Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) by Carter Dickson

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Yellow Object

The Peacock Feather Murders

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).

Rating: 4.5/5

See also:

The Puzzle Doctor at In search of the classic mystery novel – The Peacock Feather Murders

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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20 Responses to Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) by Carter Dickson

  1. Thanks for the plug, Kate, as I have a rather different opinion of this one. The mechanics of the impossible crime are simply ridiculous – so ridiculous that it spoils the locked room aspect of the tale for me. With two ridiculous coincidences, at least one Olympian feat… I appreciate a bit of chance coming into things to make the locked room happen, but this is just too silly for words. I’d say more, but spoilers and all that…

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha yeah I don’t think the solution to some of the crimes is plausible or sensible. But I usually can turn a blind eye to such matters if I am enjoying the characters and the narrative style as this enjoyment tends to make me forget how silly the crime mechanics are. In this respect I am probably a godsend to GA mystery writers.

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      • I can turn a blind eye (although still point it out) for implausible things like Death On The Riviera – as I said in my review, how exactly did he practise the trick without dying on the first attempt? – but this one takes it too far, in my humble opinion. I much prefer Carr’s impossibilities that can be explained in one sentence than the ones that require a flip-chart with extra diagrams.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. lesblatt says:

    I enjoyed the book, Kate, though a little less than you did. That’s mainly because, as you and PD agree, the mechanics of the crime are, er, implausible. But it is a fun read, as are many of the Merrivale books. I’ll be interested to see the outcome of the poll – I have a strong partiality for both The Judas Window and The Plague Court Murders, with She Died a Lady very close behind…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting choice, Les, putting Plague Court up there – it’s been a while since I read it. I’d say She Died A Lady, followed closely by Judas Window and Patience, with honourable mentions for the rubbish-impossibility-but-great-mysteie My Late Wives and Nine… and Ten Makes Death.

      But the short story The House In Goblin Wood trumps the lot. Best short story ever.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I think the Merrivale poll is going to be a close one as there are a number of very popular ones.

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  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    Though I enjoyed the novel, I don’t rate it as highly as you do.
    I agree with the Puzzle Doctor that the mechanics of the impossible crime is absolute rubbish.
    Also, the forensics at that time seems to be highly undeveloped.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. JJ says:

    Unsurprisingly, I loved this – ridiculously improbable method an’ all. One aspect that PD doesn’t go in for absolutely makes this for me, and the esoteric backdrop to the crimes is just an added stir to the fun. Not the greatest Merrivale, but so brilliantly schemed that it kinda knocks me back in wonder.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for dropping by on the blog, hope your hand is getting better. One handed typing must be very annoying. I am surprised that your views are not similar to PDs as I thought the ridiculousness of the crime mechanics would annoy you.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Brad says:

    I’ve only read three Merrivales so far – so I can’t even vote in your poll, although Judas Window is my favorite of the three – but what I’m starting to learn about myself at least is that, if there isn’t some focus on the characters and motivations, no murder method, however intriguing or silly, will make up for it. There, I said it! Please don’t make me stand before The Burning Court! (I know you agree with me, Kate!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Surely you could sneakily vote in the Merrivale poll – no one would know! And don’t worry no burning court for you, as I definitely agree with you on the essentialness of characters (personalities, relationships and dynamics) and motivations.

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  7. Jane Risdon says:

    Popped in for the very first time. Congrats on a superb blog and I shall be back to browse when I have allowed myself longer. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The Tuesday Night Bloggers: John Dickson Carr (Week 3) | Noah's Archives

  9. JFW says:

    Oh no, I didn’t manage to vote in the Sir H.M. poll! But then again, I don’t think I’ve read enough Merrivale – or Fell – novels to cast a vote. ‘Peacock Feathers’ was the most recent Carr novel I read, and I think felt underwhelmed by the solution: one vital aspect of it was coincidental, and the mechanics of the ploy was ‘Olympian’. I had quite high hopes for it, and as such felt slightly disappointed, but I found the novel an enjoyable experience on the whole. I generally don’t take to well to the histrionics of Carr’s characters (MerrivaIe seems to roar more than he speaks), but I found Mrs Derwent a lively and engaging character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Based on discussions I’ve had with people the solution does seem to divide people, but I quite enjoyed it. The narrative style and characters are well done, which is more than I can say for the Carr novel I have read for next Tuesday.

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  10. Pingback: Tuesday Night Bloggers: Merrivale the Dictator in The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson | crossexaminingcrime

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