The Punch and Judy Murders aka The Magic Lantern Murders (1936) by Carter Dickson

As the Royal Wedding fades into the distance here in jolly old England, I figured for the letter P in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction, I’d try and find something vaguely wedding related. The best I could come up with is another work from the great John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, namely The Punch and Judy Murders.

On the eve of his wedding (literally), Ken Blake is summoned by Sir Henry Merrivale to the West Country to undertake some last-minute spy work. Things rapidly go haywire as Ken is thrust into misadventure after misadventure, stumbling across two corpses, both poisoned with strychnine despite being miles apart. Add in some psychic experiments designed to… well, that’s a bit of a spoiler, and you’ve got a very atypical Merrivale mystery.

That’s sort of the problem with this one, to be honest. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no impossible crimes to be seen here, and Merrivale himself is missing for about half the book as well. The first two-thirds consist of Ken and later his fiancée as well stumbling from disaster to disaster, racking up clues and complications in equal measure. For the last third, he returns to Merrivale who, having conveniently assembled the suspects, starts interviewing them, despite the fact he clearly knows who the killer is. As such, this part feels a lot like padding.

It passes the time nicely, but it’s by no means Carr’s finest hour. It feels a bit like a cross between The Thirty-Nine Steps and a fairly lazy Agatha Christie, and the relatively slight mystery is buried beneath a hoard of irrelevances. It can be seen as an attempt to do something a bit different with the formula, but there are other books from the era that are demonstrate Carr’s skills as a writer and professional trickster far better.


  1. First off, well done on finding an entry that satisfies ‘P’ and a wedding scenario! I must admit, this is one of the Dickson books that I have a hard time remembering much about, so I’m sure this means that you must be right about its merits (and demerits).


  2. Well, it was dumb luck really – I wasn’t looking too hard. Thought I might pick up a few hits if someone googled Royal Wedding Murder, but no luck so far!


  3. I really enjoyed the wackiness of this one. It was like a Harry Stephen Keeler novel with good grammar, cohesion and a relatively unconvoluted plot. It made me laugh out loud several times. The Peacock Feather Murders (or The Ten Teacups depending on where you live and which edition you’re reading), on the other hand, is my least favorite of all the Merrivale books. I found similar faults in TPFM that you find with this one.


    • It’s been a while since I read The Ten Teacups but I’m planning a re-read of the Merrivales soon. Can’t recall much about the writing style but I didn’t like at all the mechanics of the locked room. Far too many unlikely coincidences.


    • I, too, enjoyed the wackiness of this story and watching Ken Blake duke it out with Murphy’s Law, while the tell-tale clues march along unnoticed – IMHO a better chase novel than The Blind Barber.

      By the way, this is an excellent blog and I have added you to my blog roll.


      • Many thanks for the compliments and subscription.

        It’s been an age since I read The Blind Barber – if I recall, it managed to do one of the things I don’t enjoy at all, which was be a “series” novel which barely feature the detective in question. It almost felt like Fell had been levered in at the last moment. Might revisit it soon, but I think I’m going to try and run through the Merrivales first.


  4. I haven’t re-read THE TEN TEACUPS in a very long time but I have to say that I always thought it to be amongst the most ingenious of the Carter Dickson locked room mysteries – but the details are a bit vague so I’ll have to have a refresher perhaps – I do remember the sequence with the body discovered tied to the chair under the cover as being particularly creepy though!


  5. I love this book. It’s not a great mystery, but it’s a mad chase that made me laugh several times, as poor Ken Blake fights a losing battle against Murphy’s Law. The Unicorn Murders is rather similar, in which Ken Blake finds himself whisked into a world of espionage entirely by accident, ends up fighting with the agent he was mistaken for, stranding him in the middle of nowhere, only to have him fight with H.M., and then an impossible crime results. The mad comedy of errors is just as wonderful, but the impossible crime distinguises it from this book. Still, I loved reading them both.

    An excellent blog you have here! Count me among your readers from now on!


    • Thanks for the kind words – I think (it’s been a while) that I enjoyed The Unicorn Murders more than this one, but you’re correct, these are two of the funnier of the Merrivales.


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