A Graveyard to Let (Carter Dickson)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Morrow, 1949; UK, Heinemann, 1950

Blurb (UK)

Welcome to that great favourite, grumbling old Sir Henry Merrivale, master of the impossible crime, in his first American case!

It all starts with a cryptic cable received on board the liner as he is crossing the Atlantic.  It is virtually an invitation to watch a miracle and a challenge to explain it.

“H.M.” would of course be the last to decline such a challenge.  The impression he makes upon New York, in his tweed cap and suit of plus fours, is staggering.  There is the mystery of the “disappearance” of the millionaire at the swimming-pool, and the “reappearance” of a devoted wife.  In a word, “H.M.” bluffs and plans his genial way through a plot which is all the more piquant through being laid in an unfamiliar scene.

My review

Superficially light-hearted, to anyone who knows about Carr’s life the book is amazingly dark. Carr’s alter ego, the unemployed journalist Cy Norton, who lived for 16 years in England, cannot face the fact that England—the England of the past—is gone forever. (From 1949 on, Carr wrote very few books set in modern England, and very few H.M.s—Merrivale ended his career before Fell did.)

The plot deals with the (impossible) disappearance of a millionaire accused of fraud—he dives into a pool in broad daylight, and is subsequently found stabbed in a graveyard. The plot is amazingly improbable—full of logical holes and inconsistencies in character: Why doesn’t the killer (whom H.M. clears of all blame in an attempt to mislead the reader) steal the incriminating document? Why did Irene Stanley attempt suicide?

Parts of the solution owe something to The Mad Hatter Mystery, and parts of the book were later used in The Dark of the Moon. The plot, however, is very similar to S.S. Van Dine’s Dragon Murder Case of 1933 (which it parodies)—e.g., the actual crime, the graveyard, the condition on which the motive is based, the setting. It is hard to say which book is poorer.

Contemporary reviews

Chicago Sun (James Sandoe, 11th November 1949, 100w):

It’s all nonsense, played as such, boldly and with smack.  I liked it.


NY Herald Tribune Bk R (13th November 1949, 180w):

Another eminently satisfactory Carter Dickson, faithful to the ‘impossible crime’ formula, and just as rewarding as all the rest of them.


NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 13th November 1949, 180w):

The novel is a weak and padded one, full of episodes, both comic and lurid, quite unrelated to the plot, and based on motivations which pass the understanding of at least this reviewer.  The effect is somewhat as though an ingenious short-story device has been forcibly distended to novel length.  Jove, even when nodding, can produce a certain amount of thunder; but those who respect Mr. Dickson as deeply as I do will find here only a muffled echo.


New Yorker (19th November 1949, 120w):

Fast, intricate, and funny.


Times Literary Supplement (Julian Maclaren-Ross, 24th November 1950):

Mr. Carter Dickson attempts to repeat his success in Lord of the Sorcerers by giving us another murderless mystery: an American businessman announces his intention to disappear without trace, dives into a swimming-pool and duly vanishes, to reappear later—stabbed but not fatally wounded—in an abandoned graveyard adjacent to his estate.  The unravelling of the elaborate deception by Sir Henry Merrivale—whose antics, in a transatlantic setting, are more tiresome and less endearing than usual—is mildly gripping, but the solution follows too closely the pattern of the earlier book, and the identity of the criminal is never much in doubt, in spite of an outrageously unfair attempt to divert the reader’s suspicion, about which even “H.M.” himself appears, in his blustering defence of the trick he has played, to be faintly uneasy.