#888: A Graveyard to Let (1949) by Carter Dickson

Graveyard to Let

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Sir Henry “H.M.” Merrivale, having travelled over to the United States aboard the Mauretania (I guess Maurevania was already taken) on his way to business in the nation’s capital, is summoned by telegram to the home of Frederick Manning. “WILL SHOW YOU MIRACLE AND CHALLENGE YOU TO EXPLAIN IT” runs that missive, a challenge H.M. cannot possibly pass up. And a miracle we get: Manning jumping, fully clothed, into his swimming pool and said clothes coming to the surface without his presence within them. So, howdunnit? And howlinkit to stories of financial skulduggery in Manning’s charitable foundation, plus rumours of his running around with a much younger woman — his first romantic attachment since his wife’s death 18 years earlier?

A Graveyard to Let (1949), the nineteenth of 22 novels to feature John Dickson Carr’s knighted sleuth under his Carter Dickson nom de plume, wrings a certain amount of fun out of the Manning household resenting the invitation of Merrivale into the midst of their private difficulties:

“On top of everything, don’t we just need an English baronet who’ll be so frozen and refined that we’ll all be scared to talk to him?”

The idea of the bullish, mulish, self-aggrandising Merrivale as anything close to a frozen stuffed shirt is, of course, hilarious, and younger Manning sister Jean is thoroughly dispossessed of any such notions when H.M. first greets her — after some comical shenanigans foxing a police officer on the subway — with the words “Burn me, but you’re a nice-lookin’ wench!”. Most of the action, however, is followed from the perspective of ageing newspaper man Cy Norton, who knows Merrivale well and allows Carr to write sentences like “For some reason, to be in a swimming pool makes people shout like Frenchmen” so that the reader is in on the joke most of the time.

The mystery here is a good one, told with a minimum of people butting in just as shocking revelations are about to be made, but the book still somehow feels padded, or at least poorly structured. The revelation at the end of chapter 14 is the sort of thing Carr would have dropped mid-novel at his peak, and a number of pieces are moved into place clumsily to delay it, so that the revelation can come late enough to stretch to the end of the book rather than early enough to be explored fully. It also relies on a grasp of feminine psychology so clumsy as to retroactively undo the brilliant work Carr wrought with characters like Fay Seton in He Who Whispers (1946)…even if, yes, it does allow for what might be the most heartbreakingly brilliant piece of romance writing this or any genre has ever seen.

Still, Carr on relaxed form and easy to read allows for some fun, if not exactly thrills and chills. The extended baseball sequence shows again his unmatched skill at juggling tones, going from playful (“Now here, it is to be feared, the subtle harmonies of Robert Browning would be out of place. Description must be more earthy. The ensuing noise, as H.M.‘s bat lashed round, can be described only by the comic-strip word BAM.”) to elegiac (“They liked the old boy again; they could pity him.”) to the tragic discovery that any such passage in a Carr novel is inevitably leading up to. There’s also plenty of devilment in the Old Man himself, goading the American police to complete a job quickly (“Scotland Yard could do it in one afternoon.”) or handing out guns in preparation for the finale:

“Do you know how to use one of these, son?” he asked Cy.

“I know how to use it, and I can handle it,” returned Cy. “But I’m a rotten bad shot.”

“Then you don’t get one,” said H.M., malevolently replacing the weapon in the waistband of his trousers.

Overall, though, I feel a lot of the explanations given at the close require us to accept characteristics we’re simply told someone has rather than having experienced them direct. I also don’t see why — if A and B enter into some sort of ‘mutually assured destruction’ pact but A is only lying to lure B into some indiscretion — B can’t also be lying with a similar intent in mind…because, er, that’s sort of the premise of the entire scheme at the novel’s heart, and I’m unconvinced. Some nice historical touches aside — Cy Norton, living in the U.K. for eighteen years, is surprised that “you could get all the food you wanted in this country: bacon and eggs like these, and real white bread” following, one can only suppose, the rationing, of WW2, and his repatriation, like Carr’s, is down to him “hat[ing] the guts of the Labour Party” — there’s little outside the central tangle to recommend here, and if that tangle doesn’t convince then you’re in a bit of trouble.

The vanishing is a minor distraction at the end of everything, and I’m not a fan of this sort of answer — you feel the ingenuity going out of the Merrivale impossibilities now, with the last surprising one being perhaps She Died a Lady (1943). And this tale lacks the menace of, say, The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) — which, considering a large part of this revolves around a mausoleum in the eponymous graveyard, is something of a strike against the book itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the reason for the title as employed in-text, but there’s nothing of the notable, memorable, or especially commendable here. It is his forty-seventh published novel, so you’re willing to cut him a little slack, but when it’s also John Dickson Carr, arguably the finest proponent of detective fiction ever to explore the form, you’d like even his autopilot efforts to show just a little more life.

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Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: Even if the reader can work out the way in which the vanishing was worked they will still have plenty of details to pick up on while we may also wonder where he has gone and what he is planning. While the second half of the novel is much less flashy than the first it can be just as exciting and mysterious, packing in some very enjoyable reveals.

Martin Edwards: For me, the solution did not live up to the brilliance of the basic premise, and the characterisation struck me as some way short of Carr at his best, with motivations that I struggled to believe in. I continue, on the whole, to prefer the Gideon Fell books to the Merrivales, but even so, the concept of a man disappearing completely after diving into a pool is memorable enough for this book to be worth a read. Below-par Carr is still, in most cases, pretty good.

15 thoughts on “#888: A Graveyard to Let (1949) by Carter Dickson

  1. I read this very early in my Carr reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the spectacle of the swimming pool idea. Not first tier Carr but, until the ALL IN A MAZE novella, certainly the last good Merrivale adventure.

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  2. I do wonder if I would enjoy this less if I had come to it later in my Carr reading. This was, if I remember correctly, one of my earliest Carrs.
    Then I remember though it’s a swimming pool disappearance and while I understand your issues with the explanation, I will always enjoy and appreciate the audacity of that idea. 🙂

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    • I wonder if reading this in the first flush of my fandom — after Constant Suicides, say — would have produced a more positive appraisal. But then, I do appreciate the things this does well, amidst the things that don’t quite land. So maybe I would have liked it less without the ability to discern Good Car from Used Car. We shall never know 🙂

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  3. I echo the thought as to what I would have thought had I read it late. Well, I would and then I remembered that I’d read it twice, and according to my blog… checks… Apparently I really enjoyed it. Maybe I’d read some rubbish the week before. I still can’t remember the solution so maybe I need to read it again…

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    • It’s a lot of fun — like The Gilded Man, just without the same rigour of plot — and I almost feel bad for not liking it more. He’s clearly trying, but the structure really lags in the middle. And the baseball scene is rather magnificent, so there’s always that.

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  4. I agree that A Graveyard to Let isn’t tops for Carr (the comparison to The Gilded Man above is probably spot on), but it is a lot of fun and “feels” like the work that came before it. There’s such an interesting difference between the Merrivale’s of the 1930s (some of Carr’s strongest work) and the Merrivale’s of the 40s (much lighter and typically lacking a knock out puzzle/solution). And yeah, A Graveyard to Let feels very much the same ilk as Seeing is Believing, The Gilded Man, My Late Wives, etc. With that said, it might actually be the strongest of the ones I just mentioned…

    Unfortunately you’ve just read the last really enjoyable Carr novel to feature one of his core detectives. Yeah, he’d do some excellent work with his historical mysteries, plus The Nine Wrong Answers is extremely good, but you’re never again going to put down a newly read Fell/Merrivale novel with that same level of satisfaction.

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    • This is a stronger book than Seeing is Believing, no doubt. The problems in Gilded Man and My Late Wives are more interesting, but the underlying theme of AGtL hits you harder when you realise what the whole thing has been about. I can’t believe anything Carr wrote was entirely without merit — the solution of The Curse of the Bronze Lamp is fascinating, even though the book is meh — and this compels for most of its duration even if it does fall apart in the final third.

      The fact that Carr’s remaining Fell/Merrivale books aren’t apparently all that good at least justifies his decision to stop writing them, eh? It’d be terrible if we had another 15 of each ground out purely because, as with Poirot, the author knows the character is popular and so writes what the public wants…only for the public not to want it. Carr’s decision to pivot into historical mysteries because he found them more interesting at least has a sense of laudability about it from that perspective; and some of the Historicals I’ve read have been very good indeed.

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      • The lights go out on Merrivale and Fell after The Cavalier’s Cup (truly without merit, with the exception of a brief historical passage), but he unfortunately chose to resurrect Fell for five more novels with The Deadman’s Knock in 1958. And there is a sense that the detective is being trotted out because it’s what the public wants, rather than something Carr had his heart fully into.

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