The Plague Court Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

It was a dark and stormy night – actually, it wasn’t stormy. If it had been raining, there would have been a reason for the fact that the mud around the isolated stone building had no footprints in it. Not that footprints would have helped as the only door to the building was locked from both the inside and the outside – and lying inside was the body of the medium Roger Darworth. Darworth had been there to put to rest the spirit of Louis Playge, the former owner of Plague Court, but it seems that the spirit was even more restless than anyone thought – Darworth had been viciously attacked by an assailant who both entered and departed from the building without a trace.

Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters and Ken Blake were on site when the death happened – Masters, in his role as a ghostbuster, apparently, was investigating Darworth as a known fake and a conman. Faced with an utterly impossible situation, they only have two choices – either start believing in ghosts or call for Sir Henry Merrivale…

He was Sir Henry Merrivale, Baronet, and had been a fighting Socialist all his life. He was vastly conceited, and had an inexhaustible fund of bawdy stories…

Enter H.M., my personal favourite of John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson’s sleuths. I’d take him over Gideon Fell any day. I’ve reviewed over the years almost all of the Merrivale mysteries – the only three left were this one and two that I will need some real persuading to revisit, Behind The Crimson Blind and The Cavalier’s Cup, because they are utter rubbish from my recollection. This one, however, I couldn’t remember too much about, bar the murder method, but I did recall it being darker than the other Merrivale tales, more in line with Carr’s Grand Guignol-esque Bencolin tales.

That’s not really fair, as this is a significant notch about the Bencolin stories. It’s got a beautifully simply constructed locked room and you could sum up the solution to it in a single sentence without the need for diagrams. Yes, the solution is, shall we say, highly improbable, but as I’ve said before, how many locked room mysteries have solutions that are genuinely the easiest and most practical way of killing someone?

The book starts really well, with a dark atmosphere around the mysteries of Plague Court, nicely building the tension. It drops off a bit until the murder, but then builds again. As the interviews continue, it drops a little again, until Blake decides they need some help in the form of Sir Henry Merrivale.

Merrivale arrives almost fully formed, easily recognisable as the character from later books. Yes, we are missing the early “comedy” bits from, say, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, but his appearance lifts the book and carries it through to the end, where we once again see a demonstration of Carr’s ability to hide the killer without resorting to the least likely suspect.

There’s also – and I had completely forgotten this – one of the best explanations of the sleuth’s deductions that I’ve read. As H.M. reveals how he worked out the truth, you can actually understand how he came to his conclusions – even, to an extent, with the murder method. There are one or two weak bits of the solution, notably how H.M. can judge the important bit about the tree. All in all, though, this is a great read, although you do need to push through one or two of the sections that drag a little.

You’re in luck with this one – it’s been re-released as part of the American Mystery Classics range so is very obtainable. As is the follow-up mystery, The White Priory Murders which has been released as part of the British Crime Classics range, and will be coming back to this blog very soon…


  1. I loved this when I first read it, then cooled significantly on my second reading, and yet I do love the ingenuity of the locked, bolted, and barred room murder. Plus, as you say, Merrivale arrives almost fully-formed, and that’s no mean feat — both he and Fell were remarkably well-realised from their very first appearances, and Carr deserves credit for that.

    Very much looking forward to rereading White Priory when I get my hands on the BL edition; I remember enjoying that much less on first read, but now I know what it’s leading up to I have high hopes for the second go around.


  2. The Plague Court Murders is near the top of the to-be-reread pile as not only did I absolutely loved it on my first read, but completed my conversion to a full-fledged JDC fanboy. So, hopefully, it stands a second read as The Three Coffins of the H.M. series.


  3. I read this recently and thought it was quite close to Bencolin, but with most of the issues ironed out, plus HM is infinitely preferable to HB as sleuth. I think Fell has a purple patch in the forties but the other books are pretty variable, I reread Death Watch recently and was reminded why for years I thought I didn’t liked JDC, I struggled to get through it. The HM books are simply more consistent. I’ve read quite a lot of them lately and they’ve all been at least fun, and the best of them terrific – though I’ve not read any of the very late ones yet (he said with some trepidation).


    • I think I enjoyed it more the second time round, especially the explanation where H.M. elucidates the clear reasoning that the reader could have (but won’t have) replicated. Apart from the method that does come out of almost nowhere…


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