12 July 2018

The first four Sir Henry Merrivale novels

The first time I encountered John Dickson Carr's novels featuring Henry Merrivale, I read them in random order as I discovered them in used book stores.  For this final re-read, I'm going to progress through them in the order they were written.  The Merrivale novels were written under the pseudonym of "Carter Dickson," presumably because Carr was already writing several Gideon Fell mysteries each year under his own name. 

The Plague Court Murders (1934)
This is a classic "locked-room" mystery.  The victim is slain in a blood-spattered small outbuilding ("house") located in the center of an estate's courtyard.  Here's how the author describes the scene:
"First, the house.  The walls are solid stone; not a crack or rat-hole in 'em.  One of my men has been going over the ceiling inch by inch, and it's as solid and unbroken as the day it was put in... We've been over floor, ceiling, and walls.  Any idea of hinges or trap-doors or funny entrances you can get out of your mind... Next, the windows, and they're out.  Those gratings are solid in the stone; no question of that.  The gratings are so small that you can't even get the blade of that dagger through 'em, for instance; we tried it.  The chimney isn't big enough to admit anybody, even if you could drop down into a blazing fire; and finally, there's a heavy iron mesh across it only a little way up.  That's out... The door... bolted, and barred; and not one of those bolts you could do tricks with, either.  It's hard enough to pull back even when you're inside the place... Finally, here's the incredible thing... With the exception of the tracks you and I made... there isn't a footprint anywhere within twenty feet of that house.  And you and I know... that when we first walked out there we saw no footprints at all along the direction we went?"  That was unquestionably true...

In silence we walked all around the house, keeping to the margin of the yard.  The puzzle grew more monstrous and incredible as we stared at every blank side.  Yet I have not overlooked, omitted, or misstated anything, and all was exactly as it seemed to be: a stone box, with door and windows solidly inaccessible, no tricks of secret entrances, and no footprints near it anywhere before [Inspector] Masters and I had gone out.  That is literal truth."
For this book and the three below, I'll defer any discussion of the plot and focus instead on curiosities and uncommon language usage.
"The old man, Dean's father, had side-whiskers and a turkeycock nose."  A turkeycock is a male turkey; the term also refers to a pompous, conceited person.  Not sure if the usage here implies a shape to the nose, or a turned-up position (?).

"[They say] that this one mass of dead evil is always waiting for the opportunity to take possession of a living body... Do you think, then, that the clot could take possession...?"  ???

"... that's one of the oldest, stalest, childishest tricks in the whole bag.  Talk about whiskers... Lummy!"  I noted this in a review of an earlier book: "Madame doses herself with sleeping-tables on the same night that she burns with impatience to meet her lover?  Whiskers to you!  You make me laugh."  The sense is obvious, but it's a curious phrase.  Anyone seen it before? [answer in one of the Comments]

"The passage was narrow, but of great length, and reënforced by heavy beams..."  This placement of an (can we call it an umlaut?) over a doubled letter to guide the reader on the separation of syllables.  Less clumsy than "re-enforced" perhaps, but I think not standard modern usage.

"Staring at the dropsical walls, I wondered why they called it Plague Court."  Affected with dropsy (edematous).  ?? not sure of the applicability of the term to walls, unless in the sense of swollen if they are bowing outward.

"There were six of us present [including] a glucose old party named Lady Benning..."  In context she was definitely not a "sweet" lady.  I totally don't understand this usage.

"Inside were three things: a large folded sheet... a short newspaper-cutting... and a bundle of foolscap..."  A size of printing or drawing paper, 13.5x17".

"Beaton, waked and roused from the truckle-bed by a cry, found him clutching back the bed-curtains and grasping at his neck as though in dreadful pain..."  A low bed on casters, pushed under another bed when not in use.  Derived from ME trocle = roller, and thus related to trochlea (pulley/tendon).

"So none [of the plague victims] were suffered to go out into the air, save only within the enclosure of our wall; and these with myrrh and zedory in their mouths."  Also zedoary, an East Indian drug consisting of the rhizome of curcuma, whatever that is.

"... he grew to a thing shunned like the plague itself, nor would any tippling-house take him in."  Must refer to a tavern.

"... the noon editions broke their front pages open with a double column of leaded type." ?boldface

"... five minutes later we had swung left off the stolid, barrack-windowed dignity of the Be-British Street..."  Probably windows like an army barracks and therefore simple and repetitive?

"... if that girl hasn't tumbled off the apple-tree years before this, then somebody's been damned unenterprising."  In context clearly a reference to losing one's virginity, presumably an idiom of the era.

"How long has Joseph Dennis lived here?" "I believe it will be three years this quarter-day..."  In England, one of the four days marking the quarters of the year (Lady Day, Midsummer Day, Michaelmas, Christmas) (in Scotland Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, or Martinmas).

"She backed away and sat down in a horsehair chair behind the table."  I had assumed it referred to the stuffing in a comfy chair, but I found a reference from the 1760s comparing horsehair to a silk textile: "The chairs are plain horsehair and look as well as Paduasoy."  Next stop Wikipedia: "Horsehair fabrics are woven with wefts of tail hair from live horses and cotton or silk warps. Horsehair fabrics are sought for their lustre, durability and care properties and mainly used for upholstery and interiors."  So, perhaps a traditional way to "extend" a supply of silk, but maybe adds to the durability of a chair arm or bottom.  Probably worthy of a separate blog post.  You learn something every day.

"Well, I thought, they're pretty happy, those two.  They've been through hell and blight for some time..."  Blight - etymology Old Norse blikna (to become pale) - is a category of diseases familiar to gardeners.  Unusual usage here.

"... that she and Darworth should set up in this line of mulcting the gullible..."  To punish by fine or forfeiture, or by fraud/extortion.  From Latin mulct = a fine. 

The White Priory Murders (1934)
A variant of the "locked room."  The corpse (beaten to death) is found in a marble pavilion located on a small island in a lake on a historic estate.  It's winter - "A hundred straight feet of unmarked snow on every side of the 'ouse.  Not a tree, not a shrub.  And sixty feet of it thin ice on every side..."  The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway containing only one set of footprints in the newly-fallen snow, leading to the pavilion.  There is nobody hidden in the building, and no secret tunnels etc.
"Bennett remembered him craning and peering over the heads of smaller men: very lean, with one corded hand jabbing his umbrella at the concrete floor."  Stringy or ribbed, from the prominence of veins, muscles, etc.

"Bennett wondered whether he would see any of them again.  Ship's coteries break up immediately, and are forgotten."  A group of people who associate because of common social purposes, a clique.  From MF term for association of tenant-farmers.

"In the course of a starched evening, he had fallen in with a group of Young England who also felt restive."  Stiff, formal.

"In a square about it, extending out about sixty feet with the pavilion in the center, ran a low marble coping..."  A finishing course on an exterior masonry wall.  Related to cope as a long cloak or mantle of silk worn by ecclesiastics, and thus related to "cap" (and probably cape).

"I met your ostler or groom or somebody."  Hostler, one who takes care of horses at an inn.  Related to hosteler, hostel, and hospital.

"He lay back in an overstuffed chair and stared at the groined roof with the red firelight flickering on it."  In architecture, a groin is a curved line or edge where two vaults intersect.  From OE grynde = abyss.  Obvious relation to the human groin.

"... Masters' face had assumed a blank and tolerant sadness as of a teacher in an idiot-school, touched now by a satiric grimness."  Self-evident meaning for a word unlikely to resurface in public usage in modern society, except maybe by Donald Trump.

"There was an ancient topheavy geyser-bath in the dingy oilcloth [bath]room."  British instantaneous heated-water bath contraption.

"Maurice was in very high feather tonight; he had even issued orders that some special sherry was to be served, in place of cocktails..."  Idiom meaning to be in excellent form, health, or humor.  From a 15th-century referring to a healthy bird's plumage

"Well, we are to act our parts as of last night; we are to reënact the attempted murder of poor Marcia on the staircase in King Charles's Room."  See reënforced above.

The Red Widow Murders (1935)
"Red widow" in French history ("veuve rouge") was apparently a term applied to the guillotine, and this novel has an entire 20-page chapter devoted to a backstory involving the Terror, but the book has a contemporary setting in the 1930s, which involves the inevitable locked room:
The whole subject of this game to-night is a room in this house - a room at the end of a passage off the dining-room - a room whose door has been locked and sealed up with six-inch screws through the jamb since 1876, the year my grandfather died... The window is covered with locked steel shutters, and the door was watched by five people..."
And now on to the language:
"(the houses) were uniformly tall, with heavy bay-windows, areaways, and high steps."  Outdoor passage leading to a basement, typically under an arch (also archway).

"Tairlaine could see the link-brackets beside the door."  A link is a torch made of tar or pitch.  Ultimately derived from proto-Indo-European "leuk-" meaning light/brightness, whence also leukocyte for white blood cell.

"... I'm head of the house, and I'll open the ball." [in context: start the conversation, give the history].  I've not heard this phrase before.

"... coolest hand in an emergency, with or without express-rifle, I ever saw."  High-velocity rifle, especially used for big game hunts.

"All I've got to say is, it ought to have been scragged, anyhow.  I hate parrots."  To kill, especially by wringing the neck, strangling.  Danish skrog is a carcass.

(in the dining room) "Covers were set for nine on the long table..."  Here I beg ignorance of table settings for a formal dinner.  The Etiquette Scholar webpage on "table setting terms" says cover is "the space allotted the diner on which tableware is placed."  You learn something (useless) every day.

"He consciously interposed himself as a buckler."  A shield.  From Latin buccula = boss (of a shield).  Swashbuckler is related.

"Especially loony-doctors, as you put it.  I myself am on sufferance.  I am permitted to speak only of sport."  "a person who was not a member or official of the House of Commons was officially a stranger, who was allowed to be present at debates on sufferance. "

"By the light of the lamp on the desk, Ravelle and Carstairs were bending over a bagatelle board."  A table game of bar-billiards, played with cues and balls and obstacles.

"She sat propped up under the bed-canopy, the rush-light beside her shining greenish on a face without paint..."  A rushlight is a type of candle or miniature torch formed by soaking the dried pith of the rush plant in fat or grease. For several centuries rushlights were a common source of artificial light for poor people throughout the British Isles. They were extremely inexpensive to make. English essayist William Cobbett wrote, "This rushlight cost almost nothing to produce and was believed to give a better light than some poorly dipped candles.

"She sat in a big fat chair with cretonne on it..."  A fabric noted for its strength, made with hemp warf and linen weft.  The word derived either from a French village or a Frenchman in the textile business.

"And also he probably had a very long steel bodkin almost as thin as a needle..."  A dagger or a sewing needle with a large eyehole.  So I had to look up odds bodkins, and found the best answer at The Phrase Finder: This term borrows the early bodikin version of that word, not for its meaning but just because of the alliteration with body, to make a euphemistic version of the oath God's body. This would otherwise have been unacceptable to a pious audience. That is, odds bodkins is a minced oath.

"Then I'd see how Mr. Brave Hero felt when he wasn't swanking it, and thought he'd really been poisoned!"  Fashionably elegant, not rare as the swank adjective, but a bit odd as a verb "to swagger/ show off."

"... he found H.M. blinking at the menu and Masters warming his hands before the fire in a private room with a sanded floor."  When I lived in Dallas, some local (cheap) bars had floors sprinkled with sawdust, probably to sop up spilled beer or vomit, but I doubt sand would serve the same purpose.  And not likely for traction in a dining room.  I guess this refers to the boards being sanded smooth rather than left rough.  Apparently a chic feature of the 1930s.

"I'll give you five to one he's out of quod by tomorrow at the latest..."  British slang for prison - not sure why.

"Guy had threatened to split, and was in gay feather."  Maybe similar to high feather  above.

The Unicorn Murders (1935)
A variant of the locked room concept.  The victim dies on a stairway; neither the people on the floor at the base of the stairs, or the people on the floor at the head of the stairs, are able to see an attacker or the weapon (which makes a unicorn-horn-shaped hole in the front of the victim's skull).  The plot was too complicated for my simple mind (the penultimate chapter is entitled "The Triple Impersonation.")
"This girl - who has always struck you as rather a starched proposition, by the way..."  Like "starched evening" above.

"... and slid like a man on skiis." The OED gives the plural as skis (or ski), but not with a doubled i.  Probably a simple missppellinng by the printers.

"... there really had been two policemen waiting at that red car, and now they were on the view-halloo bellow after me."  Google search yields three usages - all by John Dickson Carr.  I'm guessing it refers to police instructions if you see the malefactor, yell out for others to join you in the chase. [Answered in the Comments, with a Mary Poppins video]

"We saw a lean man of probably sixty-odd, whose walk was saved from a dodder only by the humor in his eyes..."  The verb means to shake/tremble/totter while walking as in old age or infancy.  Straight from the Middle English.

"Ramsden, whose boiled eye had been wandering about the hall gave an almost guilty jump."  I have no clue.  Maybe a shortening of "hard-boiled" (callous, unsentimental).

"Without pity or bowels I described Harvey Drummond..."  Compassion, sympathy.  Apparently, just as the interior of a ship is its bowels, the innermost feelings are the "bowels" - the source of the gentlest emotions.  Bowelless means "without pity."  In The Devil in Velvet, Carr describes a character as "loud-mouthed, without pity or bowels, the dread of all sober men."  And again in Most Secret: "Towering, formidable, his every movement betraying the expert swordsman without pity or bowels, he circled catlike..."

"Would he, for instance, growl and retire beaten when Gasquet [cop] snaffled off Flamande [criminal] first?" A snaffle is a "broad-mouthed, loose-ringed bit (metal in a horse's mouth). It brings pressure to bear on the tongue and bars and corners of the mouth. Often used as a training bit."  From Dutch (snavel), German, and OE words referring to the nose.

"Ken, I don't like all this.  It's creepy, and it's muggy, and there's something wrong with it."  The humidity-related meaning doesn't fit.  Probably old English slang.

"Then all of a sudden she let out a skelloch that scared me half to death."  Scream (Scottish).

"H.M. seemed distrait."  (French) Absent-minded, distracted, troubled.  The third meaning might connect to distraught

"You agreed to coöperate." Third time on this post - see reënact and reënforced above. Somebody must know what the two dots are called (umlaut for German, what for English?).  [A tip of the blogging cap top reader Kniffler, who provided a link to the relevant info in Wikipedia]:
The diaeresis mark is sometimes used in English personal first and last names to indicate that two adjacent vowels should be pronounced separately, rather than as a diphthong. Examples include the given names Chloë and Zoë, which otherwise might be pronounced with a silent e. To discourage a similar mispronunciation, the mark is also used in the surname Brontë. It may be used optionally for words that do not have a morphological break at the diaeresis point, such as naïve, Boötes, and Noël. However, it is far less commonly used in words such as coöperate and reënter except in a very few publications—notably The New Yorker
"As for me, to say that I was getting the breeze up is to put it mildly."  I found a minor definition: "An excited or ruffled state of feeling; a flurry of excitement."  Maybe related to "getting the wind up" but I don't have time to look all this stuff up.

"Listen, Gasquet: this fellow's either innocent or bughouse..."  Crazy, insane from the use of the term for an asylum.

"Auguste whoomed, getting up out of his chair with indignant snortings and shakings of his head."  I couldn't find this.

Today I listed all four of these books on eBay, as a single lot.


  1. "reënforced by heavy beams… "

    This use of the umlaut is popular with the editors at The New Yorker, but nowhere else that I’m aware of.

  2. In English, the thing that looks like an umlaut is a diaeresis

    View-Halloo is from (fox)hunting - a shout given by a hunter on seeing the prey break cover.

    Whoom is just onomatopeic. OED says, "to make a resonant booming or rushing sound".

    1. Thank you, Kniffler. I've inserted some info from the link to the body of the post.

    2. You should know View- Halloo from the Fox and Hound! Watch it immediately with a box of tissues : )

  3. Curcuma is turmeric

  4. When I was acquiring my very expensive education in England in the 1960s, 'swanking' was still current as a devastating put-down for one who was behaving above their [lowly] station or, as you say, showing off (or being viewed as doing so). I think even at the time it was recognised as being out of date, as was a lot of our slang.

    We were also learning by heart a lot of poetry including Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting:
    It seemed that out of battle I escaped
    Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
    Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
    Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
    Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
    The groined, groaned thing continues later with grained, ground. Damned if I can remember what this quasi-rhyme was called.

    Quarter Days were memorable and significant because that's when the rent was due.

  5. Hi Minnesotastan, curcurma is turmeric.

  6. Me again, I've upholstered I horsehair , it's very rigid and difficult to shape. It looks similar to grooves on a record- if they were parallel- durable, mostly dense black so used mostly on functional public furniture waiting room chairs for example. also upleasantly scratchy for anyone in shorts.

  7. The use of "whisker" to mean "a big lie" is surprisingly old. There is a funny exchange in an 1872 edition of Notes and Queries in which a curious reader writes in wanting to know what "whisker" means in "flams, forgeries, and whiskers," and "this is a very flam; that's a most deadly whisker; here's right down cyning and forgery," from a book published in 1672. The editors respond: "Whisker is an old slang word used when a great falsehood is uttered: 'The dam of that was a whisker'; and when an improbable story is told, the remark is, 'the mother of that was a whisker,' meaning it is a lie.'"

    "A glucose old lady" is a lot harder to pin down. While glucose is the origin of the suffix -ose, which is used to form the names of sugars (dextrose, fructose, sucrose), glucose itself does not originate from "gluc" and "-ose," but comes to us as a whole word via the French glucose, coined from the Greek gleukos for "sweet wine." This is related to glykys, meaning "sweet." The figurative use of glykys is given as "delightful; dear; simple, silly," so I'm guessing the meaning of glucose in this context may be something like "daft." That said, I can't find any other examples where glucose has been used in that particular sense, and it's kind of a torturous path to get to this meaning, so I wonder if it might be the author making an obscure linguistic pun, or even a misprint.

    1. Thanks. I'll see if "glucose" comes up again in his other books (I have about 50-60 more to go).

  8. These are some of my favorite posts. I call up my mom and discuss them with her, seeing if we would interpret things the same way if we've never heard them before. Thanks for doing these!

    Could it be that glucose is a misprint for glaucous; a dull grayish-green.

    Truckle bed = trundle bed?

    Mulcting meaning to defraud - That explains it! In A Series of Unfortunate Events the bank is Mulctuary Money Management. I figured that must be a play on words somehow.

    Out of quod - I'd bet good money there's a latin phrase somewhere referring to prison or punishent that got abbreviated into slang.

    I'm sure I remember the doubled I in skiis being correct when I was learning to read, along with the doubled S in busses. I suppose they've gone the way of the diaeresis as not strictly necessary to understanding the words.

    From context, I would have figured a starched proposition to be the feminine version of a stuffed shirt, a boiled eye to be watery and bulging, ie. Rodney Dangerfield or Bernie Mac, and snaffling to be stealing out from under.

    1. Yup. A trundle is a pulley, and a trundle bed is a synonym for truckle bed.

  9. When I was a kid and saw "Phoebe" in print, I thought it was pronounced "fobe" (long O, silent E).


  10. Re: "leaded type"

    When type was set by hand, line spacing could be increased by manually inserting strips of lead between the rows of type. This was called "leading."

    So leaded type is printing which has increased space between the lines. While the size of the characters may or may not be larger than surrounding text, the increased whitespace adds emphasis and draws the reader's eye.

    1. Excellent. Thank you. I'm recurrently amazed by the breadth of knowledge of readers here.

  11. I loved John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson. I am buying all of his books on Kindle so I can reread them. I always preferred Sir Henry to Dr. Fell.

  12. Regarding 'view-halloo bellow', I can't actually confirm the source for you, but I recall hearing a variation of the phrase used in the film 'Mary Poppins' during the chalk-pavement-picture semi-animated sequence. One of the fox hunters calls out "View-Halloo" to which his horse also adds "Oh yes, definitely a view-halloo." The implication to my mind was that it was part of the signal that the prey in the hunt (in this case, a fox) had been spotted, as it is immediately followed by a call on the hunting horn and the unleashing of the dogs.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Excellent! Here you go (0:45) -


      Thanks, Peter Bear.

  13. "Turkeycock nose" might be a pendulous nose, referring to the snood above a male turkey's nose.

    Quod is probably derived from quad, a courtyard surrounded by 4 walls, (walls of buildings, rather than single skinned) we had one at school which we called the quad.

    View-Halloo was also apparently shouted by some British tank officers (many of who were from the cavalry and hence fox-hunters) when they saw the enemy.

    "Open the ball" same as "Start the ball rolling"

    "Getting the breeze up" is getting scared. Quite common in British eye-witness war-time accounts, but I don't know if it comes from weird sounds caused by a breeze or prey animals picking up a predator scent.

    cheers another phil


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