The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (Carter Dickson)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Morrow, 1945; UK, Heinemann, 1946, as Lord of the Sorcerers

Blurb (US)

Carr - The Curse of the Bronze Lamp US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

N.B.: Editorial and sales departments agree that this is far and away the most ingenious, baffling, intriguing mystery that Carter Dickson has written – and we’re not forgetting “The Judas Window” … It is a Sir Henry Merrivale story.

It was disturbing when Professor Gilray died, and the press made a great to-do about it – despite the fact that Lord Severn and his daughter, Lady Helen, leaders of the ill-fated archaeological expedition which opened Herihor’s tomb, said it was a scorpion bite, not supernatural forces at work.

But it was the antique bronze lamp – a gift of the Egyptian government to Lady Helen – that started the real trouble.  To it was attached the curse that anyone who removed it would be blown to dust as though he had never existed.  Lady Helen laughed at such superstition and announced that she was returning to England, with her lamp…

A week later, she stepped over the threshold of Severn Hall.  Two minutes later, the friends accompanying her followed.  In the great hall they found her coat and the bronze lamp lying on the floor.  Lady Helen had vanished – apparently into thin air…  And there were no secret passages or rooms at Severn Hall.

That’s when H. M. rolled in, snorting at hocus-pocus, intent on just two things – solving the case and working on the huge autobiographical scrap book that he carried under his arm.

My review

I was disappointed when I first read this one; I wanted a full-blown Egyptian curse story, set in the Valley of the Kings, with murder in the pyramids, cobras at camp-sites, and trouble in the tombs.  Most of this one takes place in England.

The business is a parody of Egyptian curses.  (I’d rather have the genuine article, though.)  The bronze lamp found in the tomb of Herihor seems to be responsible for two impossible disappearances. The mystery of whether Lady Helen Loring and her father are dead (as Masters, eagerly searching for red herrings, suspects, most likely bumped off by the butler) or alive (as H.M. believes) is sustained until the end. Further mystification is caused by missing antiques; a portrait of Augusta, Countess of Severn; two seers, one Egyptian, one American, both cranks; and the significance of planting daffodils on Thursday.

H.M. enters the fray by bashing up an Egyptian taxi-driver, but his scrap-book is vintage Dickson comedy – and provides a central clue.

The motive for and method of Lady Helen’s disappearance are convincing and original (although similar to The Reader is Warned), relying on simplicity above all; and the murderer’s plot is ingeniously interwoven with the previous disappearance.  SPOILER The murderer gets one of the girls.

Contemporary reviews

Kirkus (15th April 1945, 70w):

Entertaining puzzlement.


New Yorker (23rd June 1945, 80w):

The baffling event is finally figured out by Sir Henry Merrivale, who is not, in this instance, preoccupied with sealed rooms and who is at his best and funniest in this mystery.


Weekly Book Review (Will Cuppy, 24th June 1945, 130w):

Sir Henry Merrivale, late of the War Office, all but turns himself inside out with his comic act, but the main show is Mr. Dickson’s puzzle, a most elaborate affair worked out with his usual skill.  A really sensational trick.


Sat R of Lit (30th June 1945, 50w):

Get it!


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 1st July 1945, 100w):

Carter Dickson, veteran mystery-monger that he is, has surpassed himself, and that takes some doing.


New Haven Register:

Probably the best mystery of the year.  We’ve seen no better and doubt we shall.


Chicago Sun:

All of this is written with Carter Dickson’s usual aplomb—which is some aplomb, if you ask me.


Louisville Courier Journal:

Mr. Dickson, of course, is one of the world’s real masters of the murder mystery.  And in this one he doesn’t show any signs of slipping.  It is the very best thing of its kind the reviewer has read in the last 10 years.


San Francisco Chronicle:

A brilliant and flawless blend of humour, deception and logic.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 27th April 1946):

When Lady Helen Loring brings to England a lamp with an ancient Egyptian curse on it, and the nature of the curse is that anyone who appropriates the lamp shall be blown into smithereens, and Lady Helen vanishes into thin air after crossing the threshold of her ancestral home, and the author is Carter Dickson, the reader naturally steels himself to meet another of those confounded contraptions, probably making use of atomic energy.  This is just reflex action.  If a respectable author indulges in a preface it is worth devoting some attention to it, especially when it closes with the words, “You have been warned”.  In his prefatory letter to Ellery Queen Mr. Dickson expressly declares that Lord of the Sorcerers is not the usual locked-room problem, and you had better believe him, even when Lady Helen’s father starts to disappear in much the same way.  Actually, the trump card in this masterly trick of deception has been borrowed from Agatha Christie’s pack.  But she carries so many aces up her sleeve that this information will give nothing away.  It is worth pitting your wits against Mr. Dickson on this occasion, as he sprinkles clues liberally and plays absolutely fair, while manipulating the plot with his usual devilish cunning.  The characters are admittedly mere puppets, and H.M. makes a deafening noise; but Lord of the Sorcerers is far superior in craftsmanship to any other detective book on this list.