First published: US, Morrow, 1934; UK, Heinemann, 1935
Readers of The Plague Court Murders demanded more of H. M. – Sir Henry Merrivale – that obese, sleepy old bear whom Chief Inspector Masters routed out of his lair in Whitehall to solve that baffling mystery. So here H. M. is again, grumbling as ever, but playing an important part in
THE WHITE PRIORY MURDERS
Place: London and the famous old house, White Priory, nearby.
Main Characters: MARCIA TAIT, glamorous film star, who has broken her Hollywood contrast to open in a London play, “The Private Life of Charles II”; the eccentric MAURICE BOHUN, author of the play, and master of White Priory; JOHN BOHUN, his brother, in love with Marcia Tait; EMERY (publicity) and RAINGER (production) who have rushed after Marcia Tait from Hollywood, trying to persuade her to return; mouthy old LORD CANIFEST, backer of the play, and his subdued daughter, LOUISE; the lovely niece of the Bohuns, KATHARINE BOHUN; young JAMES BENNETT, American, and nephew of SIR HENRY MERRIVALE (see above); CHIEF INSPECTOR MASTERS.
Two of these people are murdered.
And one of them is the murderer.
“This business is black enough, and tangled enough, as it is.”
Near classic Carr, but not a smash-finish. Until the identity of the murderer is disclosed, this has all the hallmarks of Carr’s masterpieces: a memorable setting (snow-bound country house), a memorable and seemingly insoluble impossible crime (Carr’s first “no footprints”), interesting grotesques (Maurice Bohun in particular), convincing Christianna Brandish multiple solutions drawn up against the suspects by the suspects (note Carr’s knack for making the reader think what he wants them to think — until his complicity in a minor mystery was revealed, I suspected one character, promptly eliminated him as a suspect, and then discovered that he was the murderer!), a strong (NOT a “ginch”) leading lady (who promptly became one of my main suspects), and first-class atmosphere. The solution, however, is not the utter surprise that Carr’s masterpieces (e.g., The Corpse in the Waxworks, The Plague Court Murders, The Three Coffins, The Unicorn Murders) are. It is an ‘Oh! So … did it’, and, while not as bad as And So to Murder, still has that quality of lost ingenuity, of needless vulgarity. In short, the murderer’s identity lacks inevitability. Furthermore, there are too many pseudo-villains and attacks not connected with the principal crimes. However, it is refreshing to see the character Carr originally envisaged for ‘H.M.’ — eccentric, yes, but still serious and intelligent.
Times Literary Supplement (15th August 1935):
The weak point of this story is that the suspects had not enough visible motive for killing Marcia Tait, the fair and frail actress. But the network of evidence pointing to them is so ingeniously woven, so well that two of the suspects make out cases against one another, and each in turn seems convincing. Yet it is a less suspected person on whom justice at last pounced, led by fat, wheezy Sir H. Merivale, Mr. Dickson’s favourite amateur detective. White Priory is not far from London, and was once occupied by Charles II.’s favourite, Barbara Palmer, of whom Marcia Tait was, as her host said, a kind of reincarnation. Bohun, the host, wrote a play for her, and the reader soon suspects him; also his neurotic brother John, who showed himself capable of murder; also Rainger, the film director, with whom Marcia had broken a contract; also his partner Emery, with another grievance; also Louise, daughter of the newspaper peer who meant to marry Marcia. The great puzzle is that the pavilion where the body was found was surrounded by snow with no footprints but those of the finder. The great H.M.’s solution is obvious when once suggested. Collectors of “literallys” will note the remark of Willard the old actor on page 55, “the fat will literally be in the fire”.
Observer (Torquemada, 25th August 1935):
CRIMES BROAD BLOWN
I have seldom noticed such an advance in likeableness, credibility and technique as Mr. Dickson has shown, first between The Bowstring and The Plague Court murders, and now between the latter and The White Priory Murders. The “impossible situation” here is the best he has given us: the answer to his problem of entrance to and egress from a pavilion surrounded by a sheet of virgin snow is simple in the extreme, but Mr. Dickson keeps it from us, or from me at any rate, by sheer force of writing. “H.M.” has blundered his way into my heart, and reigns there favourite of all the many fat detectives.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 21st September 1935):
The White Priory Murders are of robust construction. A female film star is found murdered in a pavilion entirely surrounded by snow untrodden except for the footsteps of the man who finds her. Sir Herbert Merrivale is responsible for the coachwork as well as the solution; and he is a detective very much to my liking, breezy, foul-mouthed, and such a quick mover that I never grasp quite how he reaches his infallible deductions. Readers, however, who like being taken for a quiet ride may get to dislike the constant rattle. It is in the general department of love interest that these British producers tend to lag behind the Americans; they never engineer a smart pick-up; their sexual lay-out is sloppy in texture and sluggish in action. The defect in the Americans is that they attempt so much pace for their engine power that interior noises are quickly developed and deafen one to the author’s real plot.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 2nd December 1934, 240w):
Sir Henry is at his best in this baffling yarn, and so is Carter Dickson.
Sat R of Lit (8th December 1934, 30w):
Books (Will Cuppy, 9th December 1934, 230w):
You’ll find The White Priory Murders well worth your time and money.
Mr. Dickson has handled this classical material very capably, using scrupulous fairness in deduction and concealing the identity of his criminal with considerable cunning… His group of characters contains a number of oddities, but the oddities are both interesting and believable … a collection of careful character-sketches.
Mr. Dickson, I am delighted to say, gives his readers full marks for intelligence, and, what is even more important, he plays strictly fair. If you solve the problem of the White Priory you will be almost worthy to take your place beside ‘H.M.’, Mr. Dickson’s eccentric, enormous, and entirely lovable detective.