Reprint of the Year 2021: The Plague Court Murders (1935) by John Dickson Carr

First things first, some of you may be thinking “but this is a Carter Dickson book”, and you’d be right, but if you are going to try to attract new people to the genre it makes no sense to say “if you like John Dickson Carr you may also like Carter Dickson – why’s that then? – well because they’re actually the same person”.  There may sometimes be good reasons to keep a known pseudonym going e.g. when a writer uses them for different genres, but given Carter Dickson was hardly the most secretive alias in the first place, it does seem pointless to try to keep it going.  Anyway, onto the mystery itself.

“What kind of hell-bound thing is it that can walk out a front door, round through a muddy yard without leaving footprints; can kill a man in a stone jug of a house and return here by the back door, and pass through candlelight without being seen?”

Narrator Ken Blake is asked by his friend Dean Halliday to spend the night at a haunted house and if possible to  bring a friend who knows about mediumistic chicanery. So Ken invites Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters, noted debunker of the supernatural, along for the ride.

The house in question is Plague Court, said to be haunted by Louis Playge, a seventeenth century hangman’s toady, and his knife has that very day been stolen from the London Museum.

Detective Sergeant McDonnell is investigating both the theft and Roger Darworth, psychic researcher, who is in charge of proceedings at Plague Court. But not even two policeman can prevent the locked-room murder which occurs that night and it baffles them so much that they have to call in Sir Henry Merrivale, for his first appearance in print.

Merrivale is legally and medically qualified and has the brain, physique, and laziness of Mycroft Holmes, with whom he shares membership of the Diogenes Club. He is the only man for the job, especially when the titular second murder occurs.

You can’t really vote for this as the reprint of the year if you’ve never read it, so if you haven’t already, get yourself a copy, have a read and then come back here to discuss it further.

Scroll down for spoilers






I love the method in this one very much – the significance of the stolen dagger is not that it once belonged to Louis Playge but its unusual shape. This fits with the linking of items by Chesterton in “The Perishing of the Pendragons” when Father Brown says “Put a feather with a fossil and a bit of coral and everyone will think it’s a specimen. Put the same feather with a ribbon and an artificial flower and everyone will think it’s for a lady’s hat. Put the same feather with an ink-bottle, a book and a stack of writing -paper, and most men will swear they’ve seen a quill pen.” Here loads of blood, plus circular wounds, plus odd dagger means that most people will assume that he has been stabbed; the idea that he might have been shot does not cross our minds.

H.M. is a little naughty when he warns the others not to taste the white powder so that they can’t tell that it’s salt and therefore give them a pointer to the solution – the inference being that it is a poison or drug of some sort – but he doesn’t actually lie to them. Indeed more detectives would do well to follow his advice as you really don’t want to lick you finger and dip it into an unknown, possibly deadly substance, which happens a number of times in GAD without the sleuth suffering any ill effects.

The identity of the murderer is also brilliant as Carr has earlier gone meta when H.M. says “What’re you insinuatin’, son. That the woman came over and murdered Darworth for his money? Tut, tut. That’s not fair detective fiction, to go and dump down a mere name, somebody we haven’t seen and that ain’t connected with the business.”

“Till Death Do Us Part” was reprinted by the British Library this year but was made unavailable for selection as it was thought likely to win by a landslide – so what better way to honour Carr than by voting for another of his superb books!

UPDATE: Sorry, I didn’t read all my emails. “Till Death Do Us Part” was put back into contention (and will now win by a landslide – get down to your bookmaker is my advice) – so what better way to honour Carr than by making sure he takes silver as well as gold!


6 thoughts on “Reprint of the Year 2021: The Plague Court Murders (1935) by John Dickson Carr”

  1. When Kate announced the 2021 Reprint of the Year nominations, I assumed that Till Death Do Us Part would win easily. I understand that it is ineligible for that reason … as it is a near perfect book. Everything works well in it: can’t put it down suspense, interesting puzzle, impossible crime, hidden culprit, HM without the slapstick, great characters and atmosphere, doesn’t sag in the middle, etc.

    The first Merrivale and its forbidding atmosphere though makes a worthy contender. Good selection that will get my vote. We need all of Carr’s output reprinted.


    1. I don’t know what you guys are talking about! I just checked the list AND my memory of a certain blogger pushing over old ladies to get his hands on Till Death Do Us Part! (I won’t reveal his identity; let’s just call him the Shmuzzle Shmoctor.) It’s most likely gonna win because it has “suspense, interesting puzzle, impossible crime, hidden culprit, HM without the slapstick, great characters and atmosphere, doesn’t sag in the middle, etc . . . ” Of course, it doesn’t even have HM, since it’s a Dr. Fell novel, one of his best.

      Santosh assures me that there’s a dark horse candidate, however, so we can all just keep hoping!

      Liked by 1 person

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