The Skeleton In The Clock (1948) by Carter Dickson

3 am in the morning and three people sit in a flat talking about ghosts. And this discussion will have terrible repercussions. While it will lead one of the trio, Martin Drake to his long-lost love, Jennifer West, it will also lead to Fleet House, the site of a terrible tragedy when, years ago, Sir George Fleet apparently threw himself from the roof. What else could have happened? After all, several witnesses attested to Sir George being alone on the roof and there was no wound on his body indicating any missile striking him…

Sir Henry Merrivale, when hearing the story of Sir George, is convinced that foul play was involved – but why? What about the dead body inside the abandoned prison? And what on earth has it got to do with a skeleton encased in a grandfather clock?

As I’m currently running a “Best of Carr” poll on the blog, I thought I’d take a look at some of the titles from the master of the locked room that I haven’t reviewed for the blog. The Skeleton In The Clock was the eighteenth of twenty-two novels featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. It’s fairly well accepted that the books of John Dickson Carr go into quite a stunning decline in his later years so I wasn’t expecting much from this one. I read it once about twenty years ago and, while remembering the trick, I recalled little else. So I wasn’t expecting anything particularly special.

It’s always nice to be surprised. This is an excellent book.

One thing it’s easy to forget after not reading Carr for a while is how readable a writer he is. His prose falls off the page so easily – after reading some other Golden Age writers, you sort of expect a solid prose style, but this sparkles.  An entertaining lead detective – here not doing anything too outrageous, just sparring with the local Lady and banging on a bit about his past life as a cavalier poet – H.M. dominates the scenes he is in, but without overshadowing the other leads, notably Drake. The typical GA romance is here, although it’s not quite as straightforward as it normally is.

Overall, this is mesmerising stuff, with one chapter ending in particular really making me catch my breath. What lets it down a little is the motivation for the crimes – it’s touted as being psychological, but really, it’s all a bit simplistic. But overall, this is a thrilling tale, exceptionally well-told, and definitely not a book that should be doing so badly in my poll…

Just The Facts, Ma’am: HOW : Death by blunt instrument

12 comments

  1. I think this whole thing about “the books of John Dickson Carr go into quite a stunning decline in his later years” is a bit overstated, to be honest. Yes, his later books are generally no match for their predecessors, but some of them are pretty damn’ fine and none of them are out-and-out stinkers (at least of those I’ve read, which I believe is most).

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    • Behind The Crimson Blind, to my memory, is dreadfully dull, as is Dark Of The Moon and The House At Satan’s Elbow. But I did read these a very long time ago, so possibly my memory is playing tricks. I’ll let you know…

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    • I’d describe Carr’s decline like this:

      The latter Merrivale books start to focus too heavily on Merrivale’s antics. What started with a humorous bit or two in books like Seeing is Believing and The Gilded Man gives way to The Cavalier’s Cup – a book that is 90% attempt at comedy and 10% mystery. Carr’s still an excellent writer at this point – see The Skeleton in the Clock, Below Suspicion, The Nine Wrong Answers, his run of historicals through Most Secret, etc.

      Around the time of The Dead Man’s Knock and Scandal at High Chimneys, Carr starts to add a lot of needless “scandal” and melodrama to his work. The story telling and trivia that worked so well in the historicals bleeds into his latter year Fell novels and feels very much out of place. The stories start to feel as if they ramble – see Panic in Box C as an example. There’s a fine story in there and none of it is especially bad, but there’s a ton of superfluous content.

      The third phase of this is around the time of Dark of the Moon and Papa La Bas. Carr starts to describe scenes via dialogue – a technique that works well for radio, but is especially awkward in the written form. “Here we are, walking down a hallway. There is a door on the left and I put my hand on the knob…give it a little twist.. aha, and we are in the room.” It’s conflicting as a reader, as you still have this excellent flourish for the pen and these great ideas, but it’s mixed in with this awkwardness.

      That’s mostly the extent of it – some rambling plots and awkward dialogue. At the worst you get Papa La Bas, which just wasn’t worth reading, but on the other hand you get some good stories (The Ghosts’ High Noon and The Hungry Goblin) that are a little loose in the writing. Dark of the Moon, as painfully rambling as it was, contains an interesting impossibility and a jaw dropper of a revelation.

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  2. I agree that BTCB is poor, and one of the few things I remember about it is that at one point HM behaves in a breathtakingly out-of character way, but both the other two are OK – not in the top flight, but still quite readable.

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  3. It should perhaps be pointed out that none of the Carter Dickson novels really belong to Carr’s “later career”. I mean, he went on to write for sixteen years after the final Dickson novel, and that’s still another eight years away when this one was published.

    Yes, the final two Merrivales are poor, but that was due to the fact that Carr was seriously ill at that point in time, in fact being very near death. If we look at the other novels between 1948 and 1952, all are at least readable and some are much better than that.

    And while Carr’s writing was never the same after rallying from that serious illness, it still isn’t until the late 60s when the quality drops off quite heavily.

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    • I meant to say that while this a late Merrivale, it’s not that late for Carr – it slipped my mind – and there is a significant dip at the point where Carr was ill. I do need to read more of the late-but-not-too-late historicals as I’ve heard good things about them recently.

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  4. This really is an excellent book. I went into it worrying that it would be of the ilk of The Cavalier’s Cup or Night at the Mocking Widow (the latter is not without its charms) and was blown away. As you say, it is easy to forget just how good of a writer Carr. Top that with some of his best atmosphere since The Green Capsule / The Reader is Warned.

    I did think that the solution was the weak point though. Much like The Red Widow Murders, Carr had created this fascinating set up that he wasn’t quite able to deliver on when it came to the solution, even if it is clever.

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  5. I’ve to agree Skeleton in the Clock is a bit underrated as a mystery novel. Carr undeniably has written and plotted better detective stories than this one, but it was still a solid effort and, more importantly, it was one of the few comedic mysteries that genuinely made me laugh. Something only Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff and one particular scene from the Gervase Fen series managed to do.

    I see Patrick Butler for the Defense as the harbinger of doom, but the definite decline began with the last three Dr. Fell novels, which even I wouldn’t dream of defending. And I’ve been told to take my love for Carr and get to sleazy motel room. For example, Green Capsule called the impossibility from Dark of the Moon interesting with a jawdropping revelation, but I only remember a disappointing, unoriginal solution to the impossible crime and an underwhelming ending. And the worst thing is that it might be better of the last three Fells.

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