Among my at-times multiple versions of various John Dickson Carr titles, I have four Mercury Mystery editions like the one shown on the left above — The Plague Court Murders (1934), The Red Widow Murders (1935), The Unicorn Murders (1935), and The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) — which are of additional interest to me since the novels are all abridgements. So, having just read the unedited text of The Unicorn Murders, I thought it might be interesting to see what was excised from this abridged version.
In the very front of the book, after a reminder that the books cost 25¢ each and the generous offer of buying twelve books for $3, runs the following:
Mercury Mysteries are chosen from the hundreds of mysteries published every year — for their pace, literary quality and readability. Sometimes they are reprinted in full, but more often they are cut to increase the speed of the story — always, of course, with the permission of the author or his publisher. Cuts were made in this edition.
Possibly detailing all the cuts will take up more of my life than is really necessary (plus, y’know, spoilers) so the following looks at the first two chapters and then the fifth chapter for purposes of comparison. Suffice to say, specific plot details will not be divulged, you are in a safe space if spoilers are your nemesis. Feel free to read along at home if you have a copy.
The first, arguably unimportant, amendment is the removal of the chapter titles; Chapter One is now simply ‘Chapter One’ as opposed to ‘Chapter One: The Lion and the Unicorn’ — this is fine, as there’s a tendency to give away surprises in chapter titles anyway — and we’re straight into it.
First to go is Ken Blake’s statement in the third sentence of the book:
There is nothing on your mind, and you are utterly at peace with all the world.
He has already established that ‘you’ are on holiday in Paris and out having a relaxing drink, so this is a fair removal. Next, two sentences later, is the framing that you are approached by a girl “who has always struck as rather a starched proposition, by the way” which, again, is fine; there was never very much in Evelyn Cheyne’s conduct that seemed to earn this assertion — she seems fairly relaxed from the off, and knowing this about Blake’s previous experience of her never becomes important to the plot, or, indeed, is ever mentioned again outside of this first chapter that I can recall.
Having never been that much of a fan of the Had I But Known (HIBK) school, I’m happy to see the removal of
And thereby I became involved in a series of events that which can still give me a retrospective shiver: not only because it was worse than any I ever met in the Intelligence Department years ago, but also because of the deadly things that might have been caused by a good-humored lie.
And Paris in the springtime has a way of snaring you into any foolery.
There’s nothing to be gained by promising your reader that what’s coming is going to be thrilling and devastating when you could be hurrying ahead to the actions that actually are thrilling and devastating — which I think is why the HIBK and I have never fully seen eye-to-eye, as I feel rather like that bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): “Get on with it!”.
Taking out the assertion that “I don’t like work and I admit it. Hence the career has been anything but distinguished,” helps make Blake less of a prig, I think, and if it makes him rather more bland from the off, well, he was hardly a fully-rounded human being to begin with. And in fact it makes his statement that “nobody found out about my incompetence” rather more self-deprecating when it comes a few sentences later, and he feels more endearing as a result.
We are robbed of Blake’s first description of H.M. “stumping down Whitehall, his unwieldy top hat stuck on the back of his head, his glasses down on his nose, his overcoat with the moth-eaten fur collar flying out behind,” which is less of a loss than the additional detail of him “cursing certain government officials” (the abridged version stops here)
with an audible fluency which nearly got him mobbed as pro-German
which just makes me smile. Next to go, quite understandably in my eyes, is the entire paragraph (I’m not typing out the whole thing)
A lack of guile, H.M. said, was the most invaluable asset to a Secret Service man … and if any so-and-so’s didn’t like it they could go and do so-and-so.
At this point, we’re just about to reach the bottom of page 1 of the Mercury Mystery edition, which gives you an idea of how heavily this has been cut. But, arguably, there’s nothing here that isn’t entirely valid in its removal — sure, there’s scope for the argument that the author included it for a reason (we’ll address that in due course), but I don’t think there’s much in this early stage which matters too greatly.
The top of page two sees the obliteration of the timing of these events “two days before King George’s Silver Jubilee” as well as removing the succeeding paragraph up to “the drone and chatter in the air filled with the flat quack of taxis”. The proximity of the Jubilee is mentioned in the abridged version soon hereafter, but given that this event takes on a sort of background significance, this is the first real hint that the subtle flavours of casual clue dropping (worry not, this isn’t a clue for anything) could be imperiled later on. But, for now, no major harm.
What’s very interesting to me is that there have been by now at least three significant removals of mood-setting, removing any explicit sense of the calmness that surrounds Blake in the moments before things go wrong. And, in fairness, I think the manner of what occurs is so odd that there’s actually nothing to be gained by belabouring how thoroughly normal everything is — we’ll get the sudden juxtaposition of oddness again normalcy, provided you get to the former before too much of the latter dulls our interest.
We get through the introduction of the Flamande/Gasquet thread with fewer histrionics from the policeman, and are introduced to Evelyn Cheyne in a manner that excludes the specifics of the past she shares with Ken Blake while allowing it to become clear from the dialogue that they know each other enough for her to relax around him but not so much that they qualify as friends…and at this point I find myself curious as to how the rest of this abridgement is handled. It’s true that Carr’s loquacity is at its worst in these opening exchanges, with a great deal of the detail removed above actually succeeding in the stated aim of increasing the speed of the story, but what happens when events start packing in with more significance later on? Not that I’m suggesting whoever abridged this would do a poor job — far from it, this first chapter is excellently handled — I’m simply curious to see exactly how much of Carr’s density is deemed relevant.
Worry not, what follows is by no means as forensically detailed as the above.
Chapter 2 — no longer ‘The Red Car’ — omits Blake’s frustration at the loss of his passport and removes the atmospheric mid-article break at the unfortunate but unfatal cost of the description of streetlamps and the coming of the storm. The newspaper article itself, however, is retained in full, as is the (to my eye overlong) description of Flamande’s derring-do and criminal genius…in a way, I feel Flamande is overdone in this opening section, coming across like a sort of Boys’ Own nemesis rather than a viable, realistic threat, but I can understand the desire to keep as much of that as possible. Having H.M. locking horns with someone who knows how to open a safe doesn’t quite get the pulse racing, hein?
There are fewer excisions generally in this chapter — the glow of a cigarette, characters repeating something to buy time, most adjectives — though it’s interesting to note that the atmosphere of the bistro with its “frowsy wax-work figures playing dominoes over their drinks in a fog of tobacco smoke” is kept, perhaps in a deliberate decision to heighten the sense of alienation now that things are on the march, when it could easily be discarded. Certainly this chapter feels less garrulous than the opening one, and you’ve got to wonder if this is partly Carr’s callowness in his writing: did he feel the need to spend longer on the ‘establishing’ first chapter to ensure everyone was on the same, ahem, page? He took such joy later in his career in simply hurling you headlong into the fray that it certainly seems to be a case of lacking faith in his own setup. Now we’re moving, he’s on happier ground; looking at this it way, it would be no surprise that it’s in this sort of form that he would write some of the finest novels this genre will ever see.
So let’s skip ahead to chapter 5, at which point the plot takes its first gigantic lurch in a new direction, and see how that fares under the abridger’s knife.
Well, again, a certain amount of excision is achieve simply by not requiring characters to act as stand-ins for the reader: the shock of a couple of characters at the announcement which begins this chapter is removed, but then we as readers are equally unfooted and so that’s no huge loss. Perhaps the only effect this does have is to reduce the pervading sense of discombobulation: there’s an implicit sense of British stiff-upper-lipness in the apparent refusal of anyone to react to the situation they are greeted with, and it would possibly be a little odd to be faced with such equanimity on the page. At the same time, this sort of catercornered approach is weirdly in keeping with the overall oddness of what’s going on here, but it would have the effect of pulling you out of the story a little, I can’t help but feel.
There is a letter — in the epistolary sense — of particular importance in this chapter, and interestingly some of that is removed, as is a great deal of the description of other characters; the relative magnitude of the edits here isn’t far off the opening chapter, in fact, though there’s much atmosphere and reaction that is as involved in the setup of the situation as were the tonal edits of the opening of the book. Possibly I chose poorly in the selection of this chapter, as it spends a certain amount of time on the little actions and responses of people new to the narrative, but this is one place where a couple of hugely important clues are dropped and I wanted to see how the abridging would affect those.
Naturally they are themselves untouched, and their placement in the shortened text in no ways seems odd — it’s not like we suddenly lapse into a wealth of detail following everything else being pared back to the essentials — which is testament to the wisdom of the decision to leave in the flourish here and there that enriches proceedings without really adding anything plot-wise. Whoever abridged this — whether it was a single person or a whole committee is not revealed anywhere in the book — did a fabulous job, and given how rigorous they’ve been, this version seems likely to clear up the issues of volubility later on that marred my enjoyment of the full text when I read this recently. Having previously viewed this with suspicion, I can safely say that it will be to the abridged version that I return when I come to read this novel again.
So, what have we learned? That Carr had a tendency to over-write…well, we knew that anyway. That a speedy setup can be attained? Well, again, we saw that become more of a factor in Carr’s career fairly soon hereafter, and plenty of other authors will also have shown us this. I think I will take away from this the idea that, as tempting as it is to scream “Sacrilege!” and let slip the dogs of indignation, an intelligent perspective on this type of undertaking can actually improve a text where word count is often given preference over relevance. We’ve all read books that drag — some of them are almost short stories padded unrecognisably up to 237 pages — and being able to rip out a few descriptors here and there could give us a vastly improved experience. Seeing it done this well, while not making quite the compelling read I thought it might (sorry about that), at least makes me very curious to see how this was achieved elsewhere.
Because, dude, if they did this to The White Priory Murders (1935) it could well make that book a proper masterpiece…