The White Priory Murders: Carter Dickson (1934) – Does having an authors entire career before you make reading ‘un-fair-play’?

I continue with my current John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson) binge, and I have come to the conclusion that I officially love being told that a work by Carr is sub standard. Because every time I then seem to love the book!

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I was told Graveyard to Let wasn’t worth a huge amount of time, and now it’s one of my top locked room works. This also goes for The Problem of the Wire Cage, and Nine and Death Makes Ten. It seems that many of us on the bloggersphere over the last few years have had similar experiences with Carr, and that the works always seen as the top tier are being replaced somewhat by ‘lesser’ titles.

I’m not a fool though. I realise that Patrick Butler for the Defense, when I get round to it, is never going to be a surprise smash hit (although there must be good elements to it right? Somewhere?), and Blind Barber was never going to get any easier to read even with the four month break I took at the half way point. And if Ben’s recent review of Papa La Bas is anything to go by, I haven’t got much to look forward to there. However these books are talked about as simply and objectively bad. But these aside, many of Carr’s works are discussed as if they are missing something, or that they don’t compare to the heights achieved in his ‘masterpieces’. This in recent years has lowered my expectation of certain Carr books, only to have these works unexpectedly reveal something wonderful.

This has got me thinking: when we have an authors entire oeuvre in front of us, does that make reading their works a fair process?

As an example I’m looking at the The White Priory Murders, an early Carr novel and one of his first impossible crime works. In reading about this the main opinion seems to be that it’s a brilliant locked room with an amazing solution trapped in a sensationalist and dragging story. So I was geared up for that. I had held off till I had a bit more time, and at 250 pages it’s one Carr’s longer ones. I was ready for a real wrestle just to get to the solution. But, I ended up having the reverse experience.

It felt to me that each scene made sense being there, characters or dialogue didn’t seem superfluous, and even with the extended page count, each piece fitted together in a gorgeous plot with simple but shocking turns over the chapters that it kept me going at high pace. The glamorous Hollywood Movie Star Marcia Tait has traveled to England to make a new film. Staying at the gorgeous White Priory, she insists on sleeping the night in the Pavilion. A building set in the middle of a huge lake, with only one footpath to reach it. The lake is frozen solid. Both the ice and the path are covered with fresh snow after Tait goes in for the night, and it’s proved that no one went in with her. However early morning comes and Tait is found beaten to death, with no footprints left in the snow. The cast surrounding Tait, her agent, lover, play write and all the other trappings of fame, all wanted to control her, but was she playing a roll or was she the one in control?

A great set up and I couldn’t wait to get to the solution. I had heard it was highly original and a real kicker. But alas it was ruined for me. Another lesser author had stolen the solution for another work, and done it so much worse, which meant that I was onto it from early on. But Carr does it so so well, and the misdirection and the clicking of pieces together by the end is luscious. How the dog keeps coming into play is a particular favourite, and there are large amounts of false solutions and ideas presented. It felt as if Carr at this early stage of locked room writing was saying, “I see your no-footprints solution and I raise you 3 more solutions, all of which are false.”

Seeing the solution coming in the distance was another reason why I had a reverse experience with this book. I wasn’t plowing to get to the end and although many say that the middle drags, I was waiting for that moment but didn’t find it myself. Maybe I was in a good mood, and I’ve got it wrong, I’m not sure. There are certainly some sensationalist parts to this book, some misogyny, and some early Carr verbosity (but not to the level of It Walks By Night), but Carr is dealing with the world of Hollywood meats British academia which in itself is a pretty farcical setup. And he lets the caricatures have their day. Carr also knowingly subverts this; Merrivale making a few comments on how people are talking ‘as if they are in a stupid detective play’, so maybe this is the early stages of his subversion that we would see in the more post-modern breakdowns in the likes of The Hollow Man. With that in mind lets head back to the question of Oeuvre .

I have spoken in mine and JJ’s locked room podcast about how strange it is that we are almost always looking back when reading classic GAD. We are looking back on authors’ entire bodies of work in one go, it’s a unique experience. But being able to stand back from an entire life’s work can have negative effects on how certain works are seen. It is much easier for works to become unfairly mythologised (Hollow Man / Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and become supposedly representative of what the writer was trying to achieve in their entire writing career. My feeling is that by not being there at the time of the release of a book, we miss something about what the writer was trying to achieve in that one work at that time, and not over a whole career.

In a funny way I had built a strange anxiety about reading Carr, in that I wanted each one I read to be ‘the one’. The one I could give to people to draw them into GAD, the one that would be representative of his career, and of the ‘master of the locked room’. But I think sometimes these mythologised titles we give to GAD authors and the context of the ‘masterpieces’ they achieved, is unhelpful in approaching their work. We can miss what gems there are in each work by unfairly laboring them with what is to come.

When myself JJ and Ben did our podcast two-parter on the Ages of John Dickson Carr it opened my eyes to see his work in a totally fresh way. I have stopped trying to look at Carr as a locked room master but as an experimental crime, supernatural and suspense author, who was trying out new things with each work and constantly stretching and challenging the boundaries of his genre.

But in saying all this, I know that as I read these lesser known works I can enjoy a ‘substandard’ Carr more because I know that he wrote even better. I can see the light shimmering in the cracks knowing what is to come. So maybe then it’s not a struggle with contextualising an author in terms of their career but maybe a false contextualising that makes you think that a writer had a certain type of writing focus that they actually didn’t, and therefore reading their books in that context isn’t entirely fair-play to them?

This may come under the huge mental subheading of ‘things that only I think are interesting’ but I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Speak soon friends

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15 thoughts on “The White Priory Murders: Carter Dickson (1934) – Does having an authors entire career before you make reading ‘un-fair-play’?”

  1. It is interesting how much reputation and expectations can affect the reading experience. There is always something gratifying about discovering a book widely written off has some merit you can point to.

    With regards Carr, I agree that it is clear he wanted readers to see other aspects of his work. I will admit to being a little disappointed when I realize that a book I am reading isn’t a locked room or impossibility but he clearly wanted to show his range as a writer.

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    1. I wonder if even in his time he was typecast and wanted to try different things? At any rate as you say he had a huge range, from works like Emporers Snuff box and the historicals he really had so many good ideas.

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  2. It’s a crime that you didn’t get the full effect of The White Priory Murders since the ending was partially spoiled for you. The epiphany of realizing what happened is the moment that sticks out the most for me across all of the mysteries I’ve read. With that said, you’re right that this is an excellent novel throughout.

    I’ve been critical of it dragging a bit in the midsection, but I think it was really more of a frustration with some of the sensationalism. It’s been a few years since I read this, but I recall multiple chapters ending with the explanation for everything about to be provided, only for the next chapter to start with some irrelevant distraction that pushed the goal posts further out of reach.

    As for less appreciated gems – Patrick Butler for the Defense isn’t going to be some surprise smash hit, but it isn’t a bad book at all. If you really want some gems then I encourage you to look at Below Suspicion (double impossible poisonings), The Witch of the Low Tide (perhaps my favorite historical, and features a footprint impossibility), The Bowstring Murders (I can’t recall if you’ve read that one), or The Unicorn Murders (one of my favorite impossibilities). Hell, try Seeing is Believing – it’s actually an excellent read throughout although I do think it falters.

    The overall theme of your post is an interesting one and slightly intersects with a post I’ll be doing sometime in the next month. Imagine reading these authors as they came out – you’ve read everything they’ve already published, and now the new one is out. No hunting and pecking across the career. The closest equivalent that we have today would be the English translations of the Paul Halter novels. Of course, those are all already written, but you still know that everyone’s reading The Man Who Loved Clouds this year and we have no clue which title is coming next.

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    1. I haven’t read anyone of those 4 so they are great recommendations. And I have most of them after finding a gorgeous copy of the Bow String Murders a few weeks ago.

      Surprisingly the sensationalism didn’t stick out to me (and I’m usually pretty sensitive about that / get over angry about it) but as I say I feel like there is a bit a satire/parody going on here, although it wouldn’t be fully realised till later works.

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  3. I think you have a good point here. When I first started reading Agatha Christie in the early 1970s her career was in effect over and she died shortly after. Therefore, I had the whole of her work there as an entire thing to explore, but I never had that excitement of waiting for a new book by a favourite author to come out. I think it *does* change the way we encounter that author’s work, definitely. The surprise element is gone, we can pick and choose how and when we read, and the reputation of a book precedes it. So it’s very hard to approach the work objectively!

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    1. Can you also imagine people nattering about the new Christie or Carr coming out and you trying to finish it before anyone spoils it for you! I like the idea that you said about choosing ‘how’ we read as well as when. I feel like that ‘how’ can be shaped a huge amount before getting to the books as well, by mythologies and other input, wether good or bad.

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  4. This is a large part of why I (now!) typically avoid reviews of books I have an interest in reading myself — at best I’ll do a quick scan, or look at the summarising paragraph, but generally I stay away in the hope of retaining a sort of “Ooooo, whats this one going to be like?!” excitement. It’s also part of whay I regularly have a handful of books on my shevles whose plot I do not know, typically by an author I have not read before (normally green Penguins from 1925-45, so I stand a chance of it being in my wheelhouse).

    I know I’ve done a lot of complaining about receivd wisdom on authors given my own delighted response to Freeman Wills Crofts after years of being told what an utter dullard he was, and as the years progress and I have fewer and fewer “known” authors and books left to read, it’s going to be even more fun simply striking out and seeing what happens (hey, that’s how I found Norman Berrow and Max Afford).

    I had built a strange anxiety about reading Carr, in that I wanted each one I read to be ‘the one’. The one I could give to people to draw them into GAD, the one that would be representative of his career, and of the ‘master of the locked room’

    You have no idea how perfectly this encapsulates my response to just about every author I read for something like 15 years — every single one was a novel I wanted to be able to press into the hands of others so that they would finally understand what I was spending all that time and money on. And the ones I do discover which fit this criteria aren’t even in bloody print…!

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    1. I’ve stopped actively hunting reviews of books that I’m certain I want to read. I enjoy the fact that I know next to nothing about Carr’s The Dead Man’s Knock and Death Turns the Tables aside from the year of publication, the fact that they both feature Fell, and that the later is supposedly much better than the former. I’m going to read them no matter what, so why ruin any of it knowing any semblance of the crimes? I’m glad that I recently went into The Punch and Judy Murders completely ignorant, because there was always the question in my mind of where Carr was going to try to take things – and you don’t really get a grasp of that until soon after the second murder. Of course, it’s hard to skip a review if one of my favorite bloggers posts it, although that might garner a skim and then a return months/years later when I get to it.

      This doesn’t quite apply evenly across the board though. I’m going to read everything by Christianna Brand, but you can bet I’d read a review of The Honey Harlot or The Rose in Darkness just because I’ve never seen a glimmer of a review about them. I would only skim a review of Death of Jezebel at this point though because I read a few of them long ago and would die rather than risk an accidental spoiler.

      For most other authors, all bets are off though. There are soooo many Christies that I haven’t read yet that I don’t think my brain preserves much more than the overall opinion. Other authors like Bush and Rhode have so many books that I’m not going to get my hands on any time soon that I’m sure I’ll forget all details from a review.

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    2. Having books on hold that you don’t know about is a very good idea. I kind of want to preserve the feeling of reading books that you feel no one else seems to know about as well, which is something special!

      It’s funny this anxiety isn’t it. I wonder where it comes from? I was speaking to a friend this weekend who is very much into his fantasy, a reads widely in it, but kept apologising and then saying that he ‘serious’ or ‘proper’ books as well. I feel like genre fiction (although I really dislike the term) is still so maligned, even as it was right from its outset, that we can end up feeling a kind of anxiety about wanting to draw people into our precious obsession and show people that the non-objective opinions of the critics (quite often written with a minimal amount of knowledge) are wrong!

      I feel I am letting go of that in recent months. However another friend asked me this weekend what GAD authors I liked, and I said Carr and now he wants to borrow one to read!! What to begin with!! aaaah! (Takes medication furiously)

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  5. You have an interesting point on The Hollow Man and Roger Ackroyd – with the authors’ entire libraries already published many decades ago, there has been a long time for opinions to be established. The Hollow Man is “the best” Carr. With Christie it’s slightly different because I think you could count Orient Express and And Then There Were None alongside Roger Ackroyd in terms of notoriety. Still, the public (whoever they are) has spoken, these are the best.

    But, as you know, not really. Well, maybe – I can’t definitively comment as I’m saving The Hollow Man for towards the end (more so because I spoiled it for myself long ago and might as well put off reading it). Carr has so many strong books (The Burning Court, The Crooked Hinge, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, The Judas Window, The Problem of the Green Capsule, He Who Whispers, etc, etc etc) that I can’t believe that The Hollow Man is going to do something that definitively pushes itself above them. Instead I imagine it will stand alongside them as an extremely enjoyable read.

    My original reason for starting The Green Capsule was to get a gauge on what John Dickson Carr books were actually worth reading ( I have four early posts on the subject). I had figured out what popular consensus was for most books, but there were so many of them that it was really hard to judge when I should stop reading (I had the naive perspective at the time that I would just cut the author off after exhausting the “good” books). As you cover in this post, it was after realizing that many of the less lauded titles were excellent that I decided to go all in.

    The White Priory Murders is an excellent example of this – I would honestly be tempted to put it on a Carr top 10 list. At the same time, “popular” opinion somewhat makes me reluctant to do so, which is of course silly. It all ties back to what really makes a top book. Is it a title that is a rollicking ride the whole way through (Till Death Do Us Part) or a book that is steadily good and blows the mind in terms of the strength of both the puzzle and the solution (The White Priory Murders)? I have a tendency to learn towards the former when thinking of top 10 books, but that troubles me some times.

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    1. Ah, how naive you were! This popular opinion thing is hard to get past and I think it relates to the maligning of crime fiction and genre fiction I just mentioned above in reply to JJ. As you say there has been a long time for opinions to be established, but I wonder if many opinions are of their time and context, and that as other generations of readers and writers emerge that opinions can change.

      This is why is frustrates me when journalists/critics who bash GAD often have little knowledge of the genre and are speaking into already supposed myths about it ands using them as their basis. Straw man arguments like this wouldn’t be used in the same way with Dickens say.

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  6. Great post. I remember finding this a middling entry by Carr, so it is interesting to see a different point of view on it. Given your past history as you say of enjoying books you’ve been told are bad, I think you should tackle Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt next. No reason why….
    Also love you point of comparing how we react to a book released today and how we react to a book which has been around for decades and is part of a much wider oeuvre.

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    1. Thanks Kate. I read your review in preparation actually and could see some of the flaws that you brought out for sure, especially misogyny. I wonder if it can sometimes be based on our mood. But it’s our taste, our context and what we have read haven’t read, plus our expectations too! A lot seems to shape it.

      That’s why I am trying to let go of my preconceived or anxious ideas about GAD when approaching a text and trying to see it on it’s won merit – while at the same time holding the context in mind (at least in the most appropriate way I can) but it’s a balance.

      I can see someone reading this and telling me to just get on a bloody enjoy it! But I guess that’s why we are obsessives, we want to look into these things, and it can be a wrestle at times!

      I wonder what the first reaction to White Priory was? Would be amazing to find reviews from the time.

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  7. Yes, there’s probably nothing as strong as expectation in coloring our perception of a work. Not only coloring our opinion of it, but even its internal ability to manipulate and deceive us. Indeed, one of the most of the effective tools of the genre is what I call “the deception expectation principle”— that which makes possibilities overtly stated and proposed less compelling or likely to be believed than those which are not mentioned or apparently hidden. GAD writers were able to somewhat effectively gauge and control their readers’ exposure to this device in their books at the time they were written, but those authors have no way to control which order we read their books today, or how their reputations effect our expectations.

    Perhaps I would like The Hollow Man much more if I had come upon it unheralded. As it is, I thought “pretty good, but I’ve read much better.” Conversely I hadn’t read much about Till Death Do Us Part when it absolutely blew me away. Same with After The Funeral and Top Storey Murder. They’re all in my top five Carrs, Christies, and Berkeleys— but would they be had they been given the big build up? Of course, it’s all the more credit to a work if it is highly trumpeted and yet still blows us away (in various genres The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Casablanca, and Hamilton all did that for me).

    Incidentally, the “twist” in my one act comedy has surprised many people, even bringing gasps of astonishment. Personally, I don’t think it’s very unpredictable (especially considering the subject matter of the story), and try as I may, it was not easy to carpenter any additional obfuscation to hide it. I think the only reason it fools anyone is because i take care to bill the play as a one-act comedy— never a comedy-mystery or a mystery-comedy. Again, expectation is (almost) all.

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  8. Sorry for the late response, but I’m behind on my blog reading. Anyway…

    “It seems that many of us on the bloggersphere over the last few years have had similar experiences with Carr, and that the works always seen as the top tier are being replaced somewhat by ‘lesser’ titles.”

    This has actually been happening ever since the internet reopened the Golden Age to regular readers and have seen this happen, in real-time, in the 2000s on places like the JDC forum. I’ve seen Till Death Do Us Part go from an obscure, second-tier Carr title to a highly regarded fan favorite. And justly so.

    On the other hand, A Graveyard to Let and Behind the Crimson Blinds were thoroughly trashed, but was surprised when they turned out to be quite enjoyable. Not top-tier Carr, surely not that, but the inimitable H.M. was in fine form in those late novels. Hey, I’m an H.M. fanboy. H.M. dictating his memoirs was the best thing Seeing is Believing had going for it and Skeleton in the Clock was a genuinely funny comedic mystery.

    Personally, I would like to take a little credit for raising the profile of Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff.

    Unlike JJ, I find it very hard to skip reviews, because they’re helpful and respect the opinions of my fellow crime addicts. However, as JJ knows, this is hardly a guarantee that I’ll end up agreeing with said opinions. So any prior knowledge of a book, be it a plot-description or review, usually don’t have too much of an effect on my reading. Or on my final opinion. There are, however, some exceptions. The lavish, undeserved praise heaped on John Rhode’s Vegetable Duck made the story doubly disappointing and the glowing reviews for Eric Keith’s Nine Man’s Murder made it even a worse book than it already was. But these are the exceptions.

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