Friday, 29 March 2013

Forgotten Book - The White Priory Murders

Today's Forgotten Book, The White Priory Murders, first published in 1935, is an "impossible crime" mystery with a splendid basic premise. A famous actress's battered corpse is found in a country house pavilion, surrounded by snow that is unmarked by footprints, except for those of the man who, it seems, has found her body there. It's classic John Dickson Carr territory - or perhaps I should say classic Carter Dickson territory, for this and other stories with the same sleuth were published under that rather transparent alias.

More than one possible solution to that central puzzle is put forward, and it was characteristic of Carr's ingenuity that he excelled at coming up with multiple explanations for the cunning puzzles he devised. And it's that fascinating puzzle that constitutes the appeal of this book, for in some respects it's not (to my mind, anyway) anything like as good as his best work.

There are three reasons why this one seems to me to fall below Carr's highest standards. First, too much of the vital action is off-stage. One of the characters, the newspaper baron Lord Canifest, plays an important part in the plot,but I don't think we see enough of him, or of certain key incidents. Second, Sir Henry Merrivale, the usual Carter Dickson sleuth, is a rather cruder version of Gideon Fell, who stars in most of the best Carr books. Some Carr fans prefer Merrivale, because of the comedy in the books in which he appears, but for me,comic writing was far from Carr's greatest strength. His humour lacks the subtlety of his best plots..

Finally, what I love about the best Carr books is their macabre atmosphere. He is very good at making us suspend our disbelief, and he often does so by wrapping up the events of his story in a rich and sometimes dark blanket, that conceals some of the implausibilities of the story. Here, I found the characters and setting less gripping than those in his better books. So, not one of his best, but still worth a look because of the cleverness of the central problem.

1 comment:

Sextonblake said...

Agree with you on a lot of the stuff here, although I must defend Merrivale a bit. I like Carr's comic writing rather more than you do, although I do think that it's something of an acquired taste.

I also found that it did not grip me, despite a number of clever plot ideas. This does suggest that enjoyment of Carr does rely on more than an appreciation of clever plotting, as some critics have claimed. In the best Carr novels (such as HE WHO WHISPERS) the characters, mood and plot all come together to make it memorable.