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.
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..