The Unicorn Murders (Carter Dickson)

  • By John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson
  • First published: US: Morrow, 1935; UK: Heinemann, 1936

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“I don’t want to believe we’ve got into a world of horrors and fabulous animals.”

What is the “Unicorn”, an object taken by Sir George Ramsden from India to London? Does it have a connection with two men found dead with gaping wounds in their heads — apparently gored to death by an invisible unicorn? And, of the strange characters isolated in a French château following an aeroplane crash, which of them is the fabulous detective Gasquet, and which the fabulous criminal Flamande (an infinitely more villainous version of Chesterton‘s Flambeau)? These are the riddles Sir Henry Merrivale, here eccentric without being childish, has to unravel. The solutions are brilliant — an ingenious firework display, with an unexpected solution (although walking a very fine tight-rope), and half-a-dozen secret identities. Carr can simultaneously maintain a thriller and a detective story, without reducing the impact of either.

H.M.’s lines include “Archons of Athens!”

Blurb (US)

“Unicorns!” snorted Sir Henry Merrivale.  “Stuff and nonsense!  Hocus-pocus!  I don’t believe it for a moment.  You can’t fool me.”  But someone almost did.

About the same time that the Marseilles-Paris plane was forced down in a bad storm near Orléans, and the passengers fled for refuge to a grim old château near-by, old H.M. arrived himself – crowned by the silk hat given him by the late Queen Victoria, riding in a battered French cab – just in time to be marooned in the château by the rising waters of the Loire – along with the passengers from the grounded plane.

There was something about the past lives of two of those passengers which it was vitally important for H.M. to know.  Something that had to do with a man found mysteriously murdered in the streets of Marseilles two days before.  The wound from which he died, they said, was most curious…

And now, in this dark château, presided over by an urbane French count who, strangely, seemed to have been expecting them, that mysterious terror struck again.  A man was killed, three people saw him die, yet no one could say what had happened.  And the wound was most curious…

Completely cut off from the rest of the world, H.M. had to solve the problem, find a mysterious weapon, and identify two personalities, by observation and deduction alone.

And what was that mysterious thing known as the Unicorn, carried with such secrecy, hunted with such avidity, protected with such guile?

Old H.M., the rumbling, grumbling grand old man whose former adventures have delighted thousands, has never had a more difficult puzzle than the case of The Unicorn Murders.  The author, Carter Dickson, once more has posed an impossible situation, and solved it with complete logic and credibility.

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 28th February 1936): The Unicorn Murders is [as] equally readable [as The Arabian Nights Murder], and equally damaged by excess.  Here the excess is not of comic exuberance but of factual complication.  The opening situation presents a man killed in a Marseilles street by something that has left a wound disagreeably suggestive of a unicorn’s horn, and a young woman solemnly greeting a friend in a Paris café with the first two lines of “The Lion and the Unicorn”.  That is good.  Better still is the position where a number of people are flood-bound in a castle in the Loire, knowing that the notorious murderer, Flamande, and his famous adversary, Gasquet, are present in disguise, but not knowing the identity of either the criminal or the detective.  At this point, however, the story begins to be overloaded with coincidence and further confusion of identities.  For those who suspect that J. Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson are one and the same writer, more circumstantial evidence is now forthcoming: (1) the growing family likeness between Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale; (2) the paradoxical opening gambits of the Arabian Nights Murder and the Unicorn Murders; (3) the fact that in both these books the unusual phrase “you overgrown gnome” appears.  By the way, Sir Henry, “Quocumque aspicio, nil [?—photocopy renders this word unreadable] est pontus et aer” is not correctly quoted.

Times Literary Supplement (Mrs. Elizabeth L. Sturch, 14th March 1936): Mr. Dickson has made old Sir Henry Merrivale, that shrewd though unconventional sleuth, into a welcome figure who heralds carefully thought-out mysteries wrapped in intellectual complications which are, if anything, too intricate.  This latest story eventually turns out to be along the same lines as its predecessors, in spite of starting off with a deceptive rush in the style of a Secret Service thriller.  A gang of suspects are isolated by an ingenious device in a French château; a murder is committed; search is made for a mysterious French criminal whose personal appearance is unknown.  The solution—it is giving nothing away to say that it turns on a question of identity—is none the less satisfying because it is of an intricacy with which the average reader cannot hope to deal, and in fact it will probably have to be read over several times before it is understood.  There are only two small facts in the story which seem to be really improbable: one, that members of the Secret Service should use such a very obvious password; the other, that in a small group of people such a large proportion should be able to speak both French and English perfectly.

Observer (Torquemada, 15th March 1936): Identification of the weapon used in The Unicorn Murders happily provides only a minor problem, for it is one the solution of which has been made easier than Mr. Dickson could possibly have expected by its newspaper mention twice during the last three months.  The major problem, the most intricate this author has given us, raises manifold questions, each of which requires a clear answer.  Each receives it, but by no means from the reader, or from the pleasant hero or the quite delightful heroine; only, in fact, from Sir Henry Merrivale.  H.M. is on the stage in an active part nearly all the time, and that suits me very well, for he is beginning to rival Reggie Fortune in my affections.  He is up against the almost legendary French criminal Flamande, a bowelless Flambeau, having pride instead of humour; he is also up against the incredulous half-genius of the French Sûreté.  Burn me, I don’t think anyone else could have come through.  Mr. Dickson has given us a web of logic shot silver and black with humour and horror.

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

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.

Books (Will Cuppy, 17th November 1935, 300w): It’s the sort of partly farcical and partly shuddery charade for which you may be yearning.  Naturally, being by Dickson, it’s better than most.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 17th November 1935, 320w): The situation offers infinite opportunities for confusion and mystification, and the author has made good use of those opportunities.

Sat R of Lit (5th December 1935, 40w): A1 Baffler.

Morning Post: An exciting and ingenious thriller … recommended to those who like a thriller complete with Secret Service agents, a diplomat carrying a mysterious object which is going to be stolen, a megalomaniac criminal, a brilliant Chief Inspector of Surêté, and as foil to the last, the solid, eccentric conquering Englishman.