The Peacock Feather Murders (Carter Dickson)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Morrow, 1937; UK, Heinemann, 1937, as The Ten Teacups


Blurb (US)

Carr - The Peacock Feather Murders US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

It couldn’t have happened … in the only furnished room in an otherwise empty house … but it DID!

Sir Henry Merrivale … old H. M., the grumbling, grand old veteran of many popular puzzlers … came puffing up the stairs to the attic room.

In the room was a table bearing a cloth of gold with a peacock feather pattern, and ten black teacups.  On the floor lay the body of Vance Keating with one bullet through his spine and another in the back of his head…

Police had been watching the house, had searched it inside out before Keating cme.  Across the hall, Sergeant Pollard had kept close check on the door.  Why such precautions in advance of murder?

Because the Yard had been forewarned (by the murderer) and because of a two-year-old case still unresolved: another man, named Dartley, had died alone in a room with ten teacups of a peacock feather pattern.

Now H. M. and Chief Inspector Masters found themselves facing another apparently insoluble, three-ring-circus kind of crime.  Why had Vance Keating worn a hat too large the day he died?  Why had the murderer invited the police to the scene?  What parts did two lovely women play: Frances Gale, engaged to Keating, and Mrs. Derwent, in whose house all the suspects had played “murder” the night before? …

To all this mystery, written with a touch of the grotesque, for people who prefer something more than the cut-and-dried detective story, Carter Dickson provides a solution so simple, so neat, so logical, you’ll feel you might have seen it all along.

Blurb (UK)

Carr - The Peacock Feather Murders UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

In 1934 this message – typed, without address or signature – is received at Scotland Yard.

THERE WILL BE TEN TEACUPS AT NUMBER 18 PENDRAGON GARDENS, W.8, ON MONDAY, APRIL 30TH, AT 9.30 P.M.  THE POLICE ARE REQUESTED TO KEEP AN EYE OUT.

18, Pendragon Gardens is an empty house and the message is not taken seriously.  The next morning, however, a constable on duty finds the door open.  One room in an otherwise vacant house has been furnished fully and even elaborately.  On the table ten teacups have been ranged in a circle.  Beside the table lies a dead man, shot twice through the back at close range.

The dead man is a harmless collector of antiquities; one of the curious points being that a porcelain “puzzle-jug,” of no particular value, is missing from his collection.

In 1936, the next message arrives:

THERE WILL BE TEN TEACUPS AT NUMBER 4 BERWICK TERRACE, W.8 ON WEDNESDAY, JULY 31, AT 5 P.M. PRECISELY.  THE PRESENCE OF THE METROPOLITAN POLICE IS RESPECTFULLY REQUESTED.

This time there is a cordon drawn round an empty house.  Both door and window of a certain attic room are watched.  But a man is shot in that room – shot twice through the back at close range, by someone who is proved to have been in the room.  Yet when the police enter immediately after the shots, the murderer has disappeared.  This time the teacups are painted black…

The author of The Magic Lantern Murders and The Unicorn Murders, etc., has in The Ten Teacups given us without doubt his finest detective-story.  Sir Henry Merrivale, whom Torquemada described as “my favourite among the many fat detectives,” appears once more, to solve brilliantly what proves to be his most baffling case.


My review

In one of the most carefully controlled Dickson novels, H.M., helped for once by a policeman, Det.-Sgt. Pollard, Chief Insp. Masters’ assistant, does a brilliant job of sorting through the solidly presented characters and clues to work out the truth behind the impossible and seemingly motiveless murders committed by the sinister society of the Ten Teacups (name borrowed from G.K. Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades). The solution is very clever, but is marred by the fact that the victim is a fool, SPOILER for the gimmick relies on the victim’s “standing with his back to the open window [as] a part of the rigid “instructions” he had received from the Teacups,” which is nearly as daft as the solution to The Problem of the Wire Cage. The climax in a deserted house, complete with “Conjuror’s Chair,” is as superb as the evocation of a vividly Chestertonian or Stevensonian London.

Note the use of the murder party in The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), and of the murder for business reasons with jug in Deadly Hall (1971).


Contemporary reviews

Sat R of Lit (31st July 1937, 40w):

First-rate puzzler, with oh-so-simple (once you know it) solution—carefully annotated, with lively talk and interesting people.

 

Books (Will Cuppy, 1st August 1937, 200w):

Definitely one of the better items in stream-lined mystery.

 

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 1st August 1937, 240w):

The story is an absolute top-notcher.  Both H.M. and Carter Dickson have surpassed themselves, and that took some doing.

 

Boston Transcript (21st August 1937, 270w):

Mystery fans who revel in unusual plots and unusual solutions will find this thriller decidedly class A.

 

The Times (5th October 1937):

In The Ten Teacups we meet another well-established detective, Sir Henry Merrivale.  He is set a very neat problem to unravel.  Anonymous letters are received by the police announcing that “there will be ten teacups” at such-and-such an address, each message being followed by the discovery of a corpse.  Scotland Yard’s cordon seems useless; murder is done under the very nose of the force.  Mr. Carter Dickson shows considerable skill in devising an apparently insoluble puzzle and then putting forward a solution that is within the bounds of possibility.

 

Times Literary Supplement (John Everard Gurdon, 30th October 1937):

Twice New Scotland Yard received unsigned typewritten notes stating that ten teacups would be at a certain address at a certain time, and that the attention of the police to this fact was requested.  Although the addresses were different, each house had been empty for a week or more; on each occasion furniture for one room only had recently been delivered; and each time a dead man was found in the only furnished room.  Because the first warning had been ignored until the discovery of the tragedy, Chief Inspector Masters took the most elaborate precautions when he received the second note; and yet the second victim died in exactly similar circumstances, and the murderer vanished through a locked door.  Although the setting of the crimes was so eccentric the reason for this proved to be natural enough in the end.

 

Observer (Torquemada, 14th November 1937):

After reading The Magic Lantern Murders I urged Carter Dickson not to endanger his and H.M.’s renown by indulging a taste for flirtation with the peripatetic thriller.  In The Ten Teacups he has returned, I am glad to say, to his own speciality, the locked-room or Houdini crime, which, incidentally, has the added advantage of allowing H.M., that compost of very endearing idiosyncrasies, to be with us all the time.  An excellent recapitulation of the many “tiled-in” murders was made by Dr. Fell in Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, but it has been left for Carter Dickson to argue, in the present book, the undoubted case for them from the criminal’s point of view.  Such crimes strike many readers as more fictional than those open and ordinary ones with which the average detective writer is content.  This would not be the case if only our real life murderers would use a little more ingenuity.  That they do not do so is bad luck on the very small band who have brains enough to write this particular kind of tale.  The heart of the present shooting mystery, which was preceded by a flaunting invitation to the Yard to be present, was at once open to me, but only because many years ago I had read a certain one of C.R. Stagg’s Thornley Colton stories.  Readers who labour under the same disadvantage will, nevertheless, find plenty of minor problems to extend their brains, as well as the usual Carter Dickson cordial faculty for warming their hearts.  But is not Chief Inspector Masters becoming too much of a stout reflection of Sir Henry Merrivale himself?

 

Milward Kennedy in the Sunday Times:

Excellent fiction, in which logic and gruesome excitement and fantasy and sharp characterization are well blended, and in which fat old Merrivale triumphs in typical fashion.

 

Charles Williams in the Daily Telegraph:

Mr. Carter Dickson is one of our chief atmosphere stylists.  He has almost every gift – and I don’t know why I say almost.  …  He deserves his triumph.

 

Evening News:

A magnificent detective story, and one which will be read with great enthusiasm and delight.

 

Yorkshire Post:

This is 100% detection.