#761: The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) by Carter Dickson

Skeleton in the Clock

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On the afternoon of November 4th 1927, Sir George Fleet stood unaccompanied on the flat roof of Fleet House and was, as several independent witnesses assert, pushed to his death by invisible hands.  Twenty years later, Scotland Yard receive three anonymous postcards marked “Re: Sir George Fleet” exhorting them to “examine the skeleton in the clock” and asking “what was the pink flash on the roof?” because “evidence of murder is still there”. Enter Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters, dragging the Old Man, Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale, in his wake…Merrivale himself having just bought a grandfather clock which has a skeleton suspended inside of it.

A point was made, not unfairly, in the comments of a previous John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson review that I was guilty of coming these later works expecting them to be poor and then evincing surprise when they were, y’know, good.  Having always tried to judge a book on its merits rather than it’s reputation — good grief, I may still not have read any Freeman Wills Crofts or R. Austin Freeman otherwise…can you imagine?! — I vowed to go in to The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) with preconceptions cast aside. And Carr’s forty-seventh published book in eighteen years, the 18th to feature H.M. as sleuth, is a frank delight. There’s a lightness and propulsion which was missing from preceding title The Sleeping Sphinx (1947) as Carr smashes together various interwoven relationships and then sprinkles enough dread and terror to keep you reading late into the night over some superbly constructed set pieces.

Sometimes it feels like Carr revisiting some of the many heights from his career to date: the extended, eerie ‘spend the night in an abandoned prison’ portion reminiscent of the wonderfully atmospheric scenes of similar from Hag’s Nook (1933), the discussion of unusual blades matching unusual wounds echoing H.M.’s first appearance The Plague Court Murders (1934), the overblown melodrama of the county fair which forms the background of the final third of this book recalling the sinister opening of Till Death Do Us Part (1944): this last similarity heightened by Carr’s central young man Martin Drake being passionately in love with Jennifer West with whom he shared one brief, passionate evening at the end of the war and — after three years of searching — has finally found much closer to home that imagined.

We also get a criss-cross of romantic entanglements that are at once predictable (the Bluff Old School Type Who Won’t Speak of His Love) and somewhat delightfully haphazard in their utilisation (if you say you saw the last line of chapter 5 coming, you’re a liar), but in this instance, given the multitude of different elements hurled in (and I don’t mean that pejoratively, I really don’t), they actually work quite well in enhancing the flavour of the mix. Most of the characters here are types, fit well into the roles assigned to them, and won’t live long in the memory, but special mention must be reserved for the indomitable Sophia, Dowager Countess of Brayle, grandmother to Jennifer, who is introduced in quite remarkably striking fashion:

All her friends would testify to her good qualities: that she was fair, that she was generous, that she even had a sense of humour. She had perhaps every good quality except that of being likeable. But that did not matter. The Dowager Countess meant to get her own way, always got her own way, and accepted this as naturally as she expected a lamp to light at the click of a switch. Whether you liked her, or didn’t like her, simply did not matter.

…and whose ongoing feuds with H.M. throughout the book show Carr utilising the comedy which some claim mires the later Merrivales to good effect: the first ’round’ is pure English postcard humour, but the second and third are folded in very well indeed, and reveal much about her (and him) that is all the more superb for being left unstated.

There are frustrations in the writing — interrupted sentences abound (“I looked at an upper window, I think to the right of the front door. And I saw…” — you must wait 30 pages to find out what was seen) and people say things like “I can’t possibly tell you now…!” only to then spill all 80 pages later — but equally some of Carr’s best casual descriptions pervade the expertly-maintained mood of unease (Masters emerging “as offhandedly as though he were in a London office instead of a mist-wrapped Berkshire field at half-past four on Sunday morning” is a particular delight). The modern age is felt in descriptions like one character “resembl[ing] someone from a horror film” following an accident, and a chase betwixt a horse-drawn carriage and a golf buggy-sounding “electric car” might even sum up the overall central conflict of the book’s narrative.

Because, see, we know Carr was only a few short years from heading off into the past with a series of heavily-researched historical novels, and his interest in the past bleeds through even more blatantly when you know what’s ahead. The sinister overtones of the sword fight in the prison — “[f]eint-lunges, as harmless as the hop of insects; much threatening and scrape of feet; cats darting with sheathed claws. Yet he could feel his own heated excitement and feel through the thin blades the tensity of Dr. Lauder’s arm” — are stuffed with Carr’s arcane knowledge (has a GAD novel ever offered up a Fencing Lecture before…?), and Drake’s interest in fencing, in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, in upright and moral ‘gentlemanly’ conduct have him marked down by his young, fashionable friends as an “old-fashioned romanticist” after Carr’s own heart. That he throws himself so fully, and so gaily, into romance is both necessary for the plot to function and also exactly in keeping with where you feel Carr wishes to be in a few years.

The concluding chapter, then, inevitably has a lot to join up, and not all the lines are as strong as they might be. The physical explanations are sound — that impossible shove in the back is a little disappointing but folded beautifully into the other elements, and the smattering of coincidence enabling for some of the starker effects fully allowable — but the talk of psychology and responses feels a bit HIBK-y and sees Carr venture onto less secure ground. Still, the overall effect here is highly enjoyable, and certain effects — the night in the execution room, for instance, of the much-missed restraint of a character saying simply “Her body mutilations: well, those are for the morbid” — all the more impactful for how they are related. Something of a triumph, this, and hopefully not the last good swing the Old Man had.

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See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: The Skeleton in the Clock is a riveting read.  Although the 1948 version of John Dickson Carr has shed the naive punk bravado that has propelled many an artist’s early efforts, this is a writer mid-flight through some of his best story telling years.  We’re four years removed from Till Death Do Us Part and two from He Who Whispers – commonly held to be some of Carr’s better overall plots.  Fast forward two years and we’re at the start of Carr’s historical arc, with the writer in full story telling glory.

Mike @ Only Detect: By a wondrous alchemy, the whole mélange of coincidences comes to appear not just plausible but thoroughly believable. For we have entered the realm of John Dickson Carr’s best fiction, where (whether Carr is writing under his own name or under the not-much-altered alter ego of Carter Dickson) the line between what’s improbable and what’s inevitable becomes practically invisible. When Carr (or Dickson, as we must call him here) is on his game, every looping turn of his narrative seems just right.

Martin Edwards: Much as I like the Carter Dickson books (and I pick them up whenever I find one I haven’t read), they sometimes suffer from an over-indulgence in tedious romances and the author’s over-confidence in the extent to which Merrivale’s comic behaviour is genuinely amusing. For me, a little of Sir Henry the buffoon goes a long way, and that’s why I prefer the books about Dr Gideon Fell. But as a detective Merrivale is no slouch, and the solution to this puzzle is ingenious though very far-fetched. An enjoyable book, but not one of his very best..

19 thoughts on “#761: The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) by Carter Dickson

  1. I wasn’t sure why I thought this novel had something to do with rooftops, when the title was blatantly about skulls and clocks – and then your review reminded me. 🤔 I recall being underwhelmed by the story-telling, and the fact that I’m grasping at loose ends to recall the solution isn’t a promising sign. 😕 But a middling Carr – in this case, Dickson – is still a much better read than many other mystery novels!

    I’m making my way through my bundle of Chinese mystery novels, and I’m just starting on an “And Then There Were None”-inspired mystery that’s set in outer space. Seems like one astronaut 👩‍🚀 after another gets knocked out according to the nursery rhyme of Ten Little Indians. 😅

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    • The skeleton is an interesting visual motif to put in the title, but given how relatively little it features in the story I wonder at the choice of that,/i> for the title. I suppose Fiddler on the Roof had already been taken…

      Good luck with those Chinese books; remember to let Ho-Ling and John Pugmire know of any that we need in English 🙂

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      • ‘… given how relatively little it features in the story…’

        Yes, that’s why I got confused thinking that the story was about a murder on the rooftop. 😵

        ‘…remember to let Ho-Ling and John Pugmire know of any that we need in English’

        I’ve been chatting with Ho Ling about my bundle of Chinese novels, and he said they were reviewed by a Japanese blogger…! 🤯 Evidently, 2 of them garnered positive reviews. I don’t dare to approach John Pugmire – as my Chinese really isn’t good enough to do translations. 😑

        Liked by 1 person

        • Just out of curiosity, does the space mystery also involve someone, or something, knocking on the space station/ship door from the outside? I remember hearing about Chinese astronauts who reported hearing knocking on the door and thought it would make for a great impossible situation. A reversal of the classic locked room situation in which nobody could have been outside to knock on the door.

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          • Thus far, no – that scenario hasn’t been played out. Though only 3 “Indians” have perished at the mid-point of the novel.

            The 1st “Indian” was someone who was meant to be on earth, and was even on zoom/Skype with the space shuttle team an hour before his suffocated corpse was found floating on the moon.

            Some of the astronauts were trapped in an enclosed structure on the moon, but eventually managed to break out. But when everyone broke out, the 1st to have left the enclosed structure was missing – 2nd “indian” (or rather, 3rd according to the rhyme).

            Then when the astronauts returned to the shuttle, someone went to the toilet, but vanished into thin air. The others combed every inch of the hermetically sealed shuttle, but couldn’t find him – 3rd “indian” (or rather, very loosely 2nd according to the rhyme).

            Thus far only the 1st “indian” really confirmed to the rhyme. Will be curious to find out how the story adapts the 4th “indian” chopped into 2.

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  2. I’m glad to see that you gave this one 4 stars. Around this time, Carr was writing these amazing setups (My Late Wives, The Sleeping Sphinx) but wasn’t able to sustain the excellence throughout the novel. With The Skeleton in the Clock, I think it’s actually the middle of the novel that you’ll end up remembering the most, which is a rarity.

    If you told me that this was written around the time of The Crooked Hinge, I wouldn’t bat an eye. This may well be the last “young Carr” story in spirit – don’t get me wrong, there’s excellent stuff that came later, but of a different mold – and the scene in the prison may well be the most bone chilling that he wrote. Yeah, the explanation to the push isn’t what I wanted, but the bit concerning the title was good for a laugh. Toss the solution to The Demon of Dartmoor in here (a tall order, I do realize) and we’d be labeling this book one of Carr’s best.

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    • I read The Sleeping Sphinx while on a blog break last Autumn, and I remember…very little about it. Some great atmosphere, and Fell is always wonderful, but beyond that…honestly, I reckon I could reread it now and be surprised by some of its developments.

      This one is far more memorable — that extended prison sequence is a delight, the plot folds in together pretty neatly, and it’s busy enough to have a lot to catch the eye. I can see me returning to this years from now and loving it, knowing where all the cut off sentences lead and how it all plays out. I imagine watching it all unfurl from a position of knowledge is going to be a very enjoyable experience.

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  3. Been a very long while but the next one, A GRAVEYARD TO LET with a swimming pool disappearance, is the last really good HM novel. But there were only 3 more I think. Glad this one went down do well. Must re-read. I love being bamboozled by Carr!

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  4. “Sometimes it feels like Carr revisiting some of the many heights from his career to date:”

    Good observation. I read Skeleton before the three you mentioned, but the recycling of certain set pieces seems quite obvious in hindsight.

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    • If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best, I suppose — and it’s great to see that he waited for such a fun plot before recycling those ideas.

      In the wake of reading this, I went back and reread bits of Hag’s Nook and, good grief, Carr would have been the world’s greatest haunted house writer if the mood had ever taken him.

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  5. I cannot read this now. In my ongoing Carter Dickson celebration, I am a mere eleven books away from reading this one. By my calculations, I should have it completed by August, 2026, at which time I will return and engage in what I’m sure will be a lively group conversation . . . . .

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  6. I’ve always been of the opinion that the last handful of Merrivale novels are miles ahead, in overall quality, of the terrible trio that closed out Dr. Fell’s career, which may have poisoned everyone’s perception of late-period Carr. There’s was an undeniable decline towards the end, but none of his late Merrivale or historical mysteries are as bad or dull as The House at Satan’s Elbow, Panic in Box C and Dark of the Moon. Skeleton in the Clock is one those novels that deserve a better reputation and it actually made me laugh. Very few comedic mysteries managed to do that. So glad you enjoyed it!

    A Graveyard to Let is not quite as good as Skeleton in the Clock (solution to the impossible disappearance is obvious), but still a fun read with a great opening in the New York metro.

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  7. I’m fairly sure my mother had a copy of this 40 years ago, I remember the cover. No doubt this is where you announce that this version is a reprint from 2017.

    I might have read it, but then I might have read a lot over the intervening years. I will see if I can find it on her bookshelves. From what you say it would be worth another go. I might even remember if I have read it, but then again probably not…

    Liked by 1 person

    • No doubt this is where you announce that this version is a reprint from 2017.

      God, I wish there was a 2017 reprint of this available — there might be more Carr fans and more Carr boks in the world now had that happened…!

      Happy (re-?)reading of this, I hope it turns out to be to your liking — but just in case you come away unimpressed, always remember that Carr has, like, 15 bona fide masterpieces to his name 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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