My three remaining Carter Dickson novels all find me towards the end of the Sir Henry Merrivale series. The very best of Merrivale’s work is unfortunately at the opposite end – the run of macabre impossible crimes spanning The Plague Court Murders (1934) through Nine – And Death Makes Ten (1940). The mysteries published in the 40’s were lighter fair, with the elements of brooding horror giving way to unnecessary spurts of slapstick comedy. That’s not to say there aren’t strong entries there – many would list She Died a Lady (1943) amongst Carr’s best work (I wouldn’t go that far) and The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is quite the return to earlier form.
The stories tend to get weaker over time though, and as we hit the final three books – Night at the Mocking Widow (1950), Behind the Crimson Blind (1952), and The Cavalier’s Cup (1953), you’ll be hard pressed to find many positive comments. It’s on the precipice of this decent that I find myself with A Graveyard to Let (1949). The two books that it straddles – The Skeleton in the Clock and Night at the Mocking Widow – are dramatically different in terms of quality. Which would I get with this one?
A Graveyard to Let fortunately finds us on the right side of the line. It’s about as good as it gets for post-40s Merrivale: an imaginative impossibility, a tight story that maintains focus on the mystery, and although the humor didn’t exactly have me laughing, it didn’t feel forced. This is very much classic Carr, and while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the very best of his work, it feels at home amongst that next level.
To start off, we get one of Carr’s more audacious impossibilities. In broad daylight, a man jumps into a swimming pool in front of a number of witnesses and vanishes completely. Even after the pool is drained, the only traces left are the clothes that he was wearing. It’s a great setup, bound to get any reader’s mind churning out theories, and Carr plays along via his characters. Unfortunately, I think the more seasoned reader will seize on what must have happened, and once that realization is in your mind, some of the subtle clues will stick out like a sore thumb.
That didn’t spoil it for me though because this was a fun well paced read. Plus, Carr throws in another semi-impossibility in which Merrivale flummoxes a cop in the subway by repeatedly walking through the turnstiles without depositing a coin. It’s a bit of a magic trick, but then again, impossible crimes kind of are too. The solution to this was pretty clever, although if you don’t see through the swimming pool trick, you’ll be bowled over by that one as well.
There is an actual crime that occurs (as if my book cover above didn’t allude to it) although the identity of the victim is actually one of the more interesting surprises. Well, actually, I came into this one knowing that element, but still, I’m not getting into details because I hope you’ll be surprised. The twist that got me was the identity of the culprit. I should have seen it coming, but had jumped to an incorrect conclusion earlier in the story.
At the time Carr wrote A Graveyard to Let, he had left England and was living in Westchester County (a bit north of New York City and where Drury Lane lived, for those of you unfamiliar). Carr set the story in a fictional town nearby, and so we get Merrivale visiting the US. Several of Carr’s later Fell and historical novels would also be set in the US, but they were all inferior to this.
Carr lays on the American trappings with a scene in the NYC subway and a chapter involving a baseball game. Both bits are meant to be comedy, and while they’re not that funny, they don’t detract from the story. Carr must have been a baseball fan, as he included some sequences involving the sport in later-era stories – Panic in Box C, Dark of the Moon, and Papa La Bas (if I recall correctly).
You do see a bit of what is to come creeping into Carr’s writing. “Emotional temperature” is a phrase thrown around several times and I couldn’t help but think of Carr’s weaker later-year stories in which characters run around constantly shouting for no reason. Still, Carr keeps things fairly focused in A Graveyard to Let and it’s a solid read throughout. This may well be the last Henry Merrivale story worth reading. We’ll see – I still have Behind the Crimson Blind to go.
Let’s see, a bit of trivia:
- The Curse of the Bronze Lamp is brought up at one point, although nothing spoilerish.
- The book is dedicated to Clayton Rawson, whom you’ll likely recognize as the famed author of impossible crime novels such as Death From a Top Hat. Although Rawson was originally from Ohio and Carr had been living in England, both were living near Mamaroneck, New York at the time.