book review

The Plague Court Murders

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).

5 thoughts on “The Plague Court Murders”

  1. I’m a sucker for a good legend in a mystery (especially a room that kills). As such, I ate up the legend in The Plague Court Murders and recall only being disappointed that it didn’t take up more of the story (The Red Widow Murders is an example of how to do it right).

    I enjoyed The Hangman’s Handyman quite a bit, although the legend in that one was a bit Lovecraft-ian for my tastes.

    Back to The Plague Court Murders – I loved the dark atmosphere of the first portion of the book and wish that it had all been solved before the sun came up. The book did feel a bit overly long. The scene at the end with the killer will always stick in my memory.

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    1. Well, this just goes to show that two people can read the same thing and come away with entirely different reactions. I think it’s a great book the moment the bell rings.

      I’ll get back to The Hangman’s Handyman in a few months and give it another go.

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      1. Legends are most effective when they feel somewhat believable. The weakness in The Plague Court Murders and The Hangman’s Handyman legends is that no reader is going to consider for a moment that those legends are true. Hag’s Nook, The Madman’s Room, and The Red Widow Murders all have a sense of truth to the legend, and I think that I enjoyed them so much because they really incited the imagination.

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  2. I’ve said before that I consider the historical background of this to be its weakest aspect and got shouted down for my pains, so to find someone agreeing with me makes me very happy indeed. The atmosphere is a bit heavy, but I can forgive Carr’s Early Heavy Atmosphere because I’m such a fan of it in the Bencolin books and he was rarely heavier with it than there 😄

    I’m looking forward to getting the AMC version of this — they’re lovely editions, and all my copies of TPCM had eight shades of tar kicked out of them before being dispatched to the charity shop/eBay; a pristine new edition from people who genuinely care about Carr is a lovely start to 2021.

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    1. “I’ve said before that I consider the historical background of this to be its weakest aspect and got shouted down for my pains,”

      Yes! Today, I’ve learned that people (rather passionately) love the legend in TPCM. I’m genuinely shocked.

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