Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Food
Before looking at another of Sir Henry Merrivale’s cases it is time to announce the winner of last week’s poll. Which Merrivale novel won the title of the most popular? In first place was….
The Judas Window (1938)
This is a book which I have recently acquired and will hopefully be reviewing next month, so it’s good to know it has a lot of fans. In 2nd place was She Died a Lady (1943) (which I really enjoyed reading), followed by The Reader is Warned (1939) in third place. Joint fourth place were The Plague Court Murders (1934) and Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940). Finally in joint 5th place with one vote each were: The Red Widow Murders (1935), And So to Murder (1940), He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944), My Late Wives (1946) and Night at the Mocking Widow (1950). Any of these deserving of a higher place in your opinion? Let me know in the comments section below.
Like many of the early Merrivale novels, The White Priory Murders (1934), in a similar way to early Ellery Queen novels has a formulaic title. The novel begins with Merrivale meeting his American nephew, James Boynton, who tells Merrivale about an attempt on the life of actress Marcia Tait via a box of poisoned chocolates. Tait has returned to the UK to stage a play written by Maurice Bohun and produced by his brother John and in doing so Tait hopes to make the London critics who were negative about her in the past eat their words. But in doing this Tait has also walked away from her film job, meaning the studios have given her 4 weeks to return. Eager for this to happen are Tait’s director, Rainger and her press agent, Emery. Paying for the play is Lord Canifest and it is through Canifest that James becomes acquainted with Tait and her entourage and even gets invited to the White Priory, owned by Maurice and where Tait amongst others will be staying for Christmas.
After a spot of drunk driving James arrives at the White Priory early in the morning only to hear a cry. Upon investigation James finds John just outside the Queen’s Mirror pavilion (where Tait has been sleeping) who informs him that she is dead, her head beaten in. Despite there being evidence of another person in the pavilion, there is only one set of fresh footprints in the snow, snow which stopped falling around 2am, so the inference is that these footprints must be John’s. Yet when the police arrive it seems that Tait must have been murdered several hours before, around 3:30. So how did the killer leave the pavilion? We are also told that the previous night during a tour of the Priory, conducted by a solitary candle, someone tried to push Tait down a set of stairs, stairs which provide a secret passage out to the pavilion. Another unusual circumstance was that during the night, Canifest’s daughter, Louise is found in a passageway, hysterically raving about someone in the corridor. But why are there blood stains on her clothes? Her hysterical behaviour appears to continue when in the morning she apparently attacks Maurice and John’s niece, Katherine, by nearly strangling her. The hysterical nature of both these women did come across as far-fetched – but is it covering up something far worse?
Alongside the local policeman, Inspector Potter, serial character, Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters is also on the case, having conveniently been holidaying in the area and after a slightly misleading telegram, Merrivale also arrives. But it is not just these characters who come up with solutions about the case and several other characters are keen to express their own views on how the killer committed the crime and who did it, with Rainger accusing John and Maurice accusing Rainger. A piece of information which is revealed early in the story is the suggestion that Tait might have already been married, which puts her relationships with some of the other male characters under the spotlight. Maurice is an insufferable character who always thinks he is right and he has a priggish way of talking. He never answers a question properly but attempts to answer the sentiment he perceives behind it. This is one example of how Masters’ early questioning of the Priory inmates feels very slow as like Maurice, the other people Masters’ questions frequently prevaricate and ultimately this leads to little information being revealed.
Further death and violence is to follow, with one character attempting suicide – not for the death of Tait, but for someone else, who tantalisingly is still alive… Although it seems Merrivale has ideas as to who the killer might be and even how they committed the crime, he feels certain that he must reconstruct the original pushing of Tait down the stairs at a similarly dark time of the evening, to prove the culprit’s guilt. This is an unorthodox and unethical way of catching the killer in some respects such as the psychological affect it may have on some of the innocent though a tad unhinged characters. Masters’ is unsure of the plan, yet it goes ahead due to the strength of Merrivale’s personality. The choice of killer in my opinion was a convenient one and in some ways felt unsatisfying, though the actual mechanics of the crime were well thought out.
When writing last week’s review of The Peacock Murders (1938), I came across Merrivale’s entry in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), which says that he is ‘a detective who solves the case by determining the murderer’s motive’ (Salwak, 1999: 288). Based on last week’s novel I felt this was a distortion of his detecting skills, which seemed very adept at unravelling the mechanics behind the seemingly impossible crimes. However, in The White Priory Murders this description seemed more fitting as even Merrivale says, ‘The first thing is to determine the murderer’s motive. I don’t mean his motive for murder, but for creating an impossible situation.’ Merrivale then goes on to suggest the reasons for ‘creating an impossible situation,’ in a manner which reminded me of Dr Fell’s locked room lecture in The Hollow Man (1935) and I liked the idea of there being a series of motivations behind one crime, not just for victim choice but for how the murder should be committed.
I think in this novel the character of Merrivale is much more demonstrable than it is in The Peacock Murders. From the very start of the novel the contradictory nature of his personality is emphasised to us, as James Boynton’s father tells him:
‘You will probably find him asleep, although he will pretend he is very busy… His baronetcy is two or three hundred years old, and he is also a fighting Socialist…’
This last juxtaposition particularly interested me as on the surface Merrivale’s baronetcy seems to clash with his socialist principles. Looking back at the novel as a whole I think there are some moments where socialist Merrivale is visible, such as in his undermining attitude towards Maurice Bohun, who is arguably symbolic of elitism and snobbishness, which contrasts with his positive interactions with the servants at the White Priory. Merrivale’s treatment of others here also ties into what Xavier Lechard wrote for the Tuesday Night Bloggers last week on the Americanness of Carr’s writing. Lechard writes that Carr’s ‘outlook is definitely that of a foreigner hailing from a more “democratic” society, as evidenced by his disregard of class structures and conventions’ and I think this can be seen in Merrivale’s actions. Additionally, although it may be used in a jokey way, Merrivale does use the greeting of ‘comrade.’
Again looking at the novel overall it could also be said that private enterprise (something which is opposed to socialist principles who prefer state owned or cooperative enterprises) is not allowed to flourish as Tait’s theatre production never happens. Moreover, when reading about socialism (in a general way, as I am aware it is a huge subject and has many varieties) for this post an idea which interested me was of the socialist belief ‘that management and sharing are supposed to be based on public interests’ (Wiki). In relation to the investigation Merrivale undertakes in his novel, it could be argued that he takes on a role more like a dictator as in regards to the information and clues he uncovers, he withholds information from the other characters due to his individual judgement on what hr thinks is in other people’s best interests, which I think had fatal results for one character in particular. Additionally, Merrivale also prevents Masters from doing his job fully, prohibiting him from interviewing a certain suspect, an interview I think would have solved the mystery much quicker, though taking some of the glory away from Merrivale. Moreover, there is a sense of irresponsibleness as he has one suspect kept deliberately drunk and also once he knows who the killer is I do not think he does enough to limit or neutralise their further crimes. Even the language used to describe Merrivale takes on a more dictator-like approach as he has a ‘shark-like gulp’ and he is said to have ‘glanced at them as though he held a whip.’ Consequently although there are perhaps some socialist friendly elements of the plot such as Merrivale’s undermining of ‘class structures,’ I think on the whole Carr’s early description of him being a ‘fighting socialist,’ is more there to add to the incongruousness of Merrivale’s character.
Furthermore, this novel in particular presents a much less likeable version of Merrivale. Not just because he comes across like a dictator but he also has a creepy older man moment when he emphasises the viewpoint of women as sexual objects and encourages his nephew to experience this particular area of life fully. I think both me and James were shuddering at that point.
Overall, I think the material in this book had a lot of potential but was not fully developed or utilised, in particular the characters and their relationship dynamics at the White Priory. Moreover, I felt there was too much going on in the plot, which meant certain areas of the investigation were left un-investigated for too long. There was also an issue with pacing as the opening of the novel felt quite slow and it took a while for the essential introductory information to be shared. There was also some parts of the narrative which were clunky, which made some parts of the text less easy to read. Despite much potential this was not such a good Carr read this week.
Puzzle Doctor: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel – The White Priory Murders