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Sir Henry Merrivale

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Sir Henry Merrivale is a fictional detective created by Carter Dickson, a well-known pseudonym of the American mystery writer John Dickson Carr (November 30, 1906–February 27, 1977). Also known as "the Old Man," H.M., or "the Maestro", Sir Henry appeared in 22 well-received locked room mysteries and "impossible crime" novels from 1934 through 1953, as well as in two short stories. The crimes he encountered, occasionally with an apparently supernatural element, might be murder inside a locked and sealed room (where the only exit from the room is through the locked door—which cannot be locked from outside the room), or the discovery of a dead body (strangled or knifed at close quarters) surrounded by snow or wet sand in which no footprints but the victim's are visible. Carr was, and still remains, the undisputed master of the genre:

In dozens of books Carter Dickson rang the changes on the possibilities with astonishing skill. Often his postulates are improbable, but the reader rarely feels them to be impossible, and the decision is built up, sustained with teasing hints that can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways, and at last revealed with staggering skill.[1]

Dr. Gideon Fell vs. Sir Henry Merrivale

An American who lived for many years in England, Carr was an extremely prolific writer who created two major detectives, Sir Henry and Dr. Gideon Fell; publishing as many as four novels a year with two different publishers, Carr used his own name for the Fell stories and the Carter Dickson pseudonym for those about Sir Henry. Although never quite as popular as his contemporaries Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout, he was, nevertheless, well-known to the mystery-reading public and enjoyed an extremely high reputation among his fellow writers.

Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are, superficially, somewhat similar and some commentators have, mistakenly, called them nearly indistinguishable. Both are large, blustery, upper-class, eccentric Englishmen somewhere between middle-aged and elderly. Dr. Fell, however, who is frankly fat and walks only with the aid of two canes, was clearly modeled on the British writer G. K. Chesterton and is at all times a model of civility and geniality and has no official connection to any public authorities beyond his service in British Intelligence in World War I. H.M., on the other hand, although stout and with a majestic "corporation", is physically active (he somewhat improbably smashes enormous home runs on a private baseball field in "A Graveyard to Let") and is feared for his ill-temper and noisy rages. A well-heeled descendant of the "oldest baronetcy" in England, he began as an outspoken socialist but soon became a clear Establishment figure even though he continued to rail against it. Although in the earlier novels he was said to be the head of British counterespionage operations during World War I and in the first novel is now head of the Military Intelligence Department, he seldom does anything actively concerned with military intelligence.[2] In The Plague Court Murders he is said to be qualified as both a barrister and a medical doctor. Even in the earliest books the bald, bespectacled, and scowling H.M. is clearly a Churchillian figure and in the later novels this similarity was somewhat more consciously evoked.

General history of the books, to be filled in after dinner or tomorrow

"Most of Carr's stories are compressed versions of his locked-room novels, and at times they benefit from the compression. Probably the best of them are in the Carter Dickson book, The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), although this does not include the brilliantly clever H.M. story The House in Goblin Wood or a successful pastiche which introduces Edgar Allan Poe as a detective."[3]

Critical appraisal

For many years now Dr. Fell has generally been considered to be Carr's major creation. The British novelist Kingsley Amis, for instance, writes in his essay "My Favorite Sleuths" that Dr. Fell is one of the three great successors to Sherlock Holmes (the other two are Father Brown and Nero Wolfe) and that H.M., "according to me is an old bore." This may be in part because in the Merrivale novels written after World War II H.M. frequently became a comic caricature of himself, especially in the physical misadventures in which he found himself at least once in every novel. Humorous, even sometimes hilarious, as these episodes are, they also tend to have the unwanted effect of diminishing his overall persona. Earlier, however, H.M. had been regarded more favorably by a number of critics. Howard Haycraft, author of the seminal Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, wrote in 1941 that H.M. or "The Old Man" was "the present writer's admitted favorite among contemporary fictional sleuths". In 1938 the British mystery writer R. Philmore wrote in an article called "Inquest on Detective Stories" that Sir Henry was "the most amusing of detectives". And further: "Of course, H.M. is so much the best detective that, once having invented him, his creator could get away with any plot."

Sir Henry Merrivale novels

Sir Henry Merrivale short stories

  • The House in Goblin WoodEllery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November, 1947; The Strand Magazine, November, 1947
  • All in a Maze—novelette serialized in The Housewife in England, January, February, and March, 1956, as Ministry of Miracles; published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March, 1956, as The Man Who Explained Miracles

References

  1. Julian Symons, Bloody Murder
  2. * Douglas G. Greene, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, Otto Penzler Books, New York, 1995, page 125
  3. Bloody Murder, Julian Symons, first published Faber and Faber 1972, with revisions in Penguin 1974, ISBN 014 003794 2