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.