This may be the longest gap in my Carr reading since I started this whole thing. I read The Blind Barber nearly three months ago, and I’ve only now gotten back to Carr. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my last read – it was much better than everyone seems to think it is – but rather that The Ghosts’ High Noon is so damn long. Well, not that long in the scheme of things – a mere 300 pages – but longer than your typical Golden Age detective fiction (I realize we’re about twenty five years past the period on this one). Plus, it’s stuffed in this Carroll and Graff edition that packs 300 pages in twice the height of your typical 40-60’s paperback, so it looks damn formidable.
Formidable because of when it was published – 1970. John Dickson Carr’s better days had passed by the mid-sixties. His previous novel, Papa La Bas (1968) has no redeeming value and was quite a chore to get through – dragged across three weekends if I recall correctly. And so 300 pages of a potentially awful read wasn’t exactly an exciting prospect.
Well, I did it – aided by some travel that gave me plenty of concentrated reading time – and it wasn’t half bad. To be clear, this isn’t a book that I’d recommend to anyone other than a Carr completist, but it is an acceptable read – on par with Carr’s final novel, the unfairly maligned The Hungry Goblin.
At this point in his career, Carr had moved from England to the southern US, and the settings of his final novels moved along with him. After a brief opening in New York and a pause in Washington DC, we find ourselves in the New Orleans of 1912. A northern newspaper reporter has been sent into town to see if any scandal can be raked up on a local politician, and, well, that’s all that you really need to know. There’s a love at first sight romance, typical for Carr, although this one is surrounded by a bit of intrigue in that the female side of the equation proves frustratingly elusive for the male lead.
Perhaps midway through the book, we’re treated to an impossible crime involving a man driving into a carriage house and committing suicide in front of several witnesses, yet somehow the gun that he shot himself with can’t be found. Carr’s historical novels mostly lacked true impossibilities, but the author dusted his specialty off for his final four novels. That isn’t to say that they’re that good. I find myself debating whether I’ve read too many of these locked room mysteries or whether this one is just extremely obvious. I can’t imagine any reader not immediately jumping to the conclusion that Carr seems to think he’s masking, but then again, others have seen through Carr solutions that left me utterly shocked.
What Carr’s historical mysteries may lack in the impossibility department, they typically make up in their sense of adventure and lush historical trivia. Unfortunately The Ghosts’ High Noon is a little late in Carr’s career for those aspects to really resonate. Carr’s no longer painting the scene of an era gone by, but rather stuffing historical trivia in by the awkward fistful. There are some interesting bits about the automobiles of the day, and perhaps the use of phones was more prominent in 1912 than I realized, but it’s clumsier than his first run of historicals.
The plotting of the book is better than I anticipated, but the writing has gone downhill in a particular way. Carr spent a good deal of his post-War career writing for radio, and it seems to have influenced his story telling in his final decades. Describing a scene via dialog may be necessary in doing an audio play, but it’s downright alien on the written page.
“With my right hand I turn the knob of the door. We push through, we turn a little to the left, and…here in this aisle I set you down.”
Yes, that’s an actual quote. You’d think you’ve stumbled upon a world made up completely of the blind when treated to the awkward explanations of what any character could plainly see.
“If you’d mind drawing your chair round a little closer to mine? These tables are circular, which makes it easier. There!”
If you can overlook those bits then this is a decent story. The final third contains quite a bit of discovery, with Carr wrapping up the bit of romantic intrigue, a minor impossibility not worth detailing, and of course the core impossible crime. As previously mentioned, one aspect of the impossible crime was obvious, but it was still interesting to see it all put together. The real beautiful part is a bit of misdirection that occurs earlier in the story that in retrospect feels blindingly obvious. That bit of satisfaction isn’t worth recommending the book, but it’s the one fond memory having read it.
The minor romantic side story is wrapped up with a comically long explanation of the sort typically reserved for a full on murder denouement. It’s as if Carr thought that the reader would be completely enthralled by the bits of intrigue that were thrown into the storyline and felt that a twenty page explanation verging on a Gideon Fell lecture was necessary to appease their curiosity.
There is a particularly vile subject needlessly included in the story, and I’m not even going to mention what it is. That Carr treats it with a “men will be men” attitude is beyond me, and I could imagine some readers just shutting the book.
As a bit of trivia, there is a minor tie in with Carr’s preceding novel, Papa La Bas. Not only do both stories take place in New Orleans, but two characters from Papa La Bas make a brief appearance, although they’re decades older. I won’t mention the characters by name, as I believe they were both suspects in the earlier book.
There aren’t that many editions of The Ghosts’ High Noon available. Unless you snag a hard cover you’ll probably end up with my Carroll and Graff edition from 1970. The only thing really notable about it is the completely random illustration on the cover. I can’t think of any scene that would have involved a woman standing at the base of a staircase like that.