In his guise as Carter Dickson, Anglo-American transplant John Dickson Carr produced more than twenty stories which feature the irascible and slightly mad Sir Henry Merrivale, known universally as “H.M.” An amateur at detection generally supported by his Scotland Yard colleague, Chief Inspector Masters, Merrivale’s adventures often feature certain madcap elements, the humor of which led some reviewers to believe that they were written by another Anglo-American transplant (albeit in the opposite direction), P.G. Wodehouse. Carr was born in Pennsylvania, but that would not be evident from the tone and language of his books; perhaps only T.S. Eliot was more successfully assimilated.
This later outing in the Merrivale canon still has some of the mad escapades of the earlier stories, but there is also more than a hint of post-War grimness about it. Petrol is still rationed in the story, one character speaks of having obtained a large volume of the stuff “on the black market,” but as usual the manor houses suffer no shortages of food despite similar rationing. There are three connected mysterious deaths in the tale: two which occurred more than twenty years prior to the action of the book. Only one, really, is central, that being the death of Sir George Fleet, who apparently threw himself from the roof of Fleet House while watching the local hunt gallop past. To add complexity, Martin Drake, a Captain who survived the war, is searching for a Wren called – predictably – Jenny, whom he met once three years before. In the meantime, he is challenged by the barrister Stannard and the lovely Ruth Callice (the sort of languid, seductive female who often seems to inhabit the corners of Carr/Dickson’s books) to spend the night alongside him in the condemned cell of the now-closed Pentecost Prison, seeking the psychic vibrations of the evil of men who died there. Coincidentally, Fleet House lies very near – within the sound of the alarm bell, in fact – to Pentecost. The house is now overseen by Lady Cecily, her son the war hero Richard Fleet, and Sophie, the Dowager Countess of Brayle. The confluence of events will inevitably draw Martin into a web of old and new lies, one in which H.M. (coincidentally an old acquaintance of the Countess) is, as usual, several steps ahead of everyone else.
There are problems with the book, certainly. For no evident reason, the name of the central character, Martin Drake, is also given to a local police Inspector near Brayle, leading to a few pages of confusion. As usual with Carr/Dickson, there are misleading clues, and also clues of an almost acrostic fiendishness. Although Carr worked scrupulously to the rules of fair play in mysteries, he wasn’t shy about making the keys to his mysteries obscure. The titular skeleton itself is literal, and of course it holds a secret, but surprisingly it retires to the background without much fuss, only to crop up again at the appropriate moment. And the motivations of some characters is perhaps more obscure than it needs to be. If you want to solve this tale ahead of the big ‘reveal’, you might want to take notes.
There is some madness and fun as well, though, including a chase featuring the titular skeleton giving a cheery wave, and a fun-fair featuring a revolving clown’s-head which looks regularly into the Countess’ window. The rivalry between Merrivale and the Countess verges on the malicious, but provides some light comic relief. While The Skeleton in the Clock is not the best Carr/Dickson that I’ve ever read, it is certainly by no means the weakest of his stories, and will be enjoyed not only by dedicated fans of Merrivale (and, by extension, Gideon Fell, Carr’s other primary detective), but also by anyone who enjoys a well-written puzzler in the English vein.
The edition which I read, the 1982 reprint by Bantam, is not error-free, and there are a couple of egregious, and a host of more minor typographical errors which are typically irksome but should not be too much of an impediment to the attentive reader. Although I haven’t seen it, I would suspect that the early ’90s International Polygonics, Ltd. (IPL) edition was better-produced, if you can lay your hands on a copy.
Originally reviewed 30 May 2015.
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