The Arabian Nights Murder (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: UK, Hamish Hamilton, Feb 1936; US, Harpers ,March 1936

Blurb (US)

Carr - The Arabian Nights Murder US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The first note of alarm was sounded when a tall, thin, oldish man in a top hat, frock coat, and white whiskers jumped off the wall of the Wade Museum and came at the sergeant on the beat like a madman.  Investigation revealed a masquerade party gotten up to rag Miriam Wade’s fiancé, who was generally regarded by her friends and brothers as a chesty braggart.  But who was the old man?  what did he know about the body of the actor discovered stabbed in a museum coach?  And did the coffin really contain the mummy of Haroun al Raschid’s wife?

Three investigators tried to solve the case – one of the most bizarre in detective annals.  But it was Dr. Gideon Fell, vast and genial, with his chins, his chuckle, and his unerring sense for the important clue, who defeated the mystery and turned brilliant failure to the ends of justice.

Dorothy Sayers comments: “John Dickson Carr can write.”  He also knows the recipe for murder fiction at top speed.

Blurb (UK)

Carr - The Arabian Nights Murder UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Each of the three people who tell the story steps, one after the other, into the Thousand and One Nights.  There are things behind the bronze doors which seem beyond human reason.  The body of an unknown man is found in the Wade Museum, with a Persian knife in his chest, and a cookery-book in his hand.  There are two pairs of false whiskers, one white and the other black.  A lump of coal has been thrown at the wall in the Gallery of the Bazaars.  Materials as wild as an Arabian tale-teller’s are joined in logical sequence in one of the most difficult problems Dr. Fell ever had, and among one of the most interesting groups of characters Mr. Carr has ever created.  These people are alive and they find an Arabian Nights in London; just as the reader will find romance, terror and an ending which he is challenged to guess.  It is recommended to the reader who likes flying carpets – and logical reasons why they fly.

Capsule review

One of Carr’s best.  Three police detectives (one a spiritual cousin of H.M.’s) bring the case to Dr. Fell, acting, as in The Blind Barber, as an armchair oracle.  It’s a masterpiece of complex and tricky plot construction.  Each section explains the previous, and raises new questions.  Hadley’s theory is an Ellery Queen solution: logic based on physical clues; as Fell says, it’s a logical and point to point job.  But it’s not the whole story.  Remember that Carr said logic and reason weren’t as useful as imagination; he suggests that logic works well in defined problems, but that the Chestertonian scatterbrained approach is better.  The solution is based on how people behave (SPOILER Gerry wouldn’t have been taken in by Illingworth, and that beautifully Chestertonian line: “The amateur actor put on a very good performance for Illingworth’s benefit, just after he had stabbed the professionals”); and on possibilities and what-ifs (why were there no fingerprints in the lift?  Why were so many people bribed?).  The lift, in its simplicity, recalls Chesterton’s “Eye of Apollo”.

Contemporary reviews

The Times (14th February 1936):

Of a rather more imaginative kind [from John Rhode’s Death at Breakfast] is Mr. Carr’s Arabian Nights Murder, though the pseudo-Persian and flying-carpet atmosphere is not meant to be taken too seriously.  If this is not the first Murder in a Museum, it is a very good one.  It might be insulting to Mr. Carr to call his detective story a thriller, yet it is more thrilling than most.


Observer (Torquemada, 23rd February 1936):


I always regard Trent’s Last Case as the first great modern detective story.  In saying that The Arabian Nights Murder is as good, I am not forgetting, of course, that Mr. Bentley was a pioneer, and that Mr. Dickson Carr has had the advantage over him of the trials and errors of a generation of writers.  But that is not Mr. Carr’s fault, and his latest book will always remain a triumph.  Dr. Fell does not billow his way through it, as he has through the author’s last two cases; instead, as in The Blind Barber, he has all the discoveries brought to him at home and gives his expert judgement at the end.  He listens to the narratives and deductions of three separate detectives, each covering a third of a difficult course, and we thus watch the case peeling down layer by layer to a perfect core.  It is whiskers, whiskers all the way, and herrings mixed in our path like mad.  Indeed, the atmosphere, when fantastic, is less that of the Arabian Nights than of The New Arabian Nights, authentically blended with that of “The Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit”.  It is obvious that Mr. Carr has read, as a kindred spirit, his Stevenson, and still more his Chesterton.  When we are allowed to listen to Dr. Illingworth’s adventures in his own words, we enjoy comedy of a high and yet boisterous kind.  A serious searching of memory makes me reaffirm that The Arabian Nights Murder is one of the best mystery novels I have ever read.  You borrow detective stories; you invest in a Carr.


Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 28th February 1936):

One of those intellectual parlour-games recently in vogue consisted in the proposing of a number of wildly dissimilar phenomena and relating them through a plausible narrative.  Let us take, for example, a museum: on its wall a gentleman is found sitting clad in a top-hat and false whiskers; somebody has thrown a lump of coal at one of the inner walls; while also are discovered an attendant tap-dancing at midnight round a mummy case, two more pairs of false whiskers, and a corpse clutching a cookery-book in its hand.  Such, believe it or not, is the situation with which Mr. Carr opens his new book.  Mr. Carr could not be unreadable if he tried.  But this time I feel he has gone too far.  Dr. Illingworth and Sir Herbert Armstrong are figures of too much fun; you will certainly split your sides over them; but the book rather cracks up in the process.


Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 29th February 1936):

An ingenious and absorbing jigsaw puzzle, though the incidents are rather more unlikely than is usual even in detective stories, and the characters still more so.  The title is justified by the scene of the murder, Wade’s Oriental Museum, near Piccadilly, and by the fact that Penderel the victim was half Persian.

A group of young people planned a sham murder to test Mannering’s courage.  They asked a theatrical agency to send a man to play a Persian part.  The agency sent Penderel, an ex-gigolo blackmailer.  The resulting manoeuvres in the museum, ten to eleven p.m., were complex.  All through the book the reader is given successive theories of them.  Possible killers are old Wade; his son Jerry; Mannering the “novelette hero”; Ronald Holmes the young antiquary; Baxter the author; Miriam Wade, whom her godfather describes as “a come-hither hellion”, and linked with the victim; her friend Harriet, also linked; Illingworth the Edinburgh parson, a wild caricature who might do anything; and Pruen the caretaker, whose dance round the silver chest remains unexplained to the end.  The investigators are Inspector Carruthers (Irish), Hadley (Scotch), and Chief Commissioner Armstrong, who is a trifle more incredible than Illingworth.  Finally Dr. Fell comes in from previous books and upsets all their results.  But one feels that the author leaves us free to doubt, and that perhaps he was not sure himself till he called in Dr. Fell.


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 6th March 1936, 280w):

Mr. Carr conveys admirably the atmosphere of mingled farce and terror, and one can always be sure that through the maze of marvels he constructs he will guide his readers by the thread of logic and sound reasoning.  There will be no cheating with hidden trapdoors and secret passages, and if such things as he relates could beg, then so and thus would they occur.  In short, a masterpiece of madness.


New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 4th April 1936):


In The Good Books, Mr. Philmore’s latest work whose plot I unfortunately failed to appreciate, one of the characters had developed a boyish but rather endearing little habit of making up imaginary football teams out of authors, politicians and other unathletic professions.  Eleven detective writers take the field this week against the intelligence and discernment of potential readers, and as they claim to play cricket I shall assume they have won the toss and send them in in what I judge to be their best batting order.  I shall open the innings with the Great Twin Brethren, Messrs. Carter Dickson and Dickson Carr, not only because each can be counted on to knock up so many novels a year, but because in my experience it is quite impossible to separate this pair.  If anyone will take the trouble to compare closely the demeanour of Sir Herbert Armstrong in The Arabian Nights Murder and our old friend Sir Henry Merrivale in The Unicorn Murders they might well come to the conclusion that Mr. C.D. and Mr. D.C. are at least identical if not Siamese twins.  This literary mystery is more baffling to me than any of those cleared up by Dr. Fell, and I wish he would give his attention to it.  Meanwhile, if any of the public have discovered further clues bearing on these authors’ identity or non-identity I should be very pleased if they would communicate with me.  Leaving this side-issue, I am confident that my twins will stand up to any ordinary fast bowling and give the side a start.

In plain language The Unicorn Murders and The Arabian Nights Murder are splendidly exciting but fiendishly complicated.  The impossible is always possible to the twins, so it is best to abandon deduction for guess-work as far as their criminals are concerned.  The Unicorn is the better of the two.


Sat R of Lit (7th March 1936, 40w):

Cleverly engineered solution of intricate and involved mystery hindered by ultra-fantastic trappings and too much needless junk.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 8th March 1936, 380w):

A highly diverting yarn.


Books (Will Cuppy, 15th March 1936, 300w):

Here’s a highly respectable, if somewhat vague and over-whimsical item by one of our most talented bafflers.