The Sir Henry Merrivale Books (Carter Dickson)

I’ve recently had the very good fortune to come into the possession of nearly all of Carter Dickson’s novels, who is also better known as John Dickson Carr, one of the great luminaries of early and mid twentieth century detective fiction, the “Golden Age” of mystery writing, when you had such greats as Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and G.K. Chesterton all writing at the same time. Dickson Carr’s two exemplary and now arch-typical detectives are his most famous creations, the genial but brilliant Dr. Gideon Fell, and the irascible genius Sir Henry Merrivale. I’m going to use Carter Dickson in this review though, for the sake of clarity, because all the Sir Henry Merrivale books are written under that pseudonym. This was at the request of his publishers, because the first novel he wrote under a pseudonym – The Bowstring Murders – was published under the name Carr Dickson, and they felt the similarity wouldn’t play well.

Anyhow, Dickson was, by general acclaim, the finest master of the ‘locked-room’ murder mystery, perhaps ever. The Dr. Fell mystery The Hollow Man was selected as the best ever by a panel of mystery writers. I suppose a more contemporary definition of ‘locked room mystery’ would be “obfuscated homicide committed in enclosure seemingly impenetrable by human agency”. Feel free to borrow that, I prefer ‘locked room’ myself, it clears away all ornamentation and allows us to seriously get down to cases. Like a previous review – The Nightside Series – I found it difficult to pin down one particular book as my favorite, although, as I will reveal my favorites, with grandiloquent and in, I hope, the best style of the old maestro Sir Henry Merrivale himself.

A bit of background on the author first, though. Born in America, the son of a Congressman from Philadelphia, Carter Dickson was the pseudonym of John Dickson Carr, who also wrote many novels and short stories under his real name. The difference is mainly in the detectives – Sir Henry Merrivale and Dr Gideon Fell – now considered justifiably to be iconic representatives of the genre through a good deal of the 20th century. To say Dickson was a prolific writer would be putting it mildly, he churned out at least a book a year, often two or three, while still managing to be a radio and theatre scriptwriter, as well as knocking out drams and screenplays for the BBC.

While considered to be among the “British-style” writers of mysteries, largely because most of his books were set in that country and his detectives were English as well, he eventually returned to the country of his birth after World War II, as a globally acclaimed mystery writer. Some of the later books in the Sir Henry Merrivale (henceforth H.M, or the Old Man, his two most used sobriquets) series are set in America, roughly contemporary to when he was writing.Both of Dickson’s best known detectives are very similar in some ways, but also very different in others. Both are doctors, for example, although H.M is also qualified as a barrister. In fact, in one of the H.M books – The Judas Window – is set in a courtroom, with H.M defending the seemingly indefensible, in a superbly executed locked room mystery. While the mechanisms used might be a bit dated now it’s still very clever. When a murder mystery both makes your jaw drop and go ‘Hell, I should have thought of that!’ at the time of revelation, you know a true master is at work.

Anyhow, Dickson was, by general acclaim, the finest master of the ‘locked-room’ murder mystery, perhaps ever. The Dr. Fell mystery The Hollow Man was selected as the best ever by a panel of mystery writers. I suppose a more contemporary definition of ‘locked room mystery’ would be “obfuscated homicide committed in enclosure seemingly impenetrable by human agency”. Feel free to borrow that, I prefer ‘locked room’ myself, it clears away all ornamentation and allows us to seriously get down to cases. Like a previous review - The Nightside Series - I found it difficult to pin down one particular book as my favorite, although, as I will reveal my favorites, with grandiloquent and in, I hope, the best style of the old maestro Sir Henry Merrivale himself.

A bit of background on the author first, though. Born in America, the son of a Congressman from Philadelphia, Carter Dickson was the pseudonym of John Dickson Carr, who also wrote many novels and short stories under his real name. The difference is mainly in the detectives – Sir Henry Merrivale and Dr Gideon Fell – now considered justifiably to be iconic representatives of the genre through a good deal of the 20th century. To say Dickson was a prolific writer would be putting it mildly, he churned out at least a book a year, often two or three, while still managing to be a radio and theatre scriptwriter, as well as knocking out drams and screenplays for the BBC.

While considered to be among the “British-style” writers of mysteries, largely because most of his books were set in that country and his detectives were English as well, he eventually returned to the country of his birth after World War II, as a globally acclaimed mystery writer. Some of the later books in the Sir Henry Merrivale (henceforth H.M, or the Old Man, his two most used sobriquets) series are set in America, roughly contemporary to when he was writing.Both of Dickson’s best known detectives are very similar in some ways, but also very different in others. Both are doctors, for example, although H.M is also qualified as a barrister. In fact, in one of the H.M books – The Judas Window – is set in a courtroom, with H.M defending the seemingly indefensible, in a superbly executed locked room mystery. While the mechanisms used might be a bit dated now it’s still very clever. When a murder mystery both makes your jaw drop and go ‘Hell, I should have thought of that!’ at the time of revelation, you know a true master is at work.

Anyhow, while H.M is more given to braggadocio, and is occasionally bombastic, concealing a tremendous intellect behind a facade of grandiloquent verbosity and facetiousness, Gideon Fell is more the typical upper class Englishman, and somewhat eccentric to boot. They’re both, to put it bluntly, fat. Fell has to walk with two canes. However, in comparison Fell tends to be more gentile and civil, while H.M typifies the roaring, apparently foolish Churchillian Englishman, given to temper explosions and hot rage. However, these are more often triggered by the comical situations he gets himself into or finds himself in.

One of the major differences between the books on the two detectives is the element of comedy in the H.M books, which are totally absent from the more reserved Gideon Fell books. Some critics find them somewhat contrived, and it is true that the H.M books follow a discernible pattern. Still, I found a lot of them extremely amusing, and it’s part of why I enjoy the H.M books more. The Night of the Mocking Widow has a hilarious sequence involving a runaway suitcase and a gaggle of adolescent children, and in A Mystery in Five Boxes H.M gets upended in the street by the long suffering Inspector Masters, H.M’s policeman amanuensis, while trying to push a fruit barrow up a hill, to, with the aim of, as he modestly puts it “reducin’ my corporation”.

H.M is also more establishment than Gideon Fell. Fell has no direct connection to the government or the police, he mostly gets called in as a consultant by the police officer in charge of the case or as a friend of one of the characters involved. H.M, on the other hand, was the head of the British Secret Service during the war and later the head of the Military Intelligence Bureau. In appearance and demeanour he is very much a Churchillian character – corpulent, cigar smoking, and scowling. Inspector Masters, the essential policeman amanuensis, has a love-hate sort of relationship with H.M. While frequently annoyed and sometimes downright furious with H.M’s cockamamie schemes and shenanigans, like in And So To Murder, when he drops his investigation in order to play a magician for a Christmas school treat.

Still, Masters has a very real respect for H.M’s deductive prowess, and it becomes apparent through the books that H.M is a prodigally gifted deductive genius, he’s always at least three steps ahead of everyone else.Like Fell, he loves to hold forth on the solution when he solves it, in the typical style of mid-twentieth mystery revelation, when the main cast of characters assemble in a room, amongst whom is the murderer, or in some cases murderers. Poirot (Agatha Christie), Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout), and Ellery Queen (eponymous) also do the same.Unlike these others though, the story is not told from the point of view of the amanuensis, but usually third person perspective from one or a few of the major characters. Much like Dorothy Sayers (see here), and it’s part of why these two are probably my favorite fictional detective authors. Some are completely third person, that is to say, rarely diving into the narrators mind and making his or her thought audible. There’s almost always a love relationship too, as a side plot to the main mystery of murder, in most cases involving the narrator, but not always. On a couple of occasions the narrators recur, but most of the books have no previous charactorial continuity. The Fell books have relationships too, but much less frequently. This perhaps has to do with the winning formula, more idealized and better crafted, that Dickson created with H.M. For fairly short books, they have tremendous depth.

A bit more about the books themselves, and then I’ll wind up. Whether writing as John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson, all of the books are situated around an impossible murder ( sometimes more than one), almost always in a locked room. This essentially means that the perpetrator has somehow vanished into thin air, and while the reader is presented with all the clues necessary to solve the murder, but the solution rests on the ingenuity of H.M or Dr. Fell to deduce what happened. Essentially the plots revolves around the how primarily and the why secondarily. In a lot of the books the solution tends to be somewhat mechanism-derived like in The Judas Window, and And So To Murder. This could involve out-and-out locked room circumstances – The Skeleton in the Clock, The Red Widow Murders – or impossible circumstances like in Seeing is Believing and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, wherein the murders occur in a roomful of people who alibi each other. On occasion even supernatural forces are considered, like teleforce (The Reader Is Warned), or seances (The Plague Court Murders), but for the plots sake in terms of character development, not as the linchpin of the revelation.

All the H.M books follow a similar sort of pattern, the narrator kicks off, occasionally in medias res (The Judas Window, You Wouldn’t Kill Patience), meets the girl, who is usually part of the group of suspects. Then usually follows one strongly comical (usually involving H.M’s physicality) episode before the murder occurs, and H.M is then called in by one of the group, or by Inspector Masters, who owes his meteoric rise at Scotland Yard to H.M’s deductive genius, much like Inspector Japp does to Hercule Poirot. Then follows the usual character development, the deepening and quickening of the love relationship, and often a lot of the books delve into both the history and practice of homicide through the ages, and that depth is a large part of what makes these books so worth the read. You’ll learn something new every time you read a Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr novel. And finally, of course, the big revelation with suspense and thrill carefully built up. Dickson absolutely mastered this formula, in my opinion, with the H.M books, but other critics prefer the Gideon Fell books which don’t all follow any kind of similar patternSo, in conclusion, while this review has focused mostly on the H.M books, the Gideon Fell books are excellent as well, my particular favorites being The Case of the Constant Suicides, Hag’s Nook, and He Who Whispers. But it doesn’t really matter where you start, unless you’re obsessed with continuity.

I highly recommend them, the books are considered formulaic now, but that is essentially because they created the formula. If you like detective fiction with unbelievable murders (and who doesn’t, honestly), that are sometimes incredibly complex and others painfully obvious (in hindsight, I think I only deduced the how, whom, and why correctly twice) these are the books for you. Nobody did it better, and the denouement always packs a surprising punch, leaving you incredulous of H.M’s power of observation. He sees everything, the little things that pass people by but turn out to be of immense significance. Therein lies much of the delight conjoined with reading these books, and I guarantee, you’ll be amused greatly by the old maestro, Sir Henry Merrivale, but you’ll definitely come away in awe and with a tremendously healthy respect for his criminal genius. As Inspector Masters once said, thank God that the old maestro chose not to be a criminal. Although there was that one time when he and his wife (who doesn’t appear in any of the books, incidentally) put a stuffed policeman on the top of every chimney in Scotland Yard. Fiendishly clever genius, much like the author himself. Carter Dickson is probably my favourite of the great writers from the “Golden Age” of detective fiction writing, although it’s pointless to choose between them.

 

Samir Krishnamurti

Samir Krishnamurti

Research Director at Global Security Centre, India
"Bibliophilia, or more realistically Bookaholism runs in my genetic make-up. I've grown up being read to, reading, and surrounded by books."

From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at samirkrishnamurti@gmail.com
Samir Krishnamurti

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