Time for the second part of my Solve-Along for The Skeleton in the Clock. Part one can be found here.
Chapter 6: “The heat of strained feelings was as palpable in the other room as its atmosphere of beer and old stone.”
In another room at the Dragon’s Rest pub, Merrivale and series regular Chief Inspector Masters are going over the details in the death of George Fleet twenty years ago. Masters has received some anonymous letters suggesting the fall was fishy and urging him to investigate the skeleton in the clock, which H.M. is quick to point out is NOT Fleet’s skeleton.
Details of the death are much as you’d expect: Fleet was on the roof of his mansion, and witnesses (everyone was watching the hunt through field glasses) saw that there was no-one around him when he fell. The roof was bare except for some beach chairs, and H.M. seems weirdly obsessed with the colour of those. No idea what that could mean. The anonymous letters suggest there was a “pink flash” at the time of the murder, but obviously we’re not going to learn the meaning of that until the end.
Anyway, there’s a lot of squabbling between H.M. and Masters. And a lot of setting up the conditions for the impossible crime, mostly what didn’t happen. The parapet around the roof was too low for anyone to hide behind. George Fleet’s field glasses were perfectly normal. There was nothing or no-one anywhere near him on the roof. There’s no suggestion that it’s suicide.
No clue as to how it might have been achieved at this point, but if I had to accuse anyone right now it would be Ricky or Jenny. They were children at the time, and that’s always an interesting solution (one which I haven’t come across in Carr so far, come to think of it – Plague Court Murders hardly counts).
Despite Carr’s dumb sense of humour, Merrivale is a good character – shrewd and sympathetic behind his idiotic facade. But Masters always seems completely flat. Not as lifeless as some of Carr’s weirdly invisible first-person narrators, but he barely seems to have any personality or serve any function beyond providing someone for Merrivale to talk to (or to talk to the other characters in the final chapters when H.M. has solved the mystery but refuses to tell anyone what he knows).
Chapter 7: “Pentecost, please remember, was not abandoned until 1938. It had the most up-to-date neck-cracking methods.”
And here we learn about the setup for the eventual murder in the prison. Stannard has proposed a test, where one man sits inside the execution shed and the other sits outside, holding the only key. Apparently this is a sure fire way to maximise exposure to the evil energy or some bullshit, but even Carr doesn’t seem to be able to muster up much enthusiasm for this. Everyone knows this is just an excuse to get someone in a creepy locked room. Unclear at the moment who’ll be going in – Standard says they’ll draw lots (shades of The Red Widow Murders?).
Martin bursts Stannard’s bubble by saying he’s backing out. He’s promised Jenny to take her driving, and creepy Ricky will take his place. Stannard doesn’t believe him, and engages in a piece of psychological manipulation that’s about as subtle as flapping his elbows and going “buck, buck, buck”. Naturally Martin chucks out all his previous plans and agrees to go to the prison after all. Once again, Carr seems to consider this admirable masculine behaviour, and that the reader is bound to agree.
Ruth spends a lot of time this chapter feeling guilty for arranging the whole thing. This sort of talk is often important in mysteries, because plans for murder are often laid well in advance, so it’s important to establish who actually set all the wheels in motion. But Carr’s laying on Ruth’s insistence that it’s all her fault a bit thick, so I’m not inclined to suspect her.
Chapter 8: “Captain Drake, I have little respect for law. I would cheerfully steal and if necessary I would kill. But I am not a liar. Good-day.”
H.M. and the Dowager Countess look set to have another row, but H.M. is surprisingly conciliatory. He offers to let her have the skeleton clock if she answers some questions about the catalogues for the auction. I suppose this is because of the anonymous letters, one of which mentioned the skeleton in the clock. But basically everyone had access to the catalogue, so I don’t see where that gets us.
Ricky’s mother Cicely shows up, and is a bit of a nervous wreck. She pulls a Carr special – “‘But you must never…!’ She cried. And then: ‘Oh dear, what am I saying?’” – before wandering off. (We were clear that you shouldn’t do this, right? Don’t do this.)
H.M. learns of the bet involving the execution shed and entreats Masters to stop it. He’s sure there’s going to be a murder, although he doesn’t say who’s in danger:
“Decide for yourself, son. In this whole case, where there are just as many women as there are men, who would you say is practically certain to get murdered?”
There’s a fine line, but I think this is a much more acceptable version of withholding information than Carrus interruptus. This is much closer to being a challenge to the reader: have you worked out what’s going on yet?
To be honest, I haven’t.
I also like the reference to there being as many women as men in the case. It’s a gentle nudge to get the reader to try and think of who all the suspects are. Let’s try, alternating men and women:
Martin – Hero. In love with Jenny. Silly ass.
Jenny – In love with Martin. Ricky’s fiancée.
Ricky – Too cheerful son of splatted dad-corpse. Jenny’s fiancé.
Ruth – Friend of Martin, Jenny, Ricky and Stannard. Interested in the supernatural? Possible manipulatrix.
Stannard – K.C. and insufferable tossbag. Enjoys baiting Martin.
Lady Brayle – Sore-bummed Dowager Countess.
Dr Laurier – Not sure? Son of the family doctor at the time of Fleet’s Death.
Aunt Cicely – Ricky’s mother. High-strung. Unable to finish a…
Arthur Puckston – Landlord of the Dragon’s Rest. Witness to Fleet’s death.
Still no clearer on who might be a wrong ‘un, beyond a continued suspicion that Ricky is taking things too well. And now there’s a new question: who’s a likely victim? The setup with the prison wager suggests it has to be Stannard or Martin. They’re the only two involved. But is that too simple?
Chapter 9: “My life is very dull,” he said.
Martin, Stannard and various stragglers arrive at the abandoned prison (the stragglers are allowed to come on the condition that they leave by midnight, when the bet begins).
Carr’s in his element now. Abandoned prisons at midnight are naturally creepy, of course, but Carr knows enough about suspense to not rely solely on clichés. You have to put an interesting spin on things. So the prison isn’t just abandoned – it’s been decommissioned and used to store documents from the war. Stuffing the place with yellowed, crackling bales of paper is much more effective than relying on the darkness and crumbling masonry alone.
In fact, the setting is so good that it doesn’t really jar when the characters start behaving completely implausibly – it just feels like an extension of the weird atmosphere. A case in point: when the party reaches the prison morgue, they find a collection of abandoned swords, which Ricky recognises as his father’s. Apropos of nothing, everyone starts engaging in macho dick waving, preposterous even by Carrian standards. Stannard insults Ricky. Ricky puffs up like a rooster and suggests Stannard take him on in a “test of strength”. Dr Laurier challenges Martin to a mock duel. Martin accepts. Ruth – the only woman present – despairs. And who can blame her?
While fighting, Dr Laurier slips (or pretends to slip), and almost does Martin a serious injury. Dr Laurier’s explanation for his behaviour is the quote up at the top of this section, the simple and rather pathetic, “My life is very dull.” I like that. Unusually for Carr, that’s efficient, effective and perceptive characterisation.
An aside about writing technique: this line highlights one of the unfortunate flaws in these intricate puzzle mysteries. Carr’s made a wonderfully pithy observation about a certain kind of man, provided it’s true. But the clockwork is always whirring in the reader’s mind, undercutting any genuine insight: is this a clue? Is he lying? Or is he telling the truth AND it’s a clue? Can having a dull life lead you to make your own gruesome entertainment, as it were? Etc. etc. Encouraging constant second-guessing on the part of the reader makes for a fun game, but it gets in the way of straightforward presentation of genuine observations about human nature. Is there a fundamental incompatibility here? I honestly don’t know.
Undeterred, Martin adopts the most sensible course of action and suggests they get some corks to put on the swords so they can keep fighting in safety.
Ricky heads off to fetch some corks from the medicine bottles in the morgue and makes a grisly discovery. One of the swords has fresh blood on it.
But no time to think about that! Apparently all this madness and a recently bloodied sword isn’t enough reason to stop the bet, and now it’s midnight.
Chapter 10: The tendency towards hysteria was mounting again.
It’s time to draw lots. Ruth is in charge, so it looks like she’s the only one who could manipulate who goes into the locked room. Stannard loses, so he goes in. Martin is given the key. He locks the door and waits outside. The others leave.
I’m a little disappointed. It’s pretty certain that Stannard’s been locked in to die, leaving Martin the only suspect. But it might have been a nice inversion if the hero got locked in and the person outside the locked room was the one who got killed. Oh well; one more idea for me to use, I guess.
Martin’s task is to wait outside the room until 4am. If Stannard asks to be let out or rings the alarm bell then he loses. It’s not quite clear how Martin can control whether he wins the bet or not at this point.
Contrary to expectations, because mysteries and games usually go hand in hand, Carr is terrible at understanding or coming up with rules for games. His Bencolin novel The Four False Weapons is completely broken because he doesn’t understand basic betting odds, for example.
Martin sits down to wait. He thinks about Jenny. Ruth turns up. They talk. Then this happens:
“Who says it’s wrong?” asked Ruth coolly, and turned round. “Suppose you kiss me?”
Now here it may be submitted, what is any man to do under such circumstances?
Politely decline, maybe? On account of having a fiancée?
Ruth, who prior to this has seemed like a shrewd and practical woman, suddenly throws some typical Carrian jealous hysterics. She gets angry at Martin and (presumably out of spite?) tells him that years ago a child was found killed and mutilated nearby. Is she accusing Jenny?
Martin falls asleep, but he’s woken up with a crash. He calls out to Stannard, but he’s alright.
He falls asleep again. Another crash. But it’s almost four am now. The bet’s over. Martin waits until it’s four o’clock exactly before he calls out to Stannard again…