Because The Plague Court Murders has plenty of enjoyable elements, I’d like to begin with its main flaw, one I consider entirely unnecessary, and one which has recently put me off reading another book. We’re talking about the legend…excuse me…THE LEGEND.
It works like this. 80 (or 700) years ago, this curse/murder/impossible event happened. Now, it’s happening again. You’ve seen THE LEGEND many times, often in John Dickson Carr books. Let’s just say it now, Carr was never sloppier and less effective with the relaying of a legend. In my American Mystery Classics reprint, it takes 70 pages to tell the damned thing and even then, Carr botches the telling. It’s vague and curiously uninvolving — I’m still not sure who Louis Playge was. He’s described as the hangman’s assistant…but not. He had an awl dagger…but I don’t know what he did with it. I know he died of the plague…but why is that important? It isn’t. The fact is none of the details of the legend are inexorably tied to the present day. And that is the entire reason for having a legend. Why is it happening again? How? There’s a little of that in TPCM, but not nearly enough to justify the time we spend hearing it.
Carr could have made Playge a murderer or a fireman or a goddamned newspaper delivery boy–the Legend doesn’t really matter. It has to strike an ominous chord with the reader before being mysteriously mirrored in the narrative’s present day. It’s easy! I’m not bragging, but I did a LEGEND in one chapter in my last book. Trust me, if I can do it, it’s easy!
I recently gave up on Hake Talbot’s The Hangman’s Handyman. Why? Because after more than a third of the book, Talbot is still explaining the LEGEND!!! It’s vague, boring, and not at all frightening. I’m sure the book gets better….it literally cannot get worse.
It’s frustrating, especially considering how expertly the LEGEND is conveyed in Rim of the Pit. And Carr — there are too many examples to bring up. Even his books I didn’t love have no problem with this simple step — Hag’s Nook comes to mind. The Demon of Dartmoor, The Madman’s Room…okay, any Paul Halter novel is a great example of THE LEGEND.
Another problem (also early) is atmosphere. It’s not that TPCM fails at setting it up, it’s the time it takes. Carr did so much better with so much less in other novels. Here, he has to create an ominous mood for our night at Plague Court. He does this repetitively without much effect. It Walks By Night (a book which looks better and better to my eyes) is far superior in terms of frightening the reader and setting the mood.
The Plague Court Murders struggles with elements that should have been a cakewalk for Carr. It’s so infuriating because the rest of the book is a lot of fun.
So, let’s get to that…
The problem: A psychic is determined to exorcise the ghost of Playge. To do so, he locks himself in a stone hut while a group of his disciples pray inside a darkened house. The stone hut’s impenetrableness is well established. A padlock is on the outside and the inside has been barred. The window bars are encased in stone and leave very little room between them. All around the hut is mud and there are no footprints. Funnily enough, the psychic is found drenched in blood and sporting several stab wounds which fit the awl dagger perfectly. This dagger had been stolen earlier from a museum by a tall, thin man. We know the psychic was killed inside the hut because he rang the emergency bell for help.
The investigation: The best part of the novel. We spend the rest of the night (and into the early morning) with Inspector Masters interrogating the group about their movements. Carr is exceptional at giving you important-sounding clues while slipping the truly-important ones right past you. There are a few secrets from the past that creep up to offer new possibilities, all the while you keep wondering how the stone hut was trespassed. Eventually, H.M. makes his first appearance and (like Fell) jumps onto the main threads nearly straight away without spelling them out for anyone else.
The solution: It’s a bit more complicated than Carr’s best solutions, but it’s still a lot of fun. There are many minor details that come back into play, and there’s one conversation you’ll definitely want to go back and re-read.
I’d say this is a good, bloated book. It’s still frustrating to think about how easily fixable its main problems are. It isn’t a case of a writer attempting something hard and failing (admirable). It’s a case of a writer failing at something he could have done in his sleep (infuriating).