10 January 2019

Six more Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries

This is the ninth in an ongoing series of posts about the mystery novels of John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson).  Last July I covered the first four Henry Merrivale novels.  In November I tackled the next five.  Six more today, discussing the language only, with no plot-spoiling comments.

And So To Murder (1940)
Not a locked-room mystery.  Plot rather weak.
"In Mr. Hackett's experience, the ladies who wrote passionate love-stories were usually either tense business women or acidulated spinsters..."  What Mark Twain would have called a "two-dollar word" that simply means "sour" (made more acid).

"She was very casual, but she swanked like billy-o."  To swagger, show off.  Billy-o is a slang term for "the greatest extent or degree of something."

"The speaking-tube whistled again."
"The speaking tube supplemented the array of remotely controlled hand bells that were operated in the upstairs rooms and rang in the servant's quarters in even modest houses in the 19th century. The phrase "get on the horn" and "give him a blow" as well as the use of "blower" as a synonym for "telephone" are generally accepted as having their origin in this feature of speaking tubes."
"The dozenth pledge was broken."  We've seen JDC use this odd word before, but I note while looking it up again that it may be preferable to twelfth when referring to the final entity in a set of twelve, because "twelfth" might imply the existence of a thirteenth. 

"... fell overboard and was confined to bed with 'flu."  Yet another example of proper indication of a shortened word [but then maybe it should be 'flu' ?]

"What's the matter, honey?" she asked, in a different voice.  "Got the whips and jingles?"  In context the implication was "are you in love?" but online dictionaries list it as an idiom for delirium, especially DTs.

"Monica's a nice kid.  She's what I'd call a ginch; sweet voice, and big eyes...:  Oxford dictionaries suggest "An attractive woman, especially (frequently depreciative) one regarded as an object of sexual gratification," with "earliest use found in John Dickson Carr." (!)  Other online dictionaries offer only demeaning definitions and usages.

"So he was a cashiered prophet, was he?"  Dismissed, discarded.

"... I'd rather take a chance and trust you than have you chivvyin' Joe all over the landscape..."  To pursue, chase, hurry along, sneak up on, or verbally abuse.   Probably from the title of the 15th century Ballad of Chevy Chase, about a hunt at a chase [estate where game may be hunted].

"He would be sitting in a spacious office, all mahogany and deep carpets, with bronze busts on bookcases, and an Adam fireplace."  Eighteenth century neoclassical, named after three Scottish brothers.

"She [actress] incited what young ladies in the ninepennies had been overheard to describe as a "goosey feeling."  Cheap seats in the theater.

"It was a conference to which Monica and Bill were not admitted; they were compelled to kick their heels and fume in an outer room."  To wait impatiently or restlessly.

Nine - and Death Makes Ten (1940)
Not a locked-room mystery, but has a fiendishly clever plot with a "last person you'd suspect" outcome.
"His trunk stood beside one of the white-counterpaned berths."  Quilt or blanket.  Etymology ultimately from Latin pannus = cloth.

"But needs must when the devil drives."

""Crab cocktail," said the doughty Lathrop, consulting his menu."  Brave bold, from Middle English.

"Beside the grand piano there was a full trap-drummer's outfit for dancing."  The outfit here is apparently not clothing but a "drum kit" [set of drums].  Re the "trap" I found "drums, cymbals, bells, etc.," 1925, from earlier trap drummer (1903) "street musician who plays a drum and several other instruments at once," perhaps from traps "belongings" (1813), shortened form of trappings.

"But, you're tight as an owl already.  Can you hold any more?"   Intoxicated, in context.  But an odd idiom; I haven't found any logic behind it.

"It sounded blattering and almost obscene."  Blather, foolish talk.  "1520s, blether, Scottish, probably from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse blaðra "mutter, wag the tongue," perhaps of imitative origin, or from Proto-Germanic *blodram "something inflated" (the source of bladder)."

"... and then look like a martyr and say you're sure some poor goop will trust you?"  Silly, stupid person. 

"... like one of those nature-study motion pictures where they show a flower coming up whingo overnight."  I found nothing on this.

"She had him on the hip now.  She was winning this exchange..."  Borrowed from horse-racing I think, presumably the opponent's nose it at your horse's hip.

"The doctor laughed.  Max thought that his constant twingling, or laughing, or pointed innuendo, might have got on their nerves..."  I found nothing on this.

"... I could kick myself from here to the forepeak."  The part of the hold of a ship that is within the angle of the bow.

"Give me that torch," he said.  "If you try to press the button I'll have to slosh you."  British colloquial for "punch" (used here during a war blackout on a ship under submarine threat.)

"When I heard that [torpedo] alarm-signal go, I thought it might be a have."  In Australia/NZ it refers to a fraud or deception - would be correct in context here.

Seeing is Believing (1941)
Clever plot twist, but the reader is required to believe in the efficacy of hypnotism (a modern reader would be skeptical of this as a plot element, but 1930s readers were more accepting in that regard).  The book does make note of Henry Merrivale's birthday (Feb 6, 1871) and offers this concise precis by Chief Inspector Masters of Henry Merrivale's typical cases: "Whoever you think it can't be, that's always the person it is."
"... the polished hardwood floor, with rugs scattered on it, which was badly sprung in places and had a tendency to creak near the windows..."  In modern usage a sprung floor is a flexible one designed for dancing.  In context here it appears to refer to misaligned boards.

"... who now run a bucket-shop in the City and are almost as crooked as he was."  "An office with facilities for making bets in the form of orders or options based on current exchange prices of securities or commodities, but without any actual buying or selling of the property".  "The origin of the term bucket shop has nothing to do with financial markets, as the term originated from England in the 1820s. During the 1820s, street urchins drained beer kegs which were discarded from public houses. The street urchins would take the dregs to an abandoned shop and drink them. This practice became known as bucketing, and the location at which they drained the kegs became known as a bucket shop. The idea was transferred to illegal brokers because they too sought to profit from sources too small or too unreliable for legitimate brokers to handle."

"... life for George Byron Merrivale was not all ginger-pop either."  I found one other usage from 1925 referring to life not being all "ginger pop and chocolate cake."  Presumably viewed as a luxury.

"'Oh, I was no mollycoddle,' said H.M.... "  Pampered, overprotected person. "one who coddles himself," from Molly (pet name formation from Mary), which had been used contemptuously since 1754 for "a milksop, an effeminate man," + coddle (q.v.).

"Sir Henry Merrivale, in a white short-sleeved shirt and white flannels, was engaged in playing clock-golf."  "Clock golf is a game based on golf, originating in the mid 19th century. Players putt a golf ball from each in turn of 12 numbered points arranged in a circle as in a clock face, to a single hole placed within the circle."

"It would be rather awful, wouldn't it, if somebody we thought figured in one rôle really figured in exactly the opposite rôle?"  Discussion thread about the use/nonuse of the circumflex.

"... immersed in a curious anecdote about the Devenport brothers and their use of a lazy-tongs in the middle-'eighties."   A pantograph (item that extends or contracts like an accordion) (see the example of the mirror at the link).  Also the use of an apostrophe on "eighties" to make note of an elision.

"Would you like me to rub some embrocation on [a sore spot]?" Moistening or rubbing with spirit or oil.  From Latin and Greek for "lotion."

"Played the rip..."  In context, unfaithful to a spouse.

"But that very evening the case had the tin hat put on it when Agnew reported..."  "To put the tin hat on something is to finish it off or bring it to an end."  Thought to be an expression from the First World War.

The Gilded Man (1942)
Very gratifying to finally solve one (murderer, method, and motive) before the reveal at the end - but it required stopping near the end and spending an evening rereading from page one onward again.  Also notable for JDC's incorporation of humor unrelated to the plot, as for example after Sir Henry Merrivale finished his performance in the persona of "The Great Kafoozalum" for a magic show at the country estate, attended by a particularly annoying schoolmarm:
... H.M. himself [was] still in costume of the Great Kafoozalum, with a small girl clinging tightly to either hand.  The boys, though sneeringly disdaining such effete signs of friendship, nevertheless circled round and round him like Red Indians at a campfire, firing questions faster than newspaper reporters.
"Was it a trick when you dropped Miss Clutterbuk down the trap-door?"
"Why did you tie her up like that?  Was it the Indian rope-trick?"
"And gag her?"
"Did she really have that bottle of gin in her handbag?"
"Why didn't she reappear again on top of the bar counter, like you said she was going to?"
"Well, now, son, I expect something went wrong with the spell.  These tough old hyenas are pretty hard to put the hoodoo eye on..." 
But on to the language...
"... she was pretty, in the conventional sense of good features and rather wax-bloom complexion."  Not quite sure about this.  I found the word used to refer to the migration of salt to the surface ("efflorescence") of a artwork (especially colored pencils), and the coating of wax on the outer surface of a plant cuticle.  Also happens to lipstick. Can't quite see the application to complexion.

"Do you know what a beignoir is?"..."They have them in French theaters... a private box, a sort of cell with a hole cut in the wall, where people in mourning can go to the performance without being observed."

"El Greco, who saved his fingers from the Inquisition, had called that picture The Pool."  Presumably there's an interesting story behind this, but I couldn't find it.

"You come charging in here and look jail at everybody instead."  Another idiom I couldn't find.

"It's an old trick... Like the anonymous-letter ramp, you see."  Still another I couldn't find.  Not having a good day.

"Don't be surprised if you find my dabs on that knife." In context: fingerprints - presumably with reference to the method they are obtained.

"H.M. picked it up, while Nick retailed the evidence of the fingerprints."  To repeat or circulate.

"The flicker of firelight, from under a carved overmantel as big as an arch..."  Decorative panel over a fireplace (pix).

"... she was half-whistled herself." I finally found whistle-drunk meaning "too drunk to whistle."

"He says you hit him in the mush, whatever that is, with a snowball."  Mouth or face [Brit. informal]

"Commander Dawson, sitting in one of the embryo boxes with his feet irreverently on the rail..." ????

"... anybody but a Child Psychologist would have seen that this bottling-up presaged signs of explosion in a first-class beano."  Noisy celebration or party, also called beanfeast.

"On his head the Great Kafoozalum wore a huge bulging turban, fastened in front with a single paste ruby, from which a tall white aigrette rose up like the radio antennae of a police car."  Feather or plume (etymology from egret).

 "But it bled like billy-o."  (see above)

She Died a Lady (1943)
A mystery that relies a lot on the science of footprints, and a novel that has a bit too much forced humor, but one that reveals the murderer as absolutely the very last person you would expect.  I'll say no more.
"... a little causerie with her father--"  Informal conversation (from the French).

"I saw the quick, glutinous interest of the eye, and I didn't like it."  Glue-like.  Not sure how this applies to a gaze, except perhaps as a fixed stare.

"He'll go before the beak in the morning, and get fined ten shillings."  Court/judge in context.  Also used to refer to a schoolmaster.  Derivation not found - perhaps relates to an article of clothing or headwear?

"... Tom large and breckled and hollow-eyed..."  Couldn't find anything - not even in my OED.  Perhaps it's a printing error?

"It was while I was bucketing around a curve past Shire Oak..." Driving, in context.  Found definition "to travel quickly," "to move jerkily", and "to ride a horse hard," but not sure why.

He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944)
Classic locked-room murder.  A herpetologist (and his favorite Bornese tree-snake named Patience) are found dead in his office at the Royal Albert Zoological Gardens.  Gas from a fireplace has asphyxiated them both.  The office is hermetically sealed, with locked door and windows, and with paper glued over the keyhole and other spaces ("Every microscopic opening in that room - the tiny little crack under the door, the keyhole, the joins of the two windows where the sashes meet - every place is sealed up as tight as a drumhead by glued paper fastened on the inside.")  So it appears to be suicide, but... "he wouldn't kill Patience."
"Aloof, disdainful of the canaille, he moved majestically down between the rows of specimens."  The lowest class of people; the rabble; the vulgar (from the French).

"The young man waved a brief-case."  Interesting to see the word hyphenated.  A reminder that originally it was a carrying case for legal briefs.

"In the middle of the front lawn, clearly seen by westering sunlight, stood a thickset man..."  Moving toward the west, obviously.  Apparently there is also an eastering.  And northering.

"Up to this time [the theater's] windows had been blind-eyed, its little foyer closed..."  not blitz-blackout-related since the time period is since 1928.  A search yielded many descriptions of blind-eyed buildings, but no definition.  Not apparently curtained, because often refers to abandoned buildings.  Maybe it's empty windows like blind eyes in a face.

"In that event, it wouldn't be worth while opening the new show."  Interesting to see it written as two words.

"It was very warm and stuffy in the sitting-room.  Its blackout, thick rep material, showed unevenly..."  A cloth woven with ribs.

"... Carey chose a B-middle-size and probed for the wards of the lock." (while trying to pick it).  Presumably the "protected part" inside the outer covering.

"Even Sir Henry Merrivale... fussed over her like a boiled owl."  Odd.  The Oxford Reference defines as "very drunk": "also drunk as a biled owl, …an owl, …two hoot owls, full as a boiled owl, lushy as…, tight as…, stewed as an owl, tight as…)"

"Far below, through the ropes and cords and raised drop-scenes of the flies, he could see a dim stage... His eyes moved over the cluttered stage, the battens with their pouring rays, the big dim theatre."  Flies in a theater refers to the "rigging system of rope lines, blocks (pulleys), counterweights and related device."  In a theater, battens are lengths of timber used to stiffen a surface of canvas.
Enough.  There's a limit on how much time I'm willing to spend searching arcane words and outdated dialect.

Four of the above are now listed on eBay.


  1. Can't help with much, but WP has a page on warded locks:

  2. Are you open to wild guesses from someone who writes as a hobby?

    I suspect the drunk as an owl connection refers to their supposed incapacitation by daylight, and it's true that owls often have a wide-eyed, slow-blinking sort of expression that reminds me a little of a staggering drunk trying to decide which of the three doorknobs he can see is the real one. How the comparison really originated, I haven't a clue.

    My guess on beak is that it refers to the judicial habit of looking down one's nose upon the defendant, partly because of the judge's box being higher, partly a social class type of looking-down. Could also apply to a schoolmaster, looking down his nose at seated pupils.

    Breckled caught me, because I like the sound of it, but I haven't the faintest clue of a meaning for it. Possible misprint of brackle, "to break bread or cake into pieces "v(http://phrontistery.info/b.html)? Or maybe brickle, breakable or brittle (https://www.wordnik.com/words/brickle)?

    Thank you for being a fascinating blogger who frequently expands the horizons of my knowledge.

  3. Not relevant to language, but what on Earth has happened to the poor woman on the cover of "He wouldn't kill Patience"? It looks anatomically impossible, not to mention quite painful!

    1. the strap falling down her shoulder is impeding her escape!



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