The Punch and Judy Murders (Carter Dickson)

  • By John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson
  • First published: UK: Heinemann, 1936, as The Magic Lantern Murders; US: Morrow, 1937

Rating: 5 out of 5.

One of the best Carter Dicksons, in which humour and the detective story are neatly combined. Ken Blake’s pre-nuptial adventures, in which he is chased by the police and eludes them by putting on a series of disguises, are superbly funny, and the plot twists and turns like an anaconda in an epileptic fit. Fortunately, H.M. — more serious than usual, perhaps in contrast to the humour of the rest of the book — is there to disentangle the whole preposterous gallimaufry. Having interviewed the suspects and heard ingenious multiple solutions in the BerkeleyBrand style, H.M. produces a great surprise solution, with which the only flaw is that the villain does not receive his comeuppance. A book as light, as complex, and as hilariously unpredictable as North by Northwest.


Blurb (US)

H. M. had disappeared.

Young Kenwood Blake and Evelyn Cheyne were to be married on the morrow.

Came the wire: MEET ME IMPERIAL HOTEL TORQUAY IMMEDIATELY EXPRESS LEAVES PADDINGTON 3.30 URGENT MERRIVALE.

That’s what precipitated everybody into

THE PUNCH AND JUDY MURDERS

 …Hours later, Ken Blake, a fugitive from justice, dressed in an unlawfully appropriated policeman’s uniform, stood at the open door of a small library, confronted with a corpse.  The closet door opened, and a woman came out calmly.

“I thought I had better come out,” she said, “before I made a spectacle of myself, being dragged out.  I suppose you’ll want this!”  She reached into her handbag…

And Ken began to wonder how he was going to escape from the house before the bona fide police arrived.  This whole mess, he thought savagely, was all old H. M.’s fault…

This is Carter Dickson’s first mystery since The Unicorn Murders was published.  He has won a wide following because: the atmosphere of his stories is almost uncomfortably convincing; his characterization is excellent, with sardonic H. M. playing the lead; his plots are tight and logical; his action fast and full of suspense.

Blurb (UK)

Handed in 1 p.m., Monday, June 15th:

KENWOOD BLAKE, EDWARDIAN HOUSE, BURY STREET, LONDON, S.W.1.

MEET ME IMPERIAL HOTEL TORQUAY IMMEDIATELY EXPRESS LEAVES PADDINGTON 3.30 URGENT.

MERRIVALE.

Handed in 1.35 p.m.:

SIR HENRY MERIVALE, IMPERIAL HOTEL, TORQUAY, DEVON.

ARE YOU CRAZY AM TO BE MARRIED TOMORROW MORNING IN CASE YOU’VE FORGOTTEN ALSO URGENT.

BLAKE.

and the answer, without regard to economy or coherence:

DONT YOU GIVE ME ANY OF YOUR SAUCE CURSE YOU YOU BE ON THAT TRAIN I’LL SEE YOU GET BACK IN TIME FOR THE SLAUGHTER I AM TO BE THERE MYSELF AINT I BUT THIS IS IMPORTANT YOU BE ON THAT TRAIN ABSOLUTE BURNING IMPERATIVE THAT YOU BE BUTLER.

And that’s how the fun started.  Readers of Mr. Carter Dickson’s detective stories will by this time have realised, with a certain degree of satisfaction, that H.M. (“my favourite among all of the many fat detectives,” says Torquemada) is on the scene again.  But The Magic-Lantern Murders is not pure detective fiction.  It is a thriller with detection, and one of the finest examples of its kind we have read since the early “clubfoot” stories.  Not for an instant does the action flag – there is excitement enough in this story for the most avid reader of thrillers, but it is done with care and artistry, and the clever character-drawing and deduction prove over again that Mr. Carter Dickson is “unquestionably one of the big five.”


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 5th December 1936): About twenty-four hours before his wedding is due to take place, Kenwood Blake is summoned to Torquay by Sir Henry Merrivale, head of the Military Intelligence Department.  He returns to London just in time for the ceremony, but in this brief interval he has played an important part in some curious and exciting incidents.  A gentleman of foreign extraction is found dead at his house at Moreton Abbot.  Another gentleman of foreign extraction is found dead in his room in a Bristol hotel.  Both have been killed by strychnine and both are wearing Turkish fezes, like inverted flower-pots.  The question of who committed these two murders is no simple one.

It would be unfair to tabulate the whole list of suspects; but among them are a mysterious German agent, known as L, and a gang of counterfeiters, some of whose “slush” is discovered by the side of one of the corpses.  During the hours when he would normally have been the central figure at his last Bachelor Party, Ken is engaged in violent activities connected with the apprehension of the criminal.  The story is told with rapidity and gaiety and the reader is entertained right up to the last page, when the hero has to face one more unexpected difficulty at the very door of the church where he is to be married.

Observer (Torquemada, 6th December 1936): “TOUCHING STERN MURDER”

In an imperfect world only the well-nigh perfect are worth warning.  Solely because he has been a provider of sheer joy since he started writing detective stories, and also a practitioner in the first class, I will venture to warn Mr. Carter Dickson against two trends in his work which may lose him the reverence of his readers.  Always, since The Bowstring Murders, there has been a certain dimness about the minor, as opposed to the major, scientific details of his most scientific killings.  Here, in The Magic Lantern Murders, the average reader, while granting and applauding the murders, will, I am certain, find that his mind remains a trifle obscure as to how the magic lantern comes in.  Also The Unicorn Murders, Mr. Dickson’s penultimate work, showed an unworthy leaning towards the peripatetic thriller, and, during his ultimate tidying up of the pleasant couple of lovers who appeared in that work, he has leaned, for my taste, too far.  For about a hundred and fifty pages of The Magic Lantern Murders, Kenwood Blake, to-morrow’s bridegroom, is allowed to play the Beeding fool on his own, with H.M. only as a rumble on the other end of the phone.  This is as if H.C. Bailey were to write Meet Mr. Fortune, and concern half of the book with the doings of Lomas and Bell.  I can think of no higher compliment or more bitter denunciation.

The Times (18th December 1936): SECRET SERVICE

It is indispensable, for a “thriller” to succeed, that the author should have been apparently thrilled in writing it.  It is fatal if he gives the impression that he is occasionally losing interest.  This failing cannot be attributed to Mr. Carter Dickson, whose buoyant spirits and unflagging enthusiasm saturate every chapter and line of The Magic Lantern Murders.  These adventures of a young man, summoned from London to Torquay, on the eve of his marriage, to take a part in certain Secret Service activities, are not only exciting and diverting but do not stray very far from the bounds of possibility.  And as the entire episode takes place in a 24-hour period it will be appreciated that no one, author, hero, reader, has much time for taking breath.

Manchester Evening News: Carter Dickson is one of the few writers who can mix successfully detection and sheer thrills, and he has never done it better than in The Magic Lantern Murders.

New Statesman: Carter Dickson is now ‘one of the Big Five,’ but he deserves a new title of honour for The Magic Lantern Murders, which I regard as his masterpiece up to date.

Books (Will Cuppy, 7th February 1937, 280w): Worth reading for its clever jigsaw and pleasant style.

Saturday Review of Literature (20th February 1937, 30w): Galloping action, feverish good humour, some mysterious ‘dancing lights’, and a twisted plot that unravels nicely.