Scandal At High Chimneys (1959) by John Dickson Carr

London, 1865, and Clive Strickland, a lawyer and a writer, is approached by his friend Vernon Damon to approach his father, Matthew, regarding a proposal of marriage from a third party regarding one of Vernon’s sisters. As you do, apparently. But when Strickland arrives at High Chimneys, the family house, he discovers a house in chaos.

A phantom stranger terrifies one of the women of the house, reappearing to murder Matthew Damon under Strickland’s nose. One member of the household has a terrible secret that they will do anything to hide, and it will take a legend from the London police force to find them…

John Dickson Carr is best known for his impossible crime novels featuring Gideon Fell and (under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) Sir Henry Merrivale. But from the 1950s, he grew tired of those characters and branched out into writing historical mysteries. Never touching the same era twice, he did write a sort-of trilogy of titles that featured, as part of the narrative, the various stages of development of the London police force, starting with Fire, Burn! and ending with The Witch Of The Low Tide. I’m not sure how deliberate this was – these three books are consecutive non-series releases – but that is the effect they give. Fire, Burn is highly rated as one of his best historicals, at least if you believe other people – the mechanism of the murder annoys me – and I have very fond memories of The Witch Of The Low-Tide, despite a different problem with the solution, but Scandal At High Chimneys generally gets a bad press compared to the two of them. I’ll be honest, I’ve not read it before – the cover put me off, to give one reason.

By the way, the cover is a fine example of an artist creating it without ever having read the book. Nothing remotely like that happens in the book, unless I skipped a page.

So, what is the book like? Well, there’s two aspects to look at. First is Carr’s meticulously researched picture of Victorian England – there’s a smashing section at the end where he goes over his research. Not content with the Holmesian picture of the gentry, Carr is determined to look at the underbelly of society and the interactions of the upper class with it, with all of its debaucheries. There are some aspects that will raise an eyelid – apparently in the somewhat dubious theatre bar, snacks for sale consists of oranges, prawns and sweets. Yumsk!

There’s some Victorian values on display here – is Carr really trying to create a vague impossibility with the claim that a woman couldn’t possibly fire a revolver? – but the overall picture is a fascinating one.

The mystery isn’t bad either, but stay away from other reviews as they tend to hint at a spoiler for this one. I’m not going to say any more, as even thinking about in the general sense from the little that I’d read made the killer inevitable to me. Carr is doing some nice misdirection here, but it’s too easy to second guess him for once. Also, to be honest, I can understand why the killer indulges in a bit of Scooby Doo dressing-up, but there must be easier ways…

What may make or break this one is the style that Carr writes it in. Nobody in the case speaks like a normal human being, with all of the characters utterly incapable of answering a straight question. The sleuth, ex-Inspector Whicher (of the Constance Kent case, made famous first by John Rhode and since by Kate Summerscale) and at least one other character seem to know who the killer is from the start but don’t tell anyone for, well, reasons, but every single character ends up obfuscating the situation – even the victim is killed before he can reveal something important, but if he was capable of being remotely succinct, the murderer wouldn’t have stood a chance. This does get a bit tiresome at times, to be honest, to the detriment of the narrative.

So all in all, an interesting read, not one of Carr’s finest, but not close to his worst either, and the historical detail is a lot more interesting than most Victorian-set mysteries.

Availability: There are some affordable copies out there, and there’s a 4 quid ebook version as well.

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHEN – Set in the Victorian era.

16 comments

  1. I have a problem with some of Carr’s historicals. I’ve owned ‘Devil in Velvet ‘ for years and I think the farthest I’ve got is about page 50 and I recently read ‘Captain Cutthroat ‘ for the first time and found it abysmal. At least I finished it. But I enjoyed ‘Witch of the Low Tide’. I’m wary of venturing forth into the historicals again.

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    • Low Tide is probably the closest in style (and period) to Carr’s normal output. Cut-Throat has a good dose of swashbuckling, so I can see why one might not like it – personally I loved it.

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      • It just reminded me of those 1950s series when I was a kid. ‘Robin Hood’, ‘William Tell ‘, ‘Ivanhoe’ etc and had about as much emotional depth. He was just capable of so much better.

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    • I think Devil in Velvet was about his best essay in the style, so if you don’t like that or Bride of Newgate you probably won’t like the others. Witch is more like one of his regular mysteries, perhaps because it’s so close to the period when he actually started writing. It still has some of the irritating style lapses of the later books though.

      When Doug writes in his Carr bio that writing for the radio plays negatively impacted Carr’s writing style in his novels, he wasn’t kidding. It works so well for radio plays, but not the novels.

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      • Interesting comment about the radio plays negatively impacting Carr’s writing style in his novels. I’ve skimmed through sections of Green’s book but I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I think I can see how this would be the case though. The later books contain a lot of scenes with characters shouting excitedly at each other for reasons that don’t quite make sense I can see how that might create excitement in the audio form. Carr also starts to rely on dialogue to describe scenes – perfectly reasonable for radio, but unnatural in the written form.

        The Devil in Velvet was a bit much for me. I actually prefer all of his other historical through The Demoniacs with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys.

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  2. Yeah I was thinking that cover was a little racy, even for JDC. Need to do some more JDC reading, but perhaps not this one. I’ve only read one of his historical mysteries to date, Captain Cut-Throat, which I thought was quite good.

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  3. “What may make or break this one is the style that Carr writes it in. Nobody in the case speaks like a normal human being, with all of the characters utterly incapable of answering a straight question.”

    This makes me so sad. Carr for me just gets increasingly unreadable from the the early Fifties on because of his writing style. I actually think this the Jacobean/Georgian era historicals are the best things he did from that point on because that’s the age that fitted how Carr wanted to write at that point. Whether it’s Scandal at High Chimneys or The Dead Man’s Knock, all his people want to act like they are Jacobeans. Poor Carr, he needed a time machine so he could back to that age. I don’t believe he was really happy in the world after World War Two. But Scandal, Witch and Thunder are better than some of the others.

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    • So true, hence his desire to write about the past rather than the present as much as possible. In this one, you can possibly make the rationale for the dialogue as mimicking Victorian melodrama… if it wasn’t for the fact that his characters in the rest of his books from here on speak the same way. But the end result for me, like you, is to just feel sorry for Carr with his latest work. Was he happy with the way it came out? I must take another look at the biography.

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  4. I am pretty sure I read this one. I have read few of his historicals and liked none of them. If you are looking for interesting research I recommend Inventing The Victorians. I forget the author but an interesting correction to many stereotypes.

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  5. I’m glad you finally read this one, as it’s an interesting one to discuss. It’s not a bad book, but the melodrama is dialed to nine. It’s much more tolerable in a Victorian era book than in contemporary novels like The Dead Man’s Knock. I don’t quite get what Carr was going for with the mystery. He seems to kind of want an impossible crime, but there are elements of the setup where I can’t imagine any reader really is going to view it as such. I suppose that comment applies to most of Carr’s historicals from this period though.

    I do think Scandal at High Chimneys is Carr’s weakest in this first run of historicals, but as you say, it has enough intriguing historical elements to pull it through. It’s interesting that it came out between Fire, Burn and The Witch of the Low Tide, which I see as Carr’s two best historical efforts.

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  6. An astute reader can easily guess the culprit here.. The author’s very obvious avoidance of a specific information gives the game away. The last line of chapter 19 did,’t come as a surprise to me.

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