A Graveyard to Let – Carter Dickson (1949)

agraveyardtoletMy 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.

9 thoughts on “A Graveyard to Let – Carter Dickson (1949)”

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. It is the only H.M. story I have read so far so I can’t really compare it but I remember being pretty satisfied by it and loving the premise.

    I really should get around to reading some more of his cases!

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    1. You know, I didn’t realize that you’d only read this one Merrivale story… which is kind of crazy considering the quantity of mysteries that you read. I’d rattle off the obvious list of top titles to devour, but I’m sure you know which ones those are. Rather, it would be interesting to see you take a path through the H.M. titles that people don’t necessarily rave about, without touching on the obviously bad final few. My own take is that, like A Graveyard to Let, these would make up a noteworthy contribution to the genre if compiled into the publishings of some unknown author.
      The titles are Death in Five Boxes, The Punch and Judy Murders, And So to Murder, and The Skeleton in the Clock. I’ll be the first to say these are quite good, yet I wouldn’t elevate them to the ranks of the better Merrivale stories. Of course, this could be awful advice. I mean, why not just dive in and read The Judas Window, The Ten Teacups, Nine – and Death Makes Ten, etc, etc, etc…

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      1. I think I was rather focused on the idea of trying to read the Fell mysteries and I focused on collecting those. I do own the first HM book and planned on reading that at some point but I agree that it would be interesting to tackle some less known titles first. I will definitely make a point to look out for affordable copies of the books you suggest!

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  2. I’m in the absolute minority here, but Behind the Crimson Blind is not as bad as some make it out to be. Going by Carr’s own standards, it’s an inferior novel showing he made a wise decision to shift his focus to historical mysteries, but still a readable mystery with less restraints on H.M.’s antics than usual. Although some have said his antics were more embarrassing here than comedic. You can decide for yourself when you read it. Look forward to that review!

    Anyway, I practically agree with everything you had to say about A Graveyard to Let. I remember the solution had some logical inconsistencies (can’t recall what they were) and the impossible disappearance hardly poses a serious challenge to the reader, but still a readable story with some nicely written scenes (subway riot) and much better than S.S. van Dine’s The Dragon Murder Case. A story Carr was probably lampooning with its miraculous vanishment from a swimming pool in New York.

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    1. I’m glad to hear that Behind the Crimson Blind as bad as it’s made out to be. Unfortunately, I believe that I know who the culprit will end up being due to stumbling upon some spoilers several years back.

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  3. I’m delighted you finally got to this one! It’s the first H.M. novel I ever read and it holds a special place in my heart for that, even if it’s not quite out of Carr’s top drawer. I was 16 when I read it, so I don’t feel too bad about not seeing through how the vanishing trick was worked.

    Thinking about it now, I’m struck by the similarities Graveyard has to the decade-earlier Problem of the Wire Cage. Both take place in comfortable residential settings. Both have audacious impossibilities that make you eager to find out how the hell the thing was pulled off. And both (going to disagree with you here) have a lot of padding in the middle that’s not really related to the central plot.

    And my main criticism of the padding part is that some of it is just so silly! Avoiding even spoilers that are unrelated to the solution, I think it’s safe to say that based on what we learn about a certain character, the sad story they tell in Chapter 15 just reads to me like unbelievable nonsense.

    Like Wire Cage, I think this would have been better as a novella a la The Third Bullet.

    I was surprised that you were able to solve the impossibility but not spot the culprit, but I think I can guess what caused you to jump to your incorrect conclusion. This is one of those cases where I ask myself, “was Carr playing fair?” and conclude in the end that he was indeed engaging in “legitimate mystification”.

    I thought District Attorney Byles was an effective alternative to Chief Inspector Masters and I’m sorry he didn’t appear in any further stories.

    As for Behind the Crimson Blind, I think in may ways it’s the least bad of the last three Merrivales, which I know is not saying much. Certainly better than The Cavalier’s Cup.

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    1. That’s funny that you made a connection to The Problem of the Wire Cage. I too was struck by the similarity and almost wrote a paragraph or two about it, but assumed no-one would know what I was getting on about. The setting is remarkably similar – I had the same exact picture in my mind as I read both books. You also of course have a remarkable impossibility in both of them. The similarity probably ends there, as The Problem of the Wire Cage has that frantic sense of peril for the main characters, whereas A Graveyard to Let has a body more reminiscent of… I don’t know, maybe Seeing is Believing?

      Yeah, the chapter 15 revelation is the part of the story that just makes no sense. I was able to gloss over it though and didn’t feel that it brought the book down nearly as much as the second “impossibility” in Wire Cage.

      As to my trouble with the culprit, I’ll have to ROT-13 it.
      V ernyvmrq ubj Znaavat znqr vg bhg bs gur cbby (nygubhtu uvynevbhfyl V gubhtug ur jnf qvfthvfrq nf gur qnhtugre, abg gur oblsevraq). Juvyr V ernyvmrq gung gur guerr crbcyr zhfg or va pnubbgf, V qvqa’g arprffnevyl guvax gung zrnag gung gur bgure gjb jrer vaibyirq va Znaavat’f qrngu. Engure, V jnf guebja bss ol gur nggbearl ehaavat bss gb punatr bhg bs uvf fjvzzvat fhvg, naq znqr gur nffhzcgvba gung gur nggbearl jnf urnqrq bss gb xvyy Znaavat. Vg’f vzcbegnag gb gnxr vagb nppbhag gung V nyernql xarj orsberunaq gung Znaavat jbhyq or xvyyrq nsgre gur cbby gevpx. Nf fhpu, V jnf fhfcvpvbhf bs gur nggbearl’f orunivbe jura ur yrsg gur fprar.

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