Sunday, 29 December 2019

The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson

Carter Dickson's The White Priory Murders, set at Christmas, is a classic mystery novel, and one which makes a perfect companion piece to the equally wintry The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr.

Not least because Carter Dickson is John Dickson Carr. Possibly he adopted the pseudonym because he was too prolific to publish all his work under his own name. 

The books are similar for other reasons. White Priory's master-detective Sir Henry Merrivale is distinctly reminiscent of Hollow Man's Dr Gideon Fell.

 Both of these sleuthing geniuses are comically corpulent — in the course of three pages, Merrivale is described as wheezing, lumbering and waddling.

Both are locked room murder mysteries, with the revelation (don't worry, I won't give anything away) being based on a breathtaking, but entirely plausible, shift of logic which entirely alters the frame of reference and confounds our expectations.

Fascinatingly, both novels feature authoritative summaries and overviews of the whole locked-room genre, in this case in Chapter 12.

And both are ideal Christmas reading, since they have moodily and beautifully described snowbound settings — "the sky was a moving flicker of snow. There was something insistent, something healing, about those silent flakes, that would efface all tracks in the world."

"So quiet was this muffled world that they could hear the snowflakes ticking and rustling in the evergreen branches."

Indeed, footprints in the snow, or the lack of them, are crucial plot features both here and in The Hollow Man.

Carr (or Dickson) is a really superb writer. And, while the mystery he spins is compelling, and I wanted to know what happened, the main reason I kept being drawn back to this book was the outstanding quality of the writing.

Carr simply can't resist terrific descriptions, and they enliven long passages of exposition by diving into vivid flashbacks: "He sailed... on a bitter grey day when the skyline was smoky purple."

And he creates moods beautifully: "the tension... it was as though the room were full of wasps, and you could hear the buzzing."

Or, the way the reminder of a recent death "intensified the grey loneliness of the room."

He can also be wickedly funny — "He had put on his thickest-lensed spectacles in honour of the occasion."
I found myself spellbound by the setting of The White Priory Murders — the isolated Restoration manor house is a chilling and eerie place. "It had grown darker outside, and dead tendrils of vine whipped the windows as the wind rose."
And the group of characters gathered here are also brilliantly evoked. Like Katharine Bohun —  "her eyes had a hot, hard brightness." 

Carr doesn't seem to have got the memo that this is supposed to be a potboiler. He is writing with an edge of poetry worthy of 'real' literature.

There a numerous moments of superb physical description — "With steady fingers she struck a match; the gas lit up with a hollow whoom, and little yellow blue flames... flickered on her face."

"He put the palms of his hands together before him, weirdly as though he were going to dive."

Or the way a character "pushed open the you might prod a deadly snake" with his cane. 

In fact, the fellow putting his palms together and pushing doors with his cane is the very unpleasant Maurice Bohun, a wealthy, clever and vicious academic. 

He also has a nasty temper — "Maurice was white with a smiling, deadly lightly-sweating fury"... "For a second there was almost a deformity of rage in Maurice's face."

Maurice is an unforgettable character and there's a real sense of place, and a powerful atmosphere to his home, the White Priory. But the book ends, rather beautifully, back in town "high above the green Embankment, the glittering river, and the mighty curve of London."

This is a classic Golden Age crime novel which deserves to be remembered not for the ingenuity of its plot but rather for the beauty of its writing. 

(Image credits: The IPL edition — "Sir Henry Merrivale solves the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" — is from my own library. Incidentally, if like me you associate that phrase with Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, and the play based on it, it turns out that the quote is from a Sherlock Holmes story, 'The Adventure of Silver Blaze'. Cheeky people at IPL! Not least for the way the artist Nicky Zann has created a pastiche of the original Pocket Books cover. The green Penguin is from Amazon. The Pocket Books edition is from the wonderfully named Baskerville Books. The absolutely wild Belmont Tower edition featuring a 1970s image of hipster with a goatee and a gun who bears no earthly resemblance to Henry Merrivale is from Grant Thiessen Books in my old hometown, Winnipeg, via ABE. The yellow — giallo — Italian Mondadori edition is from Anobli. The other covers came from Good Reads. )

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