First published: US, Harper, 1971; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1971
It was April 1927, and novelist Jeff Caldwell, New Orleans born and bred but educated in the North, was coming back home. Jeff was a wealthy man (his grandfather had founded the Dixieland Tobacco Company), and just then he was a curious man, travelling back to the city of his birth in response to an unexpected and half-frantic letter from a boyhood friend, Dave Hobart.
Dave’s grandfather, Commodore Fitzhugh Hobart, had also been rich enough to satisfy his whims, and one of them had been to move an immense 1560 manor house from England to New Orleans.
He had willed the remarkable Tudor building to his grandchildren, David and Serena. But there were a number of stipulations in the will, which, together with the possibility of hidden treasure, made for a great deal of trouble. Was Delys Hall haunted? Certainly it wouldn’t have been nicknamed Deadly Hall unless some pretty awful things had taken place in its great stone hallways. What was the real mystery of the place? Who walked it in the dark of the night? Jeff quickly found himself embroiled in old legends and new terrors, in local politics—in love—and, eventually, in a very murderous atmosphere.
JOHN DICKSON CARR has caught the miasma of New Orleans, which intermingles so terrifyingly with the old Tudor stones—and his expert re-creation of a time and a place plus his skilled twists of the wrist and his ability to produce a puzzle that seems almost impossible to solve make for most entertaining reading and fine suspense.
Carr’s penultimate novel isn’t too bad, but still suffers from stylistic problems. The dialogue is a “verbose tirade, which would be a bore and a nuisance if it weren’t so completely ludicrous,” an impression by no means denied by the nasty habit of conversational description. There is an excess of “mysterious allusions and sentences not one of ’em will explain”, complicated by “a trick of turning every straight question crooked so that it’s like lunging at a fencer”. The narrative flow is routinely broken a — what’s that? The characters are afflicted with annoyingly facetious nicknames. This is frustrating, for the plot — buried treasure in a country house exported from Lincolnshire, a sinister staircase, and a will productive of several (attempted) murders — is solid enough, despite the unconvincing flowerpot business and the attack on Dave Hobart. The gimmick, borrowed (with a central clue) from SPOILER The Man Who Could Not Shudder, is ingenious and practical.
NY Times (Newgate Callendar, 14th March 1971, 450w):
Carr, that respected veteran of the mystery novel, has been turning them out for some 40 years. And he turns them out in the classic style. Not for him the sex of the sixties, the tough-guy dialogue, the cynical private eye. No, in a Carr novel…the plot is the thing, and the plot generally involves those things so dear to classic mystery fiction: the locked door, The Least Likely Suspect, the false clues, the close inside pitch that throws the reader off balance. And so [in this novel], Carr’s latest, there are no surprises as such.
Sat R (Haskel Frankel, 27th March 1971, 110w):
[This novel has] all elements that should please the author’s wide readership. But frankly—and I hate myself for saying this about a man who once had me chewing fingernails late into the night—the pace at times is so maddeningly tedious and the writing so stilted that I found the novel as deadly as the ‘Hall’.
Nat R (W. Murchison, 8th October 1971, 140w):
Once again, we encounter those familiar Carr trademarks—the ‘impossible’ murder, the sense of gothic menace, lightened by liberal splashes of local colour and a high sense of comedy. One may add, though, that the longer Carr writes, the more one appreciates him. And not just as plotter and stylist, but also as the nearest thing to a moralist currently practising the noble art of literary detection. Which scarcely is to set him down in the Puritan camp. Carr hates all Puritans and blue-noses. What he is, instead is an unapologetic Tory—an old-fashioned champion of gentility, taste, standards and romance.
The search for hidden treasure in a 16th-century manor house, carried brick by brick from England to Louisiana, is pleasantly complicated; and John Dickson Carr enthusiasts will chalk up another success for their man.
There are readers within our acquaintance who have been enjoying John Dickson Carr mysteries for forty years. They know what to expect and they are seldom disappointed. Nor will they be let down by his latest.
South Bend Tribune:
John Dickson Carr is probably the foremost author of detective fiction in the western world. Carr specialises in the real, honest-to-goodness whodunit stuff, with locked rooms, mysterious murders, and eerie legends. His latest effort is no exception.