Forgotten Book: The Peacock Feather Murders (aka The Ten Teacups) by John Dickson Carr (1937)

The Peacock Feather Murders is one of the best locked room mysteries.

The Peacock Feather Murders is one of the best locked room mysteries.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 192nd in my series of Forgotten Books.

I love a great locked room mystery and The Peacock Feather Murders is one of the best. Locked room mysteries represent an apparently impossible murder where there seems to be no conceivable way the crime could have occurred.

The master of this mystery style was John Dickson Carr with his irascible detective Dr. Gideon Fell. His novel The Hollow Man has been voted the best locked room murder of all time and it contains the definitive chapter, wherein Dr. Fell discusses the various aspects of the locked room. Carr’s major competition for the title of the best locked room writer is himself writing as Carter Dickson and features the irascible detective Sir Henry Merrivale.

Today’s book, The Peacock Feather Murders, was also voted one of the best locked room murders of all time. Our plot begins with Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters receiving a note that reads, “There will be ten teacups at number 4, Berwick Terrace, W. 8, on Wednesday, July 31, at 5 p.m. precisely. The presence of the Metropolitan Police Is respectfully requested ” Two years earlier, Masters received a note of similar tone shortly before finding a young man named Dantley murdered. That homicide was never solved.

Half Resurrection Blues delvers noirish horror thrills.

Half Resurrection Blues delvers noirish horror thrills.

Masters and some of his men stake out the building. Young Vance Keating, a wealthy man-about-London, brushes off police protection. As the police watch, Keating enters the house. Suddenly, two shots sound from within. The place is vacant except for one room. In that room, they find Keating and an old revolver from which two shots have been fired. No one has entered or left. Inside the room is a table with an expensive covering that features peacock feathers and ten teacups. The police also find a hat with both the name of the dead man’s brother and gunpowder marks on it. In the Dantley murder, the police also discovered ten expensive teacups with a peacock feather motif.

Masters calls on his old friend Sir Henry Merrivale to help with the case. The suspects include the dead man’s brother Philip, his fiancée Frances Gale, his friend Mr. Rod Gardner and his lawyer Jeremy Derwent and the lawyer’s wife. Derwent is the previous owner of the home on Barrant Terrace. Coincidentally, he had been the previous owner of the home where Dantley was murdered.

The mystery has lots of convolutions, including a game of Murder played at the Derwents’ the night before, where Vance had been selected to play the detective but bowed out of the whole party at the last minute. There also are the expensive teacups in the first murder, replaced by a Woolworth set for the new one. And on top of that, there are lies and omissions, alibis and fakery — and ultimately a satisfying denouement which is properly footnoted to allow the reader to go back and see every clue.

The Peacock Feather Murders lacks the action of the noir mysteries I love, but I also have great respect for these puzzles. Just as Ellery Queen does in his early mysteries, Carr or Dickson plays fair with the reader and the clues are there for your discovery. Give them a try.

As a short, additional review, I also recently read Half Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older, a noirish horror title from Roc. And again, I loved it.

Carlos Delacruz is an inbetweener. He has been killed and does not require air to breathe or food to live. But he’s also not dead. He walks, he talks and he serves at the whim of the New York Council of the Dead as a soul catcher.

One New Year’s Eve, he discovers another inbetweener trying to open a portal to the afterlife and take living people into it. He kills the young man and this leads to complications. He promises to look in on the man’s sister, Sasha, and he finds himself falling in love (do the dead love?). And, suddenly, he is in the middle of a giant plot to bring Hell to New York.

There are some great characters in this novel, like Mama Esther, the manifestation of a loving house, and Baba Eddie, who works weird magic, and Moishe the real estate guy. The book was fun food for my noirish and horror appetites. It is listed as the first of the Bone Street Rumba novels. I’m not sure when the next one is due but I’ll read it. Check it out yourself.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.



Forgotten Book: Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon (1961)

Theodore Sturgeon is known more for his sf short stories than his novels, but Some of Your Blood is exceptionally good.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 167th in my series of Forgotten Books.

I have read and enjoyed the work of Theodore sturgeon for nearly 50 years. I really loved his short stories, particularly “It,” “Killdozer” (which had a fun made-for-TV movie made), “Slow Sculpture” and perhaps my favorite short story, “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” When North Atlantic Books decided to publish the complete Theodore Sturgeon short stories, I went for the hardcover versions of all 13 volumes. They make a wonderful set and look great on the shelf. I dip in there frequently savoring the texture of his work.

I met Sturgeon only once, at an AggieCon in 1979 (which also had Boris Vallejo as a guest). Like a durn fool idiot I did not take all my books to get them signed. I had a copy of each of his books, maybe not all first editions, but I had the words. I don’t know why but a few years later he was gone. Among the things I did get signed were a copy of the Unknown pulp with “It” in it and a paperback edition of his Ellery Queen novel The Player on the Other Side. Of the many folks who did pseudonymous Ellery Queen novels (and that list included Jack Vance, Avram Davidson, and more) Sturgeon was the only one to get to play in the Ellery queen universe, using both Ellery and his father in the book. The others all did regular mysteries attributed to EQ. Apparently he also may have done a Saint novel The Saint Sees It Through though this is absolutely not substantiated. I like to believe it though so there.

As a general rule, I like Sturgeon’s short fiction much more than his novels. His most famous one, More Than Human left me pretty cold. The Dreaming Jewels was OK but not up to his best work.

But Some of Your Blood is different from all of those others. This is a work of pure horror and like much of his shorter work it is subtle and succinct. The novel begins with two psychiatrists exchanging notes about a soldier referred to one of them. The soldier was in a war zone (maybe Korea) where mail home is censored for sensitive data. A censor reads a letter and forwards it to a major who immediately recommends the man be taken into custody and evaluated. The contents of the letter are not shown to the shrink.

The soldier “George Smith” (this may be an alias) seems somewhat slow but not particularly violent or psycho. He begins a long term analysis by two psychiatrists, who are trying to evaluate each other’s opinions off the record. Smith has grown up in a loveless home where his mother died fairly young. The family lives in a shack in the backwoods and the father is the town drunk who can get abusive. George frequently goes into the woods and hunts using his hands, a knife and his backwoods skills. He is not particularly bad, just not really good, an average-or-lower student who does not fit in well.

One night he is arrested for breaking into a store and stealing some food — something he had done for a while. He is sentenced to go away to a juvenile prison where he remained a fairly model student. When his two year sentence was up, he is informed that his father has died. Rather than go home or go live with his mother’s sister, he stays for another year. At the end of that he is taken to a new home with the aunt and her husband. He still doesn’t fit in well but he finds some affection from a local girl eight years his senior whom he meets secretly for sex. When she gets pregnant, he knows her father will kill him so he joins the Army. Here he has an undistinguished record until the letter incident.

The accounts of George either by himself or the interaction with the psychiatrist are fascinating. There is no moral compass and the answers to the Rorschach test are creepy as hell. The big secret is not revealed until the final few pages, including the contents of the letter — and it is wild.

This was a revolutionary book when it came out, as wild as Silence of the Lambs, but since it was a paperback, it went ignored beyond the science fiction and horror circles. Its reputation as a horror classic is well deserved.

For years, copies of this book were hard to find and cherished by those who had them. It appears to be in print at the moment and copies are available on ABE and eBay for varying prices as well as for Kindle.

I think you should check it out if you have not read it. And read it again if you have before. And have a Great Thanksgiving.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.