is mid-tier and have your mind blown most unexpectedly (Ben’s reviews @ The Green Capsule are always good value for this, where his reaction can at times be wildly out of step with what he believed the common consensus to be).

    And, yes, Masters is a dull egg I much prefer Hadley,

    1. I just remember reading Hag’sNook (my first Fell) and falling in love with the prose, the atmosphere, the story, everything—so I guess I was looking for a recreation of that experience. But then I did like Bronze Lamp, so I guess my taste is questionable 😜.

      1. Yeah, it’s an excellent point — the first Bencolin and Fell novels do have a density of prose and purpose that this doesn’t quite match. But then, Carr was a more experienced writer when he wrote Plague Court, and for my money it’s much more indicative of his later work — the layers, the ingenuity. the subtle unease.

        I’d suggest that The White Priory Murders, H.M.’s second case which for me felt like a step backwards, is closer to Bencolin in tone and execution. Maybe that’s more what you’re looking for, eh? Can’t love ’em all!

      2. Just you wait – the next two are outstanding. I second JJ’s recommendation for The White Priory Murders – it would be the best thing Carr ever wrote if not for all of the scenes where a character is about to explain something, only to get interrupted. But in terms of atmosphere and story – just wait for The Red Widow Murders (or as JJ calls it, The Red Window Murders).

      3. White Priory is my next read—and I’ll definitely be letting you all know how that goes. JJ and I seem to have the same problem with Carr titles…I’m forever saying The Judas Widow Murders (instead of Window).

      4. Hey, hey, hey, not putting The Plague Court Murders in your top ten Carrs is one thing; but libel is quite another, my good sir… 😄

    1. I mean…this might be the most controversial thing ever written on the internet. Plague Court isn’t close to Carr’s best? You’re clearly overwrought after all that writing, James; maybe have a lie down before you embarrass yourself further 😄

      1. I think I can put at least 10 books ahead of it, and I’ve still got a lot of Carr to go. I like it,; it’s great. But it’s not near the heights. But then again, I’m an It-Walks-By-Night devotee.

      2. JFW

        Tsk, JJ… I’m with James on this one. In fact, I think I can put more than 15 ahead of ‘Plague’!

  2. JFW

    Thanks for the review… This was either my first or second title I read from Carr, when I began putting out some feelers into the wider GA mystery tradition, having read and re-read most of Christie’s novels.

    And I confess I didn’t like it much. I think I came in with the wrong expectations, and found the dramatics of the story akin to a cat scratching on a linoleum floor 😼. The puzzle I thought was good – if somewhat far-fetched 🤔 – and the culprit was deviously well-hidden 😱.

    It seems like most reviewers/readers speak very well of this title. So I acknowledge I’m in the minority, with James and, I think, Moira, for company…

    1. JFW

      “But while I was close…I was of course wrong. This will be a hard one, even for the most avid of readers to figure before the reveal.”

      Curious to hear how you were close yet wrong? 🤓

  3. I too see this book as unbalanced, but apparently for different reasons than you. I personally love every minute inside the house. The atmosphere is absolutely suffocating and there’s a fantastic sense of dread. I wish Carr had kept the entire book there, because once the characters leave the house, there’s a total shift in tone, as if daylight breaks (well, I suppose it did). Granted, you get that great scene where you finally encounter Merrivale (which probably has more impact if you’ve already read a bunch of his books). I love the ending of the book though. The final scene between two of the characters – wow.

    I’m guessing that now that you’ve gone through the Dr Fell books, you’re starting the process of tackling Merrivale. Talk about being jealous. Book for book, I think that Carr’s run of 1930s Merrivale stories is the best thing he did.

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