Scandal at High Chimneys is one of the John Dickson Carr novels that has remained somewhat of an enigma to me. Prior to reading it I had never seen a review on a spoiler free site, and thus lacked any real background for the story. I knew that the novel fell into the first period of Carr historicals – the books published between 1950 (The Bride of Newgate) and 1964 (Most Secret) that take place in 1600-1800 era England (Captain Cut Throat being a exception in location, and The Witch of the Low Tide being an exception in period). The works tend to be better regarded than the second period historicals, which take place in the US south (with the exception of The Hungry Goblin) and are considered to have come after Carr began his later-year decline.
With the first era historicals, you kind of know what to expect. The plot will focus on the plight of someone wrongly accused of murder – either the male lead or his love interest. The story will follow a race against time to clear the name of the falsely accused as the law forces of the time period close in. While the core mystery may bear some passing resemblance to an impossible crime, there will never be Carr’s trademark strength of puzzle nor cleverness of solution.
That may sound like a criticism of the first period books, but keep in mind that you’re talking about some solid titles. Scandal at High Chimneys was published between my two favorites – Fire, Burn and The Witch of the Low Tide (the latter being the one exception to the aforementioned conventions). Although overall the mysteries are far weaker than the typical Carr impossible crime, the stories are very much alive and in some senses surpass the works from his classic era.
Scandal at High Chimneys doesn’t surprise in terms of what you get – it hits on all characteristics described above. Our hero, Clive Strickland, plays the role of Carr’s typical point of view character, and in expected fashion he’s in a race against time to prove himself innocent of the shooting of Matt Damon. No, not that Matt Damon. Damon was on the brink of spilling some filthy family secret to Strickland when a door swung open and a disguised killer silenced him with a shot to the forehead. The door slams shut and Strickland finds himself locked in a room with a murdered man.
Don’t expect any shades of The Judas Window – the room is locked from the outside, not the inside. Despite that, suspicion falls on Strickland, who flees to London in order to evade the law. Perhaps he wasn’t helped by the fact that he explained to the police how he could have faked the crime scene to make it appear as if he had been locked in…
There is a light bent on an impossible crime – or so Carr implies. The murder takes place at a country house called…wait for it…High Chimneys. Every window and door had been bolted from the inside, and remained sealed following the crime. As such, the murderer must have been someone inside the house. So, not quite an impossibility by any stretch, but rather a closed cast of suspects.
Yeah, so the mystery isn’t exactly the strong suite with this one. Yet, it isn’t really the strong suite of any of Carr’s first period historicals (with the obvious exception of The Witch of the Low Tide’s footprint impossibility). Instead, we’re due for an adventurous romp through London as Strickland evades the authorities, dukes it out with the requisite pompous elite, and investigates obscure-historical settings in an effort to track down the true killer.
Well, in terms of adventure, this one is actually rather light. At least, it doesn’t feature the exciting duels that you might encounter in stories such as Fear is the Same, Captain Cut Throat, or even The Demoniacs. There’s a bit of fisticuffs, but this book is somewhat tame compared to its brethren. That’s not to say it’s dull. Carr delights with his typical historical trappings and there’s enough intrigue to go around.
Although Clive Strickland does his fair share of sleuthing, we soon encounter real world detective Jack Whicher. Whicher was a well known detective in Victorian England mainly due to his involvement in the Constance Kent case, which drew much scandal and was later recounted in a novel by John Rhode (The Case of Constance Kent – 1928). More importantly, Whicher’s legendary reputation was somewhat the prototype for the fictional detective, providing inspiration for Willkie Collins’ famous work The Moonstone.
This draws an interesting tie to the final John Dickson Carr novel, The Hungry Goblin, in which Wilkie Collins himself plays the role of the amateur detective. I actually saw a few parallels with The Hungry Goblin in terms of the overall flow of the story in Scandal at High Chimneys, such as how the setting switches back and forth between a country estate and London, and how there’s a bit more focus on investigation rather than action.
Much of the intrigue focuses on the dated idea that the offspring of a murderer is disposed to be a killer themselves. Evidence comes out that one of Matt Damon’s daughters may have been the adopted offspring of a death row criminal. Carr positions both Strickland and Whicher as being ‘progressive’ in that they don’t fully buy into this philosophy – a philosophy that was still fairly common in GAD fiction mere decades before this book was written. One particular passage in a chapter titled “The World as I Find It” stuck with me, in which a character provides a lengthy quote from William Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond.
“Give me a chain and a red gown and a pudding before me, and I could play the part of Alderman very well, and sentence Jack before dinner. Starve me, keep me from books and honest people, educate me to love dice, gin, and pleasure, and put me on Hounslow Heath with a purse before me, and I will take it. And I shall be deservedly hanged, say you, wishing to put an end to this prosing! I don’t say no. I can’t but accept the world as I find it, including a rope’s-end, as long as it is in fashion.”
Scandal at High Chimneys had the potential to be a great country house mystery, but we never really get enough focus on the estate. In fact, this may be the one Carr novel I can think of where the main dwelling doesn’t receive a thorough description, which is odd given the prominence of the house in the title of the book.
Although the mystery appears weak on the surface, in typical Carr fashion there’s something fairly clever going on behind the scenes. Well, maybe I overstate that. There was a glaring gap in the premise in my mind throughout the entire read and I wanted to shout at the world why no character was asking a particular question (I’ll avoid stating it for fear of spoilers.) Then the end came and I felt like the worlds biggest idiot for not seeing through the misdirection. Carr thoroughly swindled me and perhaps in the most embarrassing way yet. I could imagine many readers seeing through the deception, but I, somewhat pleasantly did not.
This may well be the lesser of the period one historicals, but I still enjoyed it overall. I’m not going to outright recommend it to you, but if you’ve enjoyed Carr’s similar period pieces I think that you’ll find something to enjoy in the overall story. Just don’t come for the mystery and you might be pleasantly jolted towards the end. Carr’s still a fairly strong writer at this stage in his career. A few annoying habits have started to creep into his work at this point, such as the point of view character having insight into some facts that aren’t revealed to the reader.
It’s interesting to see where Scandal at High Chimneys came in Carr’s career. His previous historical – Fire, Burn (1957) – is arguably one of his best traditional historicals, although it’s somewhat light on mystery. His following work – The Witch of the Low Tide (1961) – is an absolute belter in terms of the impossible crime, although the book has severe weaknesses. Scandal at High Chimneys skates somewhat innocently between the two, not really sticking its neck out in any respect.
Notes for the curious
My Bantam edition is from 1960 – just one year after the novel’s original release. That’s somewhat interesting to me, because the first edition hardback Carr’s always seem to have a very dated look and this paperback appears as if it would be a much later reissue – at least that’s how my mind thinks. It’s comical that there’s a fairly scandalous cover since no scene at all takes place that even resembles what’s depicted. I had anticipated there would be a passage in the book where a woman is surprised while dressing, but there’s nothing event vaguely in that neighborhood. That’s interesting because Carr makes a point in his “Notes for the curious” section at the end of the novel (a mainstay of his historical releases) to point out that evidence shows that Victorian England wasn’t nearly as prude as it was portrayed.
“Since squalor and degradation are not necessarily interesting no matter how pitiable, and since night-life and prostitution are always interesting no matter how squalid, emphasis in this novel has been placed on the last two.”
That may be an overstatement on the author’s part, as there’s little that would really raise one’s eyebrow, even in bygone times.
Reader be warned – Carr spoils both Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This is a pattern that he would continue in The Witch of the Low Tide, in which he spoils Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room.
One final word of warning – while hunting around for reviews of Scandal at High Chimneys following my reading, I stumbled on a few snippets that compare an aspect of the twist to a story by another famous mystery writer. If you choose to comment below, please don’t reference this other book, as it is bound to spoil either this book or the other for some unfortunate soul.