One evening in London, a young artist named Martin Drake has a few drinks with a young woman named Ruth Callice and a middle-aged barrister named John Stannard. They discuss two topics: Drake’s fixation on a woman named Jenny, whom he last saw three years ago, following a brief wartime encounter; and Stannard’s plan to commune with the ghosts of assorted murderers by spending a night in the execution shed at a decommissioned prison. Stannard dares Drake to join him in that affair, and Drake accepts the challenge. At this point, a series of improbable coincidences begins to pile up, with each new improbability compounding the one that preceded it.
The next day, Drake attends an auction of antiquities at Willaby’s in Mayfair (a stand-in for Sotheby’s), where he stumbles into Jenny West, his lost love. As it happens, Jenny lives at an estate in Berkshire that is near Pentecost Prison, the very spot where Stannard intends to do his ghost-hunting. As it happens, both of these locations are near Fleet House, the home of Ricky Fleet, to whom Jenny is engaged to be married. As it happens, Fleet House was the site of a decades-old murder case in which Stannard was a witness. As it happens, Inspector Masters of Scotland Yard and his partner in detection, Sir Henry Merrivale, are planning to reopen that case. As it happens, Merrivale is at Willaby’s that day as well, and he is there to meet Drake: Merrivale had promised to help Drake locate Jenny, and in exchange Drake had promised to advise Merrivale on the purchase of a sword. As it happens, Jenny has come to Willaby’s with her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Brayle, who intends to buy a curio whose origins link the item to the Fleet House murder. In short, every circumstance in Drake’s life is converging to send him—and everyone else in this remarkably small world—to Berkshire for a weekend of danger and discovery.
By a wondrous alchemy, the whole mélange of coincidences comes to appear not just plausible but thoroughly believable. For we have entered the realm of John Dickson Carr’s best fiction, where (whether Carr is writing under his own name or under the not-much-altered alter ego of Carter Dickson) the line between what’s improbable and what’s inevitable becomes practically invisible. When Carr (or Dickson, as we must call him here) is on his game, every looping turn of his narrative seems just right. So it is in the opening chapters of this novel. Even the slapstick escapade that punctuates Merrivale’s arrival—a bit of business that involves a sword, a shield, and the Dowager Countess of Brayle—works surprisingly well. Too often, scenes that pivot around the Old Man’s antics have a gratuitous quality; they exist mainly to fill space and to gratify Dickson’s not altogether mature sense of humor. (To be sure, Dickson uses the hurly-burly action of these scenes as a device for hiding clues. But that technique falls flat when the scenes don’t work in their own right.) In this instance, though, the clash between Merrivale and the Dowager Countess helps to evoke the class- and family-based energies that drive much of the plot.
At the center of that plot is a paradigmatic case of murder in retrospect. Back in 1927, Sir George Fleet fell to his death from the roof of Fleet House while watching the participants in a local hunt race past his estate. According to witnesses who were watching the hunt from the gabled windows of a nearby pub, no one else was in on that roof, and authorities therefore declared the death to be accidental. Now, in 1947, an anonymous informant has sent a series of postcards to Scotland Yard, the last of which reads, “Re Sir George Fleet: evidence of murder is still there.” These missives are enough to spark the interest of Masters and Merrivale. But if it was murder, then it was also an impossible (or, rather, “impossible”) crime: Somehow an unseen agent propelled the victim from his rooftop perch. To crack this riddle, Merrivale mulls over factors that include the possibility of funny business with a pair of field glasses, the report of a “pink flash” seen at the time of Sir George’s fall, lingering questions about the arrangement of furniture on the roof, and the odd matter of a grandfather clock whose mechanism has been replaced by a human skeleton.
That titular object serves both as a tangible clue and as powerful metaphor. The skeleton in the clock conveys the haunting notion that the passage of time affords no escape from the past: Long-hidden secrets, in other words—those “skeletons” that proverbially linger in closets—will one day emerge to tell their tale. There’s a fine symmetry between the examination of old bones and the exhumation of old stories, and Dickson makes the most of it. The actual skeleton in the actual clock, meanwhile, eventually points Merrivale toward a satisfyingly elegant solution to the Fleet House mystery. Is the solution realistic? Well, it’s as realistic as any visitor to Carr-land has a right to expect.
One flaw is worthy of mention: In roughly the last third of the book, Dickson’s control of the narrative goes a bit slack, and his pacing loses some of its propulsive force. In the runup to the revelation of the killer’s identity, Dickson allows Merrivale’s high-jinks to occupy more actual and figurative real estate than they should. In sum, if the novel were about 10 percent shorter, it would be about 10 percent better.
Yet, even with that defect, The Skeleton in the Clock retains its considerable luster. Indeed, it’s one of the brighter ornaments in the author’s lavishly jeweled crown—a multi-faceted piece of great, and highly effective, complexity. Dickson does not stint on packing the tale with elements of intrigue and puzzlement. Alongside the main story about a 20-year-old murder, there is a nocturnal adventure at Pentecost Prison (an episode that recalls the eerie prison sequence in Hag’s Nook, the first novel in Carr’s Gideon Fell series), a new and brutal murder that occurs that same night, and an attempt to murder Drake by tossing him from the roof of Fleet House. Each of these elements comes with its own array of beguiling clues. A lesser writer might have saved a few tricks and treats for use in other work, but Dickson puts all that he’s got into honing this improbably perfect gem.