Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Yellow Object
Last week I reviewed The Burning Court (1937) and my chosen novel this week was also published in the same year, though this time includes Carr’s serial sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale. However, before looking at The Peacock Feather Murders (1937), which is also known as The Ten Teacups, I will first announce the results of last week’s poll which asked readers to vote for their favourite novel featuring Dr Fell. In first place and therefore given the title of Carr’s most popular Dr Fell novel is The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939). In joint second place are The Hollow Man (1935) and He Who Whispers (1946) and in joint third place are Hag’s Nook (1933), The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), The Arabian Nights Murder (1936), The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) and The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965). It is interesting to note that the majority of these novels are from the 1930s.
Intrigued by these results and since this week’s novel features Sir Henry Merrivale I have decided to do another poll, which allows you to vote for your favourite Merrivale case. Which novel will claim first place?
The Peacock Feather Murders begins with an anonymous note being delivered to Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Masters which invites the police to a terrace house in Kensington at 5pm, with teacups being set out for 10. To an outsider this note could easily be dismissed as a prank but Masters is greatly perturbed by this note as it ties into an old case which was never solved where a similar note was sent to the police and at the appointed time the corpse of William Morris Dartley is found in an empty house where only one room is furnished and includes a set of peacock teacups. Not to be outsmarted this time Masters enlists the help of Sir Henry Merrivale and has men placed inside and outside the house. Prior to the time mentioned in the note, Vance Keating, a young man well known for being perpetually bored and seeking adventure buys the place and evidence suggests that he is awaiting a clandestine meeting of sorts with a woman. As in the previous case of Dartley’s murder only one room is furnished, the attic, and the table is covered with a peacock designed cloth. Vance Keating enters the attic shortly before the time indicated in the note, unaware that Sergeant Pollard is hiding outside the door. He is also unaware of his impending death which occurs on the stroke of 5 when Vance is shot twice at close range, in places which rule out suicide. But with a smoking gun in the room and the house watched from inside and outside where did the killer go?
The complexity of the case is heightened by the range of unusual objects found at the crime scene; a cigarette case initialled JD and the body wearing a hat which does not belong to them. A further tantalising aspect of the case is that the previous tenants of the house, Mr and Mrs Derwent, were also the previous tenants of the house Dartley was murdered in. Are they involved somehow or is it just a coincidence? Although suspicion does not just rest with this couple as it seems Vance had a fight with his friend Ronald Gardner, whose gun is found at the crime scene. The apparent disappearance of this gun during a murder mystery game also widens the net of suspicion to include not only the characters I have already mentioned but also Vance’s fiancée, cousin and even antiques dealer Benjamin Soar.
When Sir Henry Merrivale solves the case, two characters say:
‘Never mind the motive… let’s hear about the mechanics…
Never mind about the mechanics… Let’s hear about the motive.’
As a reader who identifies more with the second statement, I found strength of this novel to be that it deals with both of these aspects well. The mechanics of how the crimes are done is ingenious and clever, but the explanation of them is not slow and over detailed. Furthermore, Carr does not forget the psychology behind the crimes, so for readers like me who are more interested in the whos and whys rather than the hows, this need is met quite well. The characterisation in this novel is also well done as there is a particularly awful woman in the character of Mrs Derwent, who is manipulative and deceptive, playing everything to her own advantage, to the point where you wish the killer will take her out next.
A third anonymous note sent to the police begins an enjoyable show down at the end of the novel where the guilty are revealed and this part of the book is a brilliant piece of writing and has to take first prize for the most boldest place to hide a body. With recent will changes and hints of a secret society at work there are a number of avenues for Masters and Merrivale to investigate. The narrative style is light and interesting, but I found the ending of the novel where the crime is explained to be a little too hurried for my liking and overall I would have liked Merrivale to have a more overt presence in the novel. For those who like demonstrably fair play mysteries this book will appeal as the explanation to the crime does include footnotes which indicate where the relevant clues and pieces of information can be found. This is definitely a novel which focuses on the police and their investigation as opposed to the lives of the suspects and in this respect is similar to The Hollow Man (1935).
The Puzzle Doctor at In search of the classic mystery novel – The Peacock Feather Murders