01 November 2018

Five more Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries

This is the eighth in a very long and just-begun series of posts about the mystery novels of John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson).  In July I covered the first four Henry Merrivale novels; continuing in chronological order, today I tackle the next five (focusing as always on the language, not the plot):

The Punch and Judy Murders (1935)
Although the two deaths occur in locked rooms, the method of death is not complicated (both victims have taken poison and locked themselves in the rooms).  The fiendish part is trying to figure out the perpetrator before the last chapter.  There are only about a dozen characters in the story, and if I had listed them in order of my suspicions, the true killer would have been very near the bottom.
"Now of course, H.M.'s conduct at its mildest can seldom be described as homely or commonplace..."  Interesting use of homely in its strictest sense of being ordinary.  Carr uses the word elsewhere to describe a person's visage as being unremarkable.  Modern usage of course implies that a "homely" person is unattractive or ugly.

"Outside [Torquay railway station] I was looking for a station-wagon for the Imperial Hotel..."  This term originated as a designation for vehicles used to transport people and supplies from a train station, long before it was applied to extended-length automobiles.

"This is a telescopic jemmy; finest thing made; a yard long extended, and its got a powerful leverage."  An alternative spelling of "jimmy" (crowbar).  Not sure how the word came to be used for that tool. 
"From the outer room I could hear the sergeant still droning on the telephone; and through the open window to the rear yard, somebody was commenting on the lascivious habits of carburetors."  
Clever and humorous bowdlerization.  And again later:
"Why don't you look where you're going," I snarled.  "Laundry!" I added, and thrust the bundle at him.  This was too much.  "I don't want the sanguinary copulating laundry," howled Dennis, who had been under a great strain that night."  
We know those are not the words Dennis used...

"I glanced down, and found myself looking into the frosty gaze of a genuine Anglican clergyman.  He did not seem to be the dominie for your money."  Alternate spelling of domine (clergyman or schoolmaster).

"And apparently it's a big ugly turnip-ghost; nothin' else."  Halloween jack-o-lanterns were once crafted out of turnips.  I presume this usage is related.

"Now that the little digression's over," he pursued almost cheerfully, "we can go back to horses and beans again."  Idiom, presumably.  Anyone ever heard it before?

"He got a whole coruscating whirl of nasty shocks."  Sparkling, from the Latin for "flash."

"Yet the car sped us out again, and down into an effulgent Whitehall."  Shining, radiant (from the Latin).

The Peacock Feather Murders (1936)
A concise summary (without spoilers) is at the Wikipedia  page.   Also of interest is a brief explanation by the author (via Henry Merrivale) of the reasons why a murderer would create a locked-room scenario.  In addition to the expected ones (to fake a suicide, because of a series of accidents), he adds here "a fourth motive, the neatest and most intelligent of all... if he can really create an impossible situation, he can never be convicted for murder no matter if all the other evidence is strong enough to hang a bench of bishops.  He is not tryin' to evade the detecting power of the law so much as to evade the punishing power."
"Why in the afternoon, anyway?  There's somethin' fishy about the sound of it.  I don't mean it's a hoax or a have; only that there's a queer and fishy element about it."  I don't know this phrase, and don't know how to look it up.  Is it familiar to any reader?

"He had been in such a fettle of triumph after winning this argument..."  Condition; unusual to see it used without "fine."

"She had, like that which has been vulgarly attributed to a certain danseuse, a glance that could open an oyster at sixty paces."   Not sure what female dancer he's referencing, but the phrase is directly borrowed from P. G. Wodehouse's description of Roderick Spode.

"Gor," he said.  "Burn me, son, I always regarded you as rather a tough walnut to crack."  An oath, more often seen as "gor blimey or cor blimey" (corruption of God blind me!)

"She is the last woman in the world who would throw her bonnet over the windmill; of that I can assure you."  To act in a deranged, reckless, or unconventional manner (refers to Don Quixote, who tossed his hat over a windmill as a challenge).  In context here, noting that the woman is virtuous.

"You will have observed," said Derwent, smiling gravely, "that no moths have settled on me.  Good night, gentlemen."  (there were some moths at the scene, but I don't know the implication of the phrase - maybe it means "I've been active and moving.")

"He strode out after her.  This passage-at-arms had been so brief and unexpected that nobody knew what to say..."  In this context a brief conversation involving an exchange of terse comments.  Classically apparently refers to a chivalric battle.

"But how are we to explain the fact that, whoever took [the teacups] there, we find no mark on them at all?  Somebody must have touched them, if only to range them on the table."  For "arrange".  Also used to mean to place in a row, rank, or classify.

"My father - made mistakes.  That I admit.  There were times when we were in very low water." Financial insecurity implied; interesting that both being in deep water and in very low water are bad situations (the low water probably implies the person is in a boat).

"That was also why he scattered so many clews - scattered 'em lavishly - scattered 'em like a paperchase."  A cross-country race ("Hare and Hounds") in which a trail of torn-up paper marks the trail.

"I had reason to think that somebody was deliberately maneuvering me into a snare which should end with a well-soaped rope and a ten-foot drop."  I used to lecture about death by asphyxiation, including the physiology of hanging, but don't recall any mention of the nooses being lubricated.  I'm guessing that doing so would facilitate the noose tightening on the neck rather than getting stuck on its own internal friction.  Interesting.

"Which is just as good as an alibi.  But on one point their apparent good sense seemed to go skew-wiff."  Out of alignment - obviously related to "askew."   I finally found skew-whiff: "The expression 'skew weft' dates at least from the 18th century as a term used by handloom weavers, typically in northern England. It was used originally to describe fabric which was out of alignment... The modern spelling comes from a corruption of 'skew-wift' whose sound developed colloquially in spoken English from the original. Bow weft also exists."

[why didn't they coordinate their alibis]... It would have been aes triplex, which no amount of batterin' would be able to break in court."  Literally "triple brass" = indestructible.

The Judas Window (1938)
The deceased is found in a study that has bolted steel shutters on the windows and a heavy door locked from the inside with a large sliding bolt.  In the same room a man lies unconscious; his fingerprints are on the murder weapon.  The best locked-room mystery so far.  Interestingly the action takes place in a courtroom only, with H.M. as the attorney for the defense of the man falsely accused.  Three parts to the book: "What Might Have Happened (first chapter)," "What Seemed to Happen (18 chapters)," and "What Really Happened (last chapter)."  Totally the last person I would have suspected as the murderer; I defy anyone to solve it before the name is revealed in the last two words of the penultimate chapter.  This PocketBook edition offers a schematic floorplan at the beginning.

In a poll of 17 mystery writers and reviewers, this novel was voted as the fifth best locked room mystery of all time. The Hollow Man, also by John Dickson Carr, was voted the best.
"Those arrows are trophies of the grand target, or annual wardmote, of the Woodmen of Kent."  A meeting of the inhabitants of a ward.

"He took silk before the war, but Lollypop told me herself he hasn't accepted a brief in fifteen years."  The award of Queen's Counsel is known informally as "taking silk."

"He was a member of the Royal Toxophilite Society and of the Woodmen of Kent."  From Toxophilus, the title of a 1545 book by Roger Ascham intended to mean ‘lover of the [archery] bow’, from Ancient Greek.

"With an effect like a Maskylene illusion, a little man thrust himself out of the crowd..."  John Nevil Maskelyne was an English stage magician (and the inventor of the pay toilet)

"There is insanity in the family, you know... Nothing much, of course.  Only like a touch of the tarbrush a few generations back."  A derogatory term implying real or suspected African or Asian distant ancestry in a person of predominantly Caucasian ancestry.

"Y'see, I'm the only feller who'd believe him.  I got a fancy for lame dogs," he added apologetically."  Helping a lame dog over a stile is an idiom for assisting a helpless or needy person.

"You remember the way the lines swing in John Peel?  'From a point to a check: from a check to a view: from a view to a kill in the morning.'"
The original title "From A View to a Kill" was taken from a version of the words to a traditional hunting song "D'ye ken John Peel?": "From a find to a check, from a check to a view,/From a view to a kill in the morning".
[Foxhunting glossary:
A Find: Discovering the fox's trail;
A Check: Losing the trail again (when the hounds lose the scent);
A View: Visually spotting the fox;
A Kill: Self-explanatory.]
So the truncated title basically means having the prey in your sights before killing it.
"... and then she mentioned that the one thing in prison Jim Answell hated most was the Judas window.  And that tore it, you see."  I think I'll not explain what a Judas window is, because it might give away an essential clue to solving the mystery.

"Her method of putting her hands on the edge of the box was to grasp it with both arms extended, as though she were on an aqua-plane."  Surfboard or bodyboard towed behind a motorboat.

"I thought you'd probably run straight to your friend Tregannon, and gone to earth among the bedclothes and the ice-caps in his nursin'-home."  An icepack worn on the head, according to Wiktionary.  Hypothermia cap used for chemo wouldn't have been relevant in the 1930s.

"He got out his watch, a large cheap one of the turnip variety, and put it on the table."  Slang for a timepiece that's big and awkward.  Apparently Winston Churchill's watch was referred to in these terms.

"I had to put that whole crowd under oath: I had to have a fair field and swords on the green: I had to have, in short, justice."  I'll need help with this idiom.

"So [redacted] was laid by the heels," I said, "all by perverting the pure rules of justice..."  Shackled or imprisoned.

Death in Five Boxes (1938)
Not really a locked-room mystery, but a clever murder mechanism perpetrated by the absolutely last name you would choose from a list of the principal characters.  I'll say no more.
"... and if the man who killed him isn't hanged higher than Haman, it won't be for lack of help I can give you."  From the book of Esther: "A gallows 50 feet high stands by Haman's house. He had it made for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king."  The king said, "Hang him on it!"  So they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

"For pure perverted cleverness, their ways of wriggling out of things with explanations are as good as anything I ever heard.  Oh, they're mustard, all right!"  One British slang dictionary says the word can be used to mean "excellent."  Also carries the connotation of "hot stuff." "People and things weren't just like mustard, they were mustard."

... and just how in lum's name he figures in this case anyway..."  I couldn't find this one.

"I'm afraid you'll have to give me a lift home in your Black Maria or police car or whatever you call it."  Slang for a police wagon, but the origin of the phrase is uncertain.

"... oranges, apples, lemons, Brazil nuts, greengages, and bananas."  A type of plum.  However, not all gages are green, and some horticulturists make a distinction between the two words, with greengages as a variety of the gages...  Apparently Gage was the name of an English botanist.

"As soon as we get to the nearest A. A. box, I'll see that the damage is attended to."  Automobile Association boxes.

"Especially a re-fained long-legged prude like Bonita Sinclair?"  I have no idea, unless a mocking term for "refined."

"He could not in honesty deny that Marcia was very good-looking, but he suspected her of certain pawky humors, moods, and artistic tempers."  Shrewd, sly (Scottish).

"... he produced a half-flagon bottle of Ewkeshaw's Pale Ale."  A flagon is about a liter.  Etymology related to "flask" and to the practice of wrapping bottles in a straw casing.

"Hand the lady a cokernut," said H.M.  "That's idyllic, that is.  Do you honestly believe all that?"  Archaic form of coconut.

"What in the flamin' acres of Tophet do you expect to prove by it?"  Tophet was a location in Jerusalem in the Gehinnom where worshipers influenced by the ancient Canaanite religion engaged in the human sacrifice of children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive. Tophet became a theological or poetic synonym for Hell within Christendom.  So H.M. is asking "what in hell do you mean?"

"I can't be mixed up in any cloth-headed monkey-business like that."  Stupid (?), like soft-headed?

"He had devoted himself to his studies with the earnestness of one swotting for an examination..."  To study, from the Old English word for sweat.

"Heavy shutters were on the windows, backed with thick rep curtains to exclude every chink of light."  A silk, wool, rayon, or cotton fabric with a transversely corded surface.  Couldn't find the etymology.

"It's the draw of the town, like the Blackpool illuminations."  An annual lights festival.

"Mrs. Bartlemy, Sanders's landlady, was in the offing.  They heard her puff along the passage outside, and knock at the door like a steam hammer."  Foreseeable future, on the horizon.  A nautical term referring to distant sea but visible from shore.

"All that's worrying you is a social convention. 'They eat and drink and scheme and plod, And go to church on Sunday.  And many are afraid of God, But more of Mrs Grundy.'"  The poem from which this is taken is here, and the interesting history behind it is at Word Histories.

"Mrs. [redacted] and Mr. [redacted] were pull-baker, pull-devil every second of the time."  Anyone know this idiom??

"If a solemn lie is used to cheat an honest man, or sell some useless claptrap... then, say I, blow it higher than Boney's kite."  I found an old print mocking Napoleon flying a kite.  There must be a story (or an allegory) behind it.  I leave that up to my curious readers.

"Most of us, a' course, grow out of that.  Things get adjusted, and we come to accept necessary humbug lento risu."  In a Google book on the odes of Horace, the phrase was translated to mean "with a quiet smile."

"His worst moment was when [redacted] suddenly appeared in the bedroom, and began takin' an energetic dekko through the door to the living-room."  A look or glance. From the Hindustani, dekho. [1890s].

The Reader is Warned (1939)
Apart from the detectives there are only six characters in the book, and two of those are killed, but it's still not clear who the murderer is until the denouement.  S.T. Joshi considers this to be the best of the Merrivale novels, not for plot, but for character delineation.
"Sanders judged her to be very fashionably dressed, though her hat was put on anyhow."  The meaning is obvious, but the usage is odd.

"Colonel Willow, I believe, kept a straight bat and a stiff upper lip..."  Obviously a cricket reference.  Apparently used to refer to honest, honorable behavior.  Not sure what it means on the pitch.

"What I mean is that he's maybe got a new, simon-pure, fool-proof way of polishing people off..."  Absolutely pure.  From the phrase "the real Simon Pure", from the character Simon Pure (who is impersonated by another, and obliged to prove his identity) in Susanna Centlivre's 1717 play A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

"... he began to lumber back and forth with his thumbs hooked in his waistcoat pockets and his corporation, ornamented with a large gold watch-chain, preceding him in splendor like the figure-head of a man-'o-war."  John Dickson Carr uses this term frequently to refer to a protuberant abdomen. 

"I was just thinkin' -- where do you get the material for all these reelin' mysterious deaths?"  Not sure - maybe in the sense of shocking (send someone reeling)?

"As for your challenges... make 'em or not, but it's waste effort."  Modern usage would be "wasted."

"They waited in the dining-room, under huge dropsical pictures..."  Dropsy, from Latin hydrops, is dependent edema or anasarca.  Odd to apply it to paintings hung on a wall.  In one of the mysteries I reviewed earlier, he referred to walls as being "dropsical."

"They saw him get out of his car and waddle in through the rain, in a large transparent oilskin with a hood..."  Oilskins were waterproof raincoats.  Didn't know they could be transparent (would look like a condom).

"But people are believing it!"  "Oh, yes.  Pennik's mustard." [later] "Sort of astral projection.  I told you he was mustard." (see one possible explanation in Death in Five Boxes above)

"... it was the dozenth time he had told it, but he omitted nothing."  Apparently a perfectly good word, but the first time I have ever seen it used.

"I hope you noticed that? But oh, no. Down went the gage of battle on the floor, and I hope you're feelin' proud of yourself."  The giving of gage, or pledge, for trying a cause by single combat, formerly allowed in military, criminal, and civil causes, and finally abolished in 1819. In writs of right, where the trial was by champions, the tenant produced his champion, who, by throwing down his glove as a gage, thus "waged", or stipulated, battle with the champion of the demandant, who, by taking up the glove, accepted the challenge.  (Gage is from Old French)

"Put it down on the table and let's have a dekko at it."  (see above)

"Steady on!" advised Dr Sanders, in genuine concern.  "You'll have him chewing the carpet in a minute."  "Chew, or chewing, the carpet is not in the OED but it is in Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang. Green describes it as being US slang from the 1950s and defines it as 'to lose emotional control, to have a temper tantrum'."  [obviously the usage dates back well before the 1950s since this book was written in 1939].

"Is there a kind of judge, or court of appeal, or something like that, that an take back our verdict and say it's n.b.g.?"  Maybe "no bloody good"?

"... helping tend the lares and penates of an admirable house."  Guardian deities of the home.

"Darling, what on earth is the matter?  I never saw such an absolute juggins!  Is anything wrong?"  Someone very credulous or easily fooled.

Whew.  Lots of colloquial terms.  I'm exhausted.  But before i go, here is a useful link for those interested in mysteries:  99 novels for a locked room library.

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


  1. "Swords on the green" sounds like a duel, particularly given the expressed desire for justice. "Pistols at dawn" might be a parallel. I can't find a citation, though, so it's just a guess, really.

  2. a "have" is alike a set up or a manipulation, the past tense would be "had". "Horses and beans" is cowboy slang for "same old stuff"

    1. That makes sense, especially the connection to someone being "had" by a trick. Thanks.

  3. I think horse and beans is more animal care talk:

    Cowboy talk would be hill of beans and probably not too common in Britain

  4. Pull-baker:

    1. That is a perfect explanation of the phrase in the context of the mystery. Thank you, Vlad.

  5. “no moths have landed on me” might be a play on “no flies on me”, meaning someone who is too quick-witted to be fooled

    i love these little examinations of dialect.


  6. your sleuthing of little used words reminds me of why i like reading books on my kindle - it has a pretty good dictionary, so i can look up words. the odd words that i find, like the ones you pick out in these detective stories, i highlight and do some research later.


  7. btw, do you know if any of these detective books you list are available as free ebooks, like at project gutenberg or some other sites? if they are, can you provide links?


    1. I'm sure many or most of them are available online, or - more traditionally - in your local library. There's no need for you to spend a few dollars to own a copy. You don't understand that that doesn't solve my problem of what to do with the books. I'm too old to plan to reread them a third time after I've forgotten the plot twists again. I have no children to give them to. Our local library doesn't accept paperbacks; the Friends of the Library will take them to try to sell in a booksale, but if they go unbought, they would probably be pulped. I want these books to find a new home, and eBay is a convenient way for me to do so. Same with my old high school yearbooks etc.

      You don't need my help to find relevant links.

  8. I have been slowly (and intermittently) working through The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries...

    I got this, after being inundated with the Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, which was (mostly) a hoot !

    Locked-Room: some gems; some with rather obvious impossibilities - - or at least statistical Implausibilities!
    Lamentably, some with obvious failings include Much-Revered Classics (cough* Sherlock Holmes *cough)....
    Nonetheless, a worthy collection!
    I found it interesting, however: no Rex Stout... or Isaac Asimov...


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