Friday, 7 October 2016

Forgotten Book - The Skeleton in the Clock

The Skeleton in the Clock is a 1947 Carter Dickson (aka John Dickson Carr) novel featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. It's one of those stories (The Dungeon House is another example that springs to mind!) which involves two related murders, twenty years apart. And it's a book with some excellent features, including a noteworthy "impossible crime", lthough it's marred by one or two of the author's characteristic weaknesses

The death of Sir George Fleet twenty years ago was written off as an accident, although H.M. has his doubts. But Sir George plunged from an apparently deserted roof top, in plain sight, with nobody else visible. How could he have been pushed, or forced off the roof to his death? When H.M. and a number of other people - some of whom were present at the tragedy twenty years earlier - attend the scene in the present day, it seems inevitable that the outcome will be murder. And so it proves - eventually - although the identity of the victim will come as a surprise to most readers, as it certainly did to me.

A clock with a skeleton inside it features in the story. It's a typically arresting visual device, and Carr integrates it into his plot with great skill. There is also a superbly creepy abandoned prison - Pentecost Prison - where two of the lead characters unwisely spend the night. The Pentecost scenes are memorable, and I also thought the murder motive and the identify of the culprit were excellent. But Carr did not make as much of them as he could have done, because of his lack of interest in the darker aspects of criminal psychology.

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..


neer said...

I wish Carr's books were more easily available. This seems very interesting.

Barry Ergang said...

I read this one twice, though it was so long ago I don't recall any details, let alone who did it and how--which means I could read and enjoy it a third time.

Much as I've enjoyed most, if not all, of the Gideon Fell novels, I've always thought Sir Henry's comical episodes made his cases that much more fun to read.

Arthur Robinson said...

I think Carr’s books began to decline after 1946, particularly the H.M. novels. I fully agree that “a little of Sir Henry the buffoon goes a long way.” Merrivale is funny is small doses—an occasional scene or passage, as in The Judas Window or The Reader Is Warned. In the earlier H.M. books Carr balances the puzzle, atmosphere, and humor well; the amusing moments lighten the suspense without diminishing it. Carr tried too hard to make the later H.M. books funny, and in the process made them more tiresome than amusing. His later books also tended to become too artificial, especially in dialogue. The Skeleton in the Clock is sort of in between; some scenes are weak, but I found it enjoyable. Carr shows his skill in misdirection; as in The Crooked Hinge, he leads the reader to expect a murder at a specific moment—but when it occurs, the victim is unexpected. The murderer’s motive is obvious in retrospect, but Carr uses misdirection here too , which fooled me until nearly the end of the book (I can’t ay more without a spoiler).

To reply to neer: Carr’s books are easily available from web sites such as . The problem (outside the UK and USA) is usually shipping costs, and I gather you’re in India. But lets you sort by “total cost” (including shipping), or limit your search to a specific country. (If it isn’t inappropriate to mention this here, I have several Carr duplicates, mainly hardcover, that I’m planning to sell at lower prices than abebooks, and will be happy to send a list to anyone who e-mails me at ; but because of overseas shipping costs, this will probably be of interest only to those in North America.)

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I think there are only three Merrivales I have not read yet, and this one of them (saving it for a rainy day) - he nearly always baffles me in a great way so despite the caveats am really looking forward to this as it has always sounded like it has more than enough of his characteristic strengths to keep me enthralled!

Martin Edwards said...

Great comments, thanks very much. Arthur, you're more than welcome to mention your excellent list. I'd like to see more Carrs made more widely available - whether that is possible, time will tell, but keep your fingers crossed!

Yvette said...

Once upon a time when I was a young and impressionable girl, I read all of John Dickson Carr's books (well, at least all that I could find - it would have been in the late fifties and early sixties when his books were more find-able, especially at the local library) as well as all the Carter Dickson books too. Ah, the good old days.

But now if you asked me the titles and what the books were about, I draw a blank. Old age will do that though I am, by no means, ancient. :) So, I've decided to read them all again when I can find them which not often. I am especially fond of the Pierre Bencolin books though there were few of those and more of Fell and Merrivale. Every now and then I'll glimpse a title and know, just know that I've read the book - but that's it.

THE SKELETON IN THE CLOCK is one of those. Thanks for the reminder, Martin.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

I hope I can find a copy of this one! Thanks for your candid and helpful review.
All the best from the U.S. Gulf coast from a Martin Edwards fan