A Graveyard To Let by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

It’s 1949 and the Old Man, Sir Henry Merrivale, is visiting the United States. He is shanghaied to the estate of his old acquaintance Paul Manning, who promises to show him a miracle. But even the wily Merrivale is flummoxed when Manning dives into his swimming pool and simply vanishes, along with vast sums of money from his foundation. A stabbing and a poisoning soon follow – can H.M. get to the bottom of things before any further tragedy unfolds.

There’s a fascinating post over at TomCat’s blog, Detection by Moonlight, reviewing Fire, Burn, a novel by John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson) from 1957 and it has generated a lot of discussion about the drop-off in Carr’s quality from around 1950. Well, this one is from 1949, so is it one of the good ones, or the start of the rot setting in?

It’s notable that Carr stopped writing Merrivale novels in 1953, almost twenty years before his last novel, so clearly he was tiring of writing about the Old Man – there were three novels after this, and the premise – Merrivale goes to America – didn’t bode well for me. Add that to the fact that I read this one about eight years ago and I couldn’t remember a thing about it, and I was wary of this one.

I really shouldn’t have been – it’s one of the most enjoyable books that I’ve read in a long time. The overall feel is fun – from Merrivale annoying the New York police to him showing off at baseball, things that could have annoyed the hell out of me I found stupidly entertaining.

But what about the mystery? Well, if you can work out the impossibility, you can spot the villain of the piece. I had a memory that the trick was like the solution of The Problem of the Wire Cage, namely impossible to follow without diagrams and flipcharts, but in fact, it’s deceptively simple but I’ll still wager that most people won’t spot it.

Anyway, even though it has my biggest annoyance in a murder mystery (a spoiler to reveal, but in common with The Curse of the Bronze Lamp and the Doctor Who story The Doctor Dances), I really enjoyed this book. An unexpected treat.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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17 Responses to A Graveyard To Let by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

  1. Patrick says:

    I remember the conclusion to this book annoyed me much, much more than the oft-challenged conclusion to “Seeing is Believing”.

    Actually, you’d be surprised- Carr tried writing new H.M. novels several times. One had the tantalizing title of “Commander Sir Henry Merrivale”, and another had the even better title “The Six Black Reasons” (which I believe he wrote several chapters of before throwing in the towel). And near the end of his life, Carr decided H.M. was too old for his shenanigans to be in a modern day novel (he had given the Old Man’s birth year once and was stuck with it) and that readers would be uninterested in a novel set before WW2, which would be ancient history to them. *sigh*

    On the bright side, the final H.M. adventure, the novella “All in a Maze”, is a grand return to form.

  2. Les Blatt says:

    I’ve always enjoyed this one – in particular, H.M.’s flummoxing of the New York subway – a trick that would have worked then but, alas, no longer. The perils of technology. I agree that there are weaknesses in the main story – although the premise of the “impossible” disappearance is really marvelous. I suspect that, as with most magic tricks, the explanation automatically disappoints us. We WANT to believe that somehow that lady got sawed in half by the magician but wasn’t hurt, and if we find out how simple the trick really is, we’re disappointed. It’s the problem with all “fair-play” impossible crime stories; I’ve pretty well decided that the disappointment is in me, not in the storyteller.

  3. I think the only problem I have with the trick is that it’s workable – if the person playing it is very lucky that no-one is looking in the wrong direction – but I can’t believe that Merrivale would be fooled for a moment. It might have been stronger if he wasn’t there when it happened…

    Compare that to Seeing is Believing, where, if memory serves, I don’t believe that the method would have worked in the first place – technically that is, not no-one noticing it happening. Still, explanation aside, I remember that one being a cracking mystery. Unfortunately, as I can remember whodunnit, that’s a little way off on my re-read of Merrivale. The White Priory Murders is next, as I can’t remember anything about the solution at all…

  4. TomCat says:

    You can safely state that at this point the rot has set in, but it’s only noticeable when you compare it to his early, much more ingeniously plotted stories – since these late stories can still compete with most of the best stuff that his contemporaries were churning out at the time.

    It’s a highly readable story with some of the funniest sequences in the H.M. series (only The Skeleton in the Clock draws more laughs than this one) and marred only by the transparency of the impossible disappearance trick and the identity of the culprit. This is possibly one of his easiest detective stories to solve.

    Seeing is Believing suffered more from Carr unfairly hoodwinking his readers by out rightly lying to them at the start of the story than the ludicrous method used to turn a toy dagger into a real knife. But it didn’t help when it come on-top of that. However, I loved the parts in which H.M. was dictating his outrageous memoirs. I would harvest each and every one of my fellow mystery fans organs to be able to read H.M.’s memoirs! ;)

    By the way, thanks for the mention and there’s another Paul Doherty review up.

    • Interesting you describe the trick as transparent, given that even having read the book before, I didn’t spot it – but in hindsight it certainly is, and if you’ve got the trick, you’ve got the bad guy.

      I’d forgotten the outright lie in Seeing is Believing… I think I need to give that one another look after all…

  5. TomCat says:

    You failed to spot the main trick after you’ve already read the book? It looks like someone here’s dangerously close to getting his armchair detective license revoked. ;)

    • Yeah… I was getting it mixed up in my head with Carr’s Problem of the Wire Cage and Hoch’s short story The Problem of the Poisoned Pool. I was convinced the trick was much more fiddly than it was. I did read it ages ago and first time through, wasn’t that impressed with it, so I was glad of the chance to re-evaluate it. Halfway through my re-read of White Priory Murders and have forgotten that one as well. I do have a theory… which is probably wrong.

  6. TomCat says:

    You should also shove The Skeleton in the Clock back in the queue for a re-evaluation. Like this book, it’s not up to par with the best of its predecessors but the comedic bits had me in stitches. And it’s fascinating to watch Carr juggle with farcical moments and atmospheric scenes, without reducing the impact of either. Possibly the last good H.M. novel.

  7. Well, I can’t remember much about that one… oh, I take that back. A very important “how something happened” just flashed back to me. Maybe I’ll leave that one a while. Just flicking down my bibliography page and the obvious ones that I can’t remember anything about are The Gilded Man and Night at the Mocking Widow. Oh, and I can remember only one thing about Behind The Crimson Blind – that it’s rubbish! There are others (He Wouldn’t Kill Patience) where I can recall the how but not the who, so I’ll look at that soon, and others (Judas Window, The Reader is Warned) where I can remember most of it, but they’re brilliant so they go high on the list too…

    I think, to be honest, I could read these in most any order, but Blind and Cavalier’s Cup will always be the last on the agenda.

  8. I must admit, I do remember the method of deception and the baseball game sequence but not much else – but then I haven’t read it in 26 years so I figure I’m owed a little slack on this one. And as for Carr’s books slackening off in quality – well, we all get older and it is very hard to think of any authors who were as prolific as Carr whose later books were as good as their earlier ones – and personally I really rate many of the later books like the historicals and HOUSE AT SATAN’S ELBOW which I want to dig out and re-read soon in fact – great fun to see this reviewed – cheers.

  9. TomCat says:

    Night at the Mocking Widow was my last read of 2010, and it was a decent but the plot felt too slight to justify its two hundred and fifty some pages. The solution to the locked room mystery was also questionable, especially from a psychological point of view, but ended up accepting the explanation for the sake of the story. It also has a classic H.M. moment when he starts handing out Havana cigars to a bunch of school boys. Priceless!

    I never had the aggressive reaction to Behind the Crimson Blinds, because I read a review beforehand that suggested that the entire book consisted of H.M. stabbing street muggers and sleeping with prostitutes. Needless to say, I was glad to discover that it wasn’t that bad. It’s still bad, but not quite like that and H.M. continued having his moments. Although, I don’t think the opening scene would go over well in these PC-times. ;)

    And So to Murder and The Cavalier’s Cup are the only H.M. books I haven’t read yet.

    • I was lucky to get And So To Murder out of the way early but not so early to be put off the books – HM’s hardly in it and I didn’t enjoy it at all. The Cavalier’s Cup is mostly a broad comedy with a good but simple impossible theft, but not much else.

      I’d probably enjoy these two (and Behind the Crimson Blind now for the same reason as you. I expect them to be very poor and as such, I’ll enjoy the little bits.

    • Rishi Arora says:

      good that you haven’y read and so to murder, by far Carr’s weakest

  10. Pingback: The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  11. Pingback: The Mystery Tour of the USA | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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