If you haven’t read one of these before, I write up my thoughts on a mystery as I go along, and try and solve it before the end. To avoid devastating people with spoilers, I try to pick books that are very obscure or have had poor reviews. This time, it’s Carter Dickson’s The Skeleton in the Clock.
Carter Dickson was the alias of John Dickson Carr, the Golden Age’s master of the locked room mystery. He had two major detectives, Doctor Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, and he published each series under a different name. This is one of the few H.M. mysteries I haven’t read, and it’s had pretty mixed reviews. But that’s hardly surprising; John Dickson Carr is one of those authors that you read in the hope that this time he’ll be back to his old form. There’s a handful of masterpieces and then a real swamp of rubbish. I’ve not got very high hopes here, but actually I’ve found that John Dickson Carr books are much more enjoyable now that I head into them with my expectations at rock bottom.
It’s a Henry Merrivale mystery, so gird your loins for impossible murder, juvenile humour and maybe some nauseating sexism. (As usual, I’ll be taking bets on how long it takes Carr to use the word “wench”. My edition’s 300 pages, so I reckon he’ll drop the w-bomb by at least page 50.)
Are you ready? Let’s go!
Chapter 1: “If what you say is true, what would be the most dangerously haunted place on earth?”
Martin Drake, Ruth Callice and John Stannard are discussing the supernatural. Stannard declares that a prison’s execution shed would be the best place to meet ghosts, on account of all the angry criminals who must be hanging around. Luckily he’s a K.C., so he can get access to just such a shed at the defunct Pentecost prison. The others agree that this would be a brilliant idea, because this is a John Dickson Carr mystery and that’s what happens in Chapter 1.
By purest coincidence, Pentecost is near Fleet House, where twenty years previously George Fleet fell to his death in front of a lot of witnesses. Apparently it was either an accident or a “supernatural murder”. Which means it was actually a rather contrived killing that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, if other “man falls off roof” impossible crimes are anything to go by. (Not just a snipe at Sherlock, although that was disappointing; is there a single mystery where someone falls off a roof in impossible fashion and the solution is satisfying? It’s like murders in a lift.)
Stannard leaves, and Martin whines to Ruth about a woman called Jenny who he fell in love with during the war but managed to misplace at Edinburgh station. Whoops. He’s been searching for her ever since, despite having known her for about ten minutes. So I’m guessing Martin is our lovelorn hero who we’re going to have to be sympathetic towards even as he behaves like a jealous, snivelling man-baby. (Carr was a good mystery plotter, but he has some very strange ideas about the virtues of a certain kind of lunkheaded masculinity. All the heroes in his H.M. books are total bell-ends, with the possible exceptions of Ken Blake and the doctor in She Died a Lady.)
That’s a lot of snark, but the beginnings of these later H.M.s are always a slog. There’s normally four or five chapters of traipsing about and “comedy” before the mystery kicks into gear, after which things either quickly improve or go completely to pot. The lost sweetheart fills me with a certain sinking feeling, but the prison execution shed sounds promising. That will probably be the setting for the second murder (the first is obviously Fleet falling off his roof), and Carr was always very good at writing that kind of claustrophobic horror. Shame there’ll be 100 pages of fluff before we get there.
Chapter 2: “And it is now time, in this chronicle, to introduce none other than Sophia, Dowager Countess of Brayle.”
Martin goes to an auction of old weapons and who should happen to be there but Jenny, his long lost sweetheart? Who’d’ve thunk it?
She’s engaged, but that’s no obstacle; Martin vows to her that he’ll break up the marriage no matter what. Jenny is fine with this.
This kind of thing happens all the time with Carr, and we’re always supposed to side with the interloper. I’ve never read any of the biographies of Carr, but I do know he was married himself. Did he treat his wife with the same disregard he gives his female characters, or was he a perfect gentlemen and used his fiction as an outlet for his frustrations? At least Carr is happy to sacrifice a happy ending for a surprise, so there’s at least the possibility that Martin or Jenny might be a big ol’ murderer. Here’s hoping.
Jenny’s grandmother is Lady Brayle, the Dowager Countess from the quote above. And Jenny’s fiancé is Richard Fleet, son of the man who fell from the roof twenty years ago. So things are starting to come together already. Is all this just coincidence to get the mystery going? If this was Christianna Brand these would all be clues, and someone would be manipulating all of these chance encounters behind the scenes. But Carr is happy to rely on “the infernal cussedness of things”, which is supposed to be a plausible invocation of Murphy’s Law but more often seems like an excuse to lob as many coincidences together as he feels like.
Chapter 3: “Haw, haw, haw!” warbled the Dowager Countess “Haw, haw, haw, HAW!”
H.M. is also at the auction. Lady Brayle accidentally hits him in the face with a shield, which she finds hilarious. (Haw, haw, HAW.)
In revenge, H.M. plans to stab the Dowager Countess up the bum with a halberd. I expect that sentence alone is enough to tell you whether you’re going to be able to stand John Dickson Carr or not.
Martin talks him out of it, but in her overexcitement at winning one of the lots, the Dowager Countess leaps back right onto the point. She finds this less hilarious, and the auction room falls silent. But to Martin’s delight everyone is clearly trying not to laugh. Because stabbing snooty ladies in the fundament is obviously the best thing in the world.
I imagine Carr was wetting himself when he wrote this.
Look, I’m not made of stone. I don’t lay claim to having a particularly sophisticated sense of humour. “Dowager Countess” is amusing by itself. I’ve been known to laugh at a good prat-fall or even a custard pie to the face. There’s a place for that kind of thing. But it’s not in a book. Some things just don’t cross from one medium to another. Trying to write physical comedy is like trying to yodel a painting: it’s going to take an extraordinary talent to produce something worth experiencing. Pynchon can manage it. But the kindest thing I can say is that Carr’s no Pynchon.
Anyway, the Dowager Countess and H.M. get into a childish bidding war. H.M. wins without knowing what he was bidding on, and it turns out to be the skeleton in the clock from the title.
I hope that this is Carr getting the obligatory slapstick out of the way so he can focus on the real mystery. For all my unkindness, I get the impression that he occasionally felt shackled to some of the “features” of his series and wrote things he didn’t really want to. Especially the impossible crimes. Many of the later mysteries would have been much better without these, and Carr’s heart doesn’t seem to be in them.
I also hope that this has all been hiding some clues. Humour is a great place to hide clues, because it’s hard to engage those two different modes of thought at the same time. But what could be the deeper significance of all this prannying about? Something to do with swords and rapiers? The fact the Dowager Countess was bidding on the clock?
Oh, and on page 35: “A skeleton in a clock, hey? That’s a bit rummy. Do you happen to know any more about it, my wench?” So my 50 page estimate on the w-bomb was too conservative!
Chapter 4: “Through a round glass dial, with gilt numerals and hands, the skull-face looked out.”
Martin travels down to Fleet House, but out of a muddle-headed sense of propriety he stays at the Dragon’s Rest pub over the road. He rings up Jenny’s fiancé Ricky, declaring himself to be “the enemy”. Ricky heads over to the pub to have a man-to-man with Martin, who declares his love for Jenny. Martin is ready for a fight, but Ricky is delighted! He wants the marriage over as well.
Chapter 5: “The embarrassment remained, but the tension had gone.”
So that’s that. Ricky likes Jenny, has known her since childhood, but there’s someone else he’d rather marry. Martin is pleased, but Jenny starts behaving weirdly. (A clue? Or Carr’s tendency to write emotionally unstable characters?) She’s ostensibly upset about the visit to the prison to look for ghosts. Ruth and Stannard (from Chapter 1) turn up, and Martin asks Ricky whether he’d like to take his place. Ricky is delighted! Again. Ricky is so delighted by everything that he surely must be the murderer…
Ricky also talks about the day his father fell from the roof. Here Carr pulls one of his most annoying tricks. Just as Ricky gets to the crucial part of his story, he suddenly – wait, what’s that? Could it be the sound of a writer artificially creating suspense by interrupting his own sentences? It is!
Don’t do this.
Carr always does this, and it’s enough to make you want to give him the Dowager Countess treatment. It’s never a good reason to withhold the information, either. When Salome Otterbourne gets shot in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, just as she’s about to reveal the name of the murderer, it’s one of the most ridiculous and implausible scenes Agatha Christie ever wrote. But at least getting shot in the bonce is a good reason to stop telling a story! Here, Ricky is about to explain what he saw when he looked up at the roof, when… the village doctor appears. Not to tell the characters about an emergency. Not because there’s been a murder, or the Great Old Ones have broached our dimension and really want a beer and a slice of pork pie. Nope. He basically just felt like saying hello. And now we probably won’t hear what Ricky saw in the window for another hundred pages. It’s maddening.
Don’t do this.
Let’s break it there for now, before the red mist descends. There are 20 chapters, so four posts with 5 chapters each seems a good idea. Not much mystery to ponder over yet. I suspect the central problem, even if it’s not put centre stage, will be why there’s a skeleton in a clock in the first place. What could be the reason? I’m reminded of the great episode of Death in Paradise, where the murderer concealed the skeleton of his dead wife in his classroom as an anatomical display skeleton. Could something similar be the case here? But the point with Death in Paradise was that a skeleton is a plausible thing to have in a science classroom, so it’s a good place to hide one. Putting a skeleton in a clock draws attention to it.
13 thoughts on “Solve-Along: The Skeleton in the Clock (Part 1)”
Would love to join in but it’s been too long since I read this – as I recall, CLOCK and A GRAVEYARD TO LET were very much the last two decent Merrvale novels.
Thanks! A problem with the format is that by selecting books I’m unlikely to spoil, I’m also limited to books that are quite forgettable.
I’ve not read A Graveyard to Let. I don’t really enjoy Carr’s American novels. I read Panic in Box C while I was travelling and I thought it was abysmal. Really no redeeming features at all.
I love Carr so much that I forgive quite a lot – Having said that, I read PANIC very early on (meaning 30 years ago … sheesh!) and like it a lot at the time and still think the gimmick is quite good (taken from a radio play I think) but can’t comment fairly on the book as a whole.
Carr’s relationship with his wife was…bizarre. On one hand, he was stated to have had numerous “encounters”…but only one could be called a serious affair, and he didn’t need to much encouragement to drop it. Though as far as I can tell/remember from Greene’s biography, they seemed to truly love each other.
And yes, Carr interrupting important information is annoying. He can’t give everything away early, but I would think that you could be less clunky about it…
I also get the impression that you didn’t care for The Demon Of Dartmoor’s solution. Why?
Oh, and welcome back!
Thanks for that! That’s really interesting (and not that surprising). To my shame, I don’t usually read biographies, so I don’t know much about authors (or anyone, really). I’ve got TWO on Agatha Christie that I’ve never even opened.
I’m not as big a fan of Halter (or maybe his translator) as everyone else seems to be. I can certainly see why he’s lauded as the new Carr, but… well, as you can probably tell from my Carr reviews, I’m not sure that’s actually so great an accolade.
I’ll do a full review of Demon of Dartmoor, because there’s a lot to talk about (and lots of things that ARE clever and work well), but two things stand out for me:
I didn’t buy the murder method with throwing the camera. Yes it’s his pride and joy, but I’m not convinced it would work as a murder method (or produce the desired effect). What if he’s got the sense to ignore it, and is just really pissed off? What if he cries out something incriminating? I have this problem with a lot of Ellery Queen books: I’m not convinced by knee-jerk reactions that apparently everyone will perform. Yes, it could happen that way, but I think it’s so far from being certain that I didn’t believe the murderer would try it, even as a last resort.
The second thing I didn’t like was the fact that one of the impossible crimes was just… made up. I’ve only read two Halter books, but this has happened in both of them. While I concede that “this really was impossible, therefore the witness to it must have been lying” is sound logic, I think it’s a rubbish trick to play on the reader.
Oh and I’m not sure what the spoiler policy on your blog is, so I’ll just reply here for now, but I enjoyed your review of The Reverend Dean mysteries. I don’t want to be too critical of Hal White, because he’s an (ingenious) independent author and I don’t want to discourage people from writing, but I think your review was spot on, especially about Reverend Dean’s despair over his dead wife slipping from adroit characterisation to laid on with a trowel to unintentional comedy.
It’s a long time since I’ve read them, but a few things stick with me: in the one with the mad shooting, you really wouldn’t use a tape measure to measure a building. You’d use trigonometry or a laser measuring device. That’s not just nitpicking. How would you drop a tape measure accurately enough? It’s a nice clue, but makes no sense.
As for Murder At The Fall Festival. Well I’ve never laughed so much at a mystery as when I read that huge infodump and it was obvious what had happened (you’re right that it gives everything away). Unfortunately it’s just not medically sound. And even if it was, not to put too fine a point on it, there’d be a distinct smell of roast shit in that garage…
But what I remember most is that White falls into a trap I covered in an earlier post about the Father Brown TV series and alibi technique. The murderer in that story goes to huge trouble to rig the forensic evidence to establish an alibi, but then DOESN’T bother to take steps to incriminate anyone else. A situation being impossible is no use to anyone. You need to not just make it look like you couldn’t have done it, but that someone else did. Lots of mystery authors, even famous ones, seem to forget to think through their story from the killer’s point of view, to make sure everything makes sense.
There was an even weirder version of this in the recent Fargo TV series. The main character ingeniously slipped out of hospital where he was under police guard to do nefarious things, but then covered up his tracks! If no-one knows that anything sinister has happened, you don’t need an alibi at all…
Okay, I’m replying to both comments at once here…
Halter is iffy for me. I enjoy him, but almost every book he’s written has some sort of flaw that just takes me out of it. (Ironically, one of the two that didn’t have that sort of complaint was The Demon Of Dartmoor.) You have a point on the camera thing, but there you run into the problem that I, personally, have a very high suspension of disbelief and a unique ability to ignore serious problem as long as i’m enjoying myself. It makes critiquing very hard at times. I could see it happening, and so I’m fine with it. I mostly agree with your second point (I still haven’t forgiven Asimov…) but I believe that it, or a variation of it, can work, just not in this circumastance. And what was the other book that Halter pulled this trick in? I can’t remember….
Thanks for the complements. I wouldn’t think too high of me though, I sometimes have to read what others have said to have obvious flaws pointed out to me. Like in that Fall Festival story. Until I heard someone (probably you) talking about it, it never occurred to me that it was clunky. Nowadays, I’m getting better at noticing flaws, but in some of the earlier stuff, I have no doubt that many problem flew over my head.
As for spoilers, just make sure you mention said spoilers.
The other Halter story I’ve read is The Invisible Circle, which is 99 shades of bonkers (and also pretty obvious, I think). I just don’t think he’s very good at creating atmosphere. He stuffs so much into his stories that there’s no time to let anything breathe. He’s got a good mind for impossible crimes, in fact much more inventive than Carr. So many of Carr’s puzzles are just variations on “people can be moved (or move themselves) after the killing blow is struck”. But 60,000 word novels don’t need half a dozen different impossible crimes. It’s too much.
Figured that it’d be the one I haven’t read… Oh well, I’ll read it anyway.
Can’t really comment on Halter’s creativity vs. Carr’s. Halter’s better with different scenarios, that’s for sure. Though, as you say, either Halter is awful at atmosphere, or there are problems with the translation. Carr, from I gather, could be chilling when he wanted to be. (Sorry for dragging this out longer than it needs to be.)
Atmosphere is tricky. It’s hard to point to specific techniques for conceiving, building and sustaining atmosphere, and trying too hard is usually a good way to fail. There are certainly some Carr books that are very creepy, especially the early Henry Merrivale mysteries like The Plague Court Murders and The Red Widow Murders. He was a lot less buffoonish then. I’m not sure those are great books (Plague Court is too long and overstuffed, Red Widow Murders fixes that but the mystery is flat out broken), but they epitomise early Carr. Three Coffins is obviously the classic. It really is an extraordinary mystery. Thinking about those now, I think what stands out is that Carr’s trademark “humour” is almost completely absent.
But how does Carr create his atmosphere? Partly it’s creepy setups, in terms of both the physical settings and what the characters are doing (often ghoulish bets and investigations into earlier murders). Partly it’s how the character’s behave after the murder, an extremely exaggerated high-strung tension that Carr manages to keep just on the side of plausibility in his early books.
But Halter does all those things, which shows they’re necessary, but not sufficient. Mostly it’s just giving ideas room to breathe. Most atmosphere is created in the minds of the audience. If you don’t give them time to stop and think, they’re less able do that important work for you. That’s Halter’s mistake, and also (I think) the reason why so many people like him. Plenty of readers are much more generous and kind-spirited than me, and willing to go along with the author after minimal groundwork. If Halter says his setting is creepy, a generous reader will eagerly agree with him. A grump like me says “No, I get to decide what’s creepy or not. You have to do the work. That’s your job.”
Well, it’s interesting.
I generally find that me and Rich look at the same things from the same perspective, but Carr’s willingness to disregard the lines of plausible, because he is creating a work of fiction, works much better for me than it does for him.
Even the duchess getting stabbed with the halberd tip in the rear was perfectly ok with me. As I recall (though not sure if that was why) Carr built her up as an annoying pretentious overstuffed woman, who bosses everybody and thinks she knows it all. While I can not say that I approve of stabbing overbearing old donkeys like that in the ass is my official policy, it is something that I entirely approve of doing. (here for some reason I feel a need to point out that none of my aunts are like that).
Nor do I, most of the time, have a problem with “suddenly finding the girl you loved ten years ago” scenarios to be so unrealistic as to make me grind my teeth. While I agree that they are not common, I think of Carr is writing about those mystery cases that happen in mysterious and haunted places, about those love affairs where two people suddenly ran into each other after a long absence, and murders in which for whatever strange reason a bullet made out of hell knows what happens to be functioning, not claiming that such is the way of everyday world and this is the life around us.
Because of that, I expect things like “btw, would you like to see a haunted prison?” to be acceptable parlor after-dinner conversation and dames from the past to return to the course of events at some point.
By the way (notice how I spelled it out, unlike the paragraph above), I think Salome getting shot in Death of the Nile is one of the highpoints of Christie’s often questionable highpoint plotting. With them all being on the boat it makes sense for the murderer to suddenly overhear something like this and react to it. This further creates the sense of them all being together on a dangerous boat, where a danger from the killer and other strange happenings lurks in the shadows. As opposed to Lord Edgeware, where the victim just happens to interrupt his over the phone identification because the murderer arrives.
On a separate note, breaking off a questionable engagement, because the man of your dreams comes into your life, really favoring interloping over fidelity? I don’t think this violates anybody’s sense of morals, outside of Jane Austen’s age, and even there, the authoress herself would be on Martin’s side. (though it might take her the entire book to set things right)