The renowned actress Marcia Tait and her entourage have arrived at the White Priory, an isolated stately home. For actress-y reasons, Tait has decided to sleep in a separate building from the priory itself. Perhaps it is to entertain visitors discretely? Perhaps due to the botched attempt to poison her recently? If it is for her own safety, that does rather backfire, as the next morning, she is found dead in the pavilion with her head bashed in.
While it would seem that everyone staying in the Priory is a suspect, it rapidly becomes clear that none of them could have committed the crime. It snowed heavily overnight and the only set of footprints to the pavilion were made by the man who discovered her body in the morning. And while he would seem to be the only suspect, Marcia had been dead for hours before he made the prints… Enter Sir Henry Merrivale…
It must be bloody irritating having to rely on Merrivale. At the start of the book, his nephew relates the events that have happened so far leading up to the trip to the Priory. He rolls his eyes, says something along the lines of being worried about how things will turn out… and then doesn’t do anything until after Tait is dead.
As with The Plague Court Murders, Merrivale is basically only in the second half of the book, and he’s such a vibrant character, the book does drag a tad when he’s not around. As with the previous title, Superintendent Masters is the main sleuth for the first half – he seems to have abandoned his ghostbusting sideline – but it’s only when Merrivale shows up that any progress is made.
The solution to the impossibility isn’t exactly ground-breaking but it has two things going for it. First of all, there’s a reason for it and secondly, even if you’ve remembered how it works (or read the other book where Carr does exactly the same trick), it won’t point you to the killer. The killer is, in fact, one of Carr’s better hidden villain – I’ve said before how the locked room aspect does make one overlook Carr’s skill at producing a surprising murderer, and his skill is on full display here.
One thing to mention – for a Christmas mystery, it’s not very Christmassy. There’s snow in it and… well, basically that’s it. However it’s a welcome re-release for a book that hasn’t been re-issued for a long time – I think over fifty years. And if this one whets your appetite, then the British Library has The Black Spectacles coming soon…
I remember loving the revelation of how the no footprints trick was worked, and there are some wonderful clues, but I also remember — as you say — the book being a little leaden on its way to that wonderful series of revelations. Looking forward to rereading this reissue, though, since it’ll be a lot of fun seeing the pieces move into place kn owing where it all ends up.
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Very much plan to re-read this one at Christmas even if it isn’t that seasonal. As you so rightly say, Carr was so wonderful at atmosphere and impossibiloties, his ability to really surprise you with the villain reveal is too often overlooked.