Friday, February 3, 2017

Carter Dickson's Skeleton in the Clock

Skeleton in the Clock was one of the crime novels written by John Dickson Carr under the name Carter Dickson. Carr’s specialty was of course the locked room mystery, and while this one doesn’t quite have a locked room, it does have an apparently impossible murder with most of the features of a classic locked room mystery.

Skeleton in the Clock features the formidable blustering and at times frankly terrifying Sir Henry Merrivale (known as H.M.), distinguished barrister and amateur detective.

The book opens with a strange mixture of the gothic and the farcical, with ghost-hunting and with H.M. pursuing Lady Brayle (a formidable figure in her own right) with a 17th century halberd.

Carr loved introducing gothic elements into his mysteries and he had the knack of doing so without the spooky stuff being a mere distraction. Ghosts are the subject of conversation between young Captain Martin Drake, his friend Ruth and middle-aged barrister John Stannard. Stannard makes a suggestion. If ghosts are earthbound spirits and if they’re earthbound because of some traumatic event surrounding their death then there’s one place where you’d be just about certain to find ghosts - the execution shed of a prison. And as luck would have it there’s an old abandoned prison not very far away, and it just so happens that Stannard has obtained the key. He suggests that he and Drake should spend the night there.

Martin Drake accepts the suggestion but he has other things on his mind. Or rather he has one thing on his mind - Jenny. He met Jenny briefly during the war, they fell in love and then he lost her. Literally lost her - they became separated on a railway platform and he has spent three years searching for her.

There’s a third plot element - the mysterious death twenty years earlier of Sir George Fleet. His death could only have been an accident. No other explanation is possible. Murder is certainly an absolute impossibility. Nonetheless H.M. is quite certain it was murder.

With the aid of a few coincidences these three plot strands all come together very satisfactorily.

You expect incredibly complicated plotting and an ingenious but outlandish solution to the crime from this author, and that’s what you get. The plot includes a murder twenty years in the past, another murder twenty years in the past that may or may not be connected with the first, a wartime love affair that ends with the lovers separated on a crowded train station and thinking they’ll never meet again, a strange romantic triangle, a mirror maze, a possibly haunted prison, fencing, 17th century poets, and an actual clock containing an actual skeleton. 

The impossible crime itself does not disappoint. Sir George Fleet fell off the roof of Fleet House. The flat roof was often used for various leisure activities and was supplied with deck chairs and other amenities. As luck would have it at the time of the accident the entire roof was under observation, the observers being perched on the roof of the nearby pub, and all agreed that Sir George was completely alone. Nobody could have pushed him off the roof.

It’s also a book that combines a good deal of humour with the usual crime stuff, and while Carr’s humour isn’t to everyone’s tastes I enjoyed it. Sir Henry Merrivale is definitely one of the more outrageously over-the-top of fictional detectives, and one of the more entertaining. 

First published in 1949, very much in the Golden Age style of detective thrillers, and great fun. Highly recommended.


  1. I acquired this one recently, so am very much looking forward to it now -- thanks for highlighting it as one of the 'lesser' works worth more consideration!

    1. Oh, this one definitely deserves more consideration! It's not in the same league as some of Carr's well-known classics, but the story and plot are pretty solid. And Merrivale's fued with a dowager made for some of Carr's funniest comedic bits.

  2. I also got a copy of this recently. I plan to read it, of course, but I was mainly interested in the map back edition. It sounds like it will be even better than I expected. I haven't read any this author's books that I remember.

    1. If you haven't encountered Sir Henry Merrivale before then you're in for a treat.

  3. Thanks for the review. :) I was on a Merrivale buying spree, and almost got this title, but plumped for three other titles instead. Looks like I should check this one out too.