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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

H.M. and M.H.

The first book I read this year turned out to have an unexpected Holmes connection. But I shouldn't have been surprised.

One of my reading projects for 2015 is to re-read, in order, the 22 novels, one novella and one short story featuring semi-amateur sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale, written by locked-room master John Dickson Carr under his Carter Dickson pseudonym.

The irascible Merrivale is better known as H.M. or "the old man." But in his inaugural appearance, The Plague Court Murders (1934), we learn that he has another nickname - Mycroft! When H.M. was head of the British Counter-Espionage Department, one of his agents wrote from Constantinople:

"The most interesting figure in the stories about the hawk-faced gentleman from Baker Street isn't Sherlock at all; it's Mycroft. Do you remember him? He's the one with as big or bigger detective hat as S.H., but is too lazy to use it; he's big and sluggish and won't move out of his chair; he's a big pot in some mysterious department of the government, with a card-index memory and moves only in his orbit of lodgings-club-Whitehall. I think he only comes into two stories, but there's a magnificent scene in which Sherlock and Mycroft stand in the window of the Diogenes Club rattling out a chain of deductions about a man passing by in the street - both of them very casual, and poor Watson getting dizzier than he's ever been before . . . . I tell you, if our H.M. had a little more dignity, and would always remember to put on a necktie, and would refrain from humming the words to questionable songs when he lumbers through rooms full of lady typists, he wouldn't make a bad Mycroft."

All of this is completely spot on.It turns out that H.M. is even a member of the Diogenes Club.

This homage to the Holmes brothers is only natural, given that Carr was such a devotee of the Master. (He later wrote The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and co-authored The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes with ACD's son Adrian.)

We learn a lot about H.M. in this first adventure, which is a great locked room mystery with surprises right up to the last paragraph:
  • H.M. has a sister named Letty and a nephew named Horace.
  • His phone number is Whitehall 0007. (007 anyone?)
  • He was born in 1871, so "the old man" is only 59 in this case, set in 1930.
  • He stands five-foot-ten.
  • A fanatical Socialist (quite unlike Carr!), he once ran for Parliament.
  • His favorite authors are Dickens and Twain.
  • Despite his atrocious grammar, he is both a barrister and a physician.
But the most important thing about the outrageous H.M. is that he is fun to read about. I look forward to doing more of that throughout the year ahead.

1 comment:

  1. Carr is very much my favourite author and H. M. my favourite detective. There are still two of his Carter Dickson books that I have yet to read, which I anticipate doing this year. No one is better at creating an atmosphere of terror amidst the mundane than Carr.