Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Persons or Things Unknown by Carter Dickson

Solving a seemingly impossible murder

Dickson's story appears in the collection A Surprise for Christmas
Dickson's story appears in the
collection A Surprise for Christmas
Golden Age mystery writers wrote many excellent short stories as well as the novels they were famous for, and they loved to turn their hand to writing short, seasonal detective stories for the periodicals published over the festive season.

Persons or Things Unknown was written by one of only two American writers admitted to the prestigious British Detection Club, Carter Dickson, who was much admired by his fellow Golden Age writers for his locked room mysteries.

Carter Dickson was one of the pen names for John Dickson Carr, who lived in England and wrote most of his novels and short stories with English settings. He wrote Persons or Things Unknown for The Sketch, a weekly illustrated journal, for their Christmas edition in 1938.

Dickson served up a locked room mystery in a spooky setting with a historical background, which is perfect entertainment for whiling away an afternoon in December or January in front of a fire as a guest in someone’s unfamiliar, and not particularly comfortable, house.

Persons or Things Unknown has the reign of King Charles II as its background. When it was written, it was far less common to combine mystery with history, particularly in short story form, than it is now.

John Dickson Carr wrote under a number of pseudonyms
John Dickson Carr wrote under
a number of pseudonyms 
A group of guests have gathered after dinner in the drawing room of ‘a long, damp, high-windowed house, hidden behind a hill in Sussex.’  Their host has just bought the property and the party after Christmas is also meant to be a house warming.

One of the guests, who narrates the story, tells us that the smell of the past was in the house and that you could not get over the idea that ‘someone was following you about.’

The host alarms the group of guests by saying he wants to know if it is safe for anyone to sleep in the little room at the top of the stairs. He says he has ‘a bundle of evidence’ about ‘something queer’ that once happened in the room.

He then tells them he has been given a diary in which the writer says he once saw a man hacked to death in the little room at the top of the stairs. The man’s body is alleged to have had 13 stab wounds caused by ‘a weapon that wasn’t there, which was wielded by a hand that wasn’t there’.

The diary tells the story of the beautiful young daughter of the house, who was once engaged to a local landowner. Then along came a fashionably dressed young man from the court of the newly restored King Charles II, who fell for her and was determined to win her hand in marriage. The subsequent dramatic events led to a seemingly impossible murder in the little room at the top of the stairs, which used to be called The Ladies’ Withdrawing Room. It was a mystery that no one had ever been able to solve.

The host then puts all the facts he has been able to discover before his guests, who include a policeman and an historian, and invites them to come up with a solution.

The Hollow Man is regarded as Dickson Carr's masterpiece
The Hollow Man is regarded
as Dickson Carr's masterpiece
John Dickson Carr was born in Uniontown in Pennsylvania in 1906 and moved to England in the 1930s, where he married an Englishwoman and began writing mysteries. He was published under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn.

Most of his novels had English settings and English characters and his two best-known fictional detectives, Dr Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, were both English. He is regarded as one of the greatest writers of Golden Age mysteries. He was influenced by his enthusiasm for the stories of Gaston Leroux and became a master of the locked room detective story in which a seemingly impossible crime is solved. His 1935 Dr Fell mystery, The Hollow Man, is considered his masterpiece and was selected as the best locked room mystery of all time in 1981 by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers.

Persons or Things Unknown was republished by the British Library in 2020 in A Surprise For Christmas, a collection of seasonal mysteries selected by the crime writer Martin Edwards.    

In his introduction to Persons or Things Unknown, Edwards says the author ‘blends historical atmosphere with a pleasing locked room mystery in the form of an inverted detective story of the kind first popularised by R. Austin Freeman.’

In my opinion, this pleasing locked room mystery by Carter Dickson, which takes up just 20 pages of the book, would be the perfect post lunch, or post dinner, winter diversion.

Buy A Surprise for Christmas from or



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