Scandal at High Chimneys (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1959; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1959


My review

This “Victorian melodrama”, with its hero locked in the room with the victim, and the changeling children, is strongly reminiscent of Carr’s earlier The Judas Window, and of Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead — from which the ending is cribbed. The setting, a gloomy Victorian mansion, is done well enough; there is a ghost on the stairs and a storm (a clichéd pathetic fallacy), but little atmosphere. The hero, Clive Strickland, a barrister turned sensational novelist, is a prize fool. He plans an elopement and finds a corpse, but refuses to tell anyone because he wants to elope; and he nearly ruins the remarkably obvious criminal’s capture at the Alhambra Theatre. Tired Carr, with too many interruptions.


Contemporary reviews

 Kirkus (15th June 1959, 110w):

Definitely gaslight, this does not hesitate to call itself a melodrama, and as such is satisfactory.

 

Spectator (Christopher Pym, 24th July 1959, 150w):

Not a true detective story…and not a thriller either, for the author relentlessly trots out all he has ever mugged up about the Victorian underworld, as though nobody had ever read Fanny by Gaslight, or heard of Mayhew—which the hero quotes, with date, publisher’s name, and page number, in the course of conversation, in the same way that his light lady quotes fourteen lines of Esmond, all by heart.

 

Times Literary Supplement (Anthony Lejeune, 31st July 1959):

PROFESSIONAL SKULDUGGERY

In spite of one or two recent lapses, Mr. John Dickson Carr, alias Carter Dickson, has a good claim to be considered the soundest practising craftsman of the essential detective story.  He has ingeniously created and honestly solved more than fifty “impossible” crimes, which is itself no mean feat; and he recounts them with a Stevensonian skill at catching and holding the reader’s attention.  His tricks of style—the ominous break in the dialogue, the interplay of fact and atmosphere—are recognisable but still tantalisingly effective.

 Scandal at High Chimneys is the latest in his series of detective stories with an historical setting.  The time is 1866, the detective Jonathan Wicher, late of Scotland Yard, still smarting from the debacle of the Constance Kent affair.  Murder is committed in a bolted and barred house near Reading and there is skulduggery in various unsavoury parts of Victorian London.  Mr. Carr wallows in the [word obscured] stuffiness of the period, making great play with its early railways, long vanished streets and half-remembered theatres.  The reader experienced in Mr. Carr’s sleight of hand may find the detective problem itself not too difficult to solve.  No matter; the story-telling magic is irresistible.

 

The Times (6th August 1959):

Scandal at High Chimneys, described as a Victorian melodrama, is one of Mr. Dickson Carr’s well-documented excursions into history.  The detective is a real character, ex-Inspector Jonathan Whicher, described by Dickens in Household Words, who investigated the Constance Kent case in 1860.  It was generally believed that he retired because his superiors refused to back him in his view of her guilt.  He then became a private detective, and was still in practice in 1872, when he investigated the Tichborne claimant.  Scandal at High Chimneys takes place in 1865.  Matthew Damon, who had been Crown Counsel in the successful prosecution of a woman for murder, had adopted her baby and brought it up with his own two children.  He is killed when he is about to reveal which of the children it is.  Whicher hardly plays fair with his amateur colleagues, since he is continually suppressing information in order to shine at the dénouement.  On the other hand, Mr. Carr, while keeping up the suspense in his best tradition, signals the knock-out punch so clearly that the identity of the murderer is not in much doubt.  However he is, as he says, more interested in presenting an accurate picture of life at several levels of society at this time, and his Victorian night-life is full of an authentic, bustling squalor.

 

NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 23rd August 1959, 140w):

A quite marvellously calculated confusion with sharp, surprising edges and a reminder that the word ‘melodrama’ is not properly a term of derogation but a test of skill.  See here how a master manages it superlatively.

 

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 23rd August 1959):

Copiously detailed mid-Victorian (1865) setting for quasi-ghostly shooting of crusty old barrister who has adopted a murderer’s offspring, married foxy little adventuress.  Period trappings include: gloomy clubs, raffish night-cellars with girls demanding yards of white satin (gin), Seven Dials after Mayhew, bestial mutton-chop whiskered fortune-hunting swells.  Plus a mild-mannered literary hero, and a bold heroine.  Solution by Inspector Whicher, who was featured by Dickens in “Household Words” and doesn’t let you forget it—now retired from the peelers and on his own as a gaslit private eye.  Characters not fully integrated with background, characterisation and plotting rather clotted; but a good deal of pleasure is guaranteed.

 

Springfield Republican (30th August 1959, 90w):

Like all of Mr. Carr’s numerous books, this one is a real thriller, and it is made additionally interesting by the author’s close attention to factual details of every-day life in the time of which he writes.  Based on careful research, the author draws a clear picture of affairs in Victorian England which at points may be surprising even to those who have read of the sordid conditions which Dickens and a few of his contemporaries partly exposed in their writings at that time.

 

Guardian (Francis Iles, 4th September 1959, 70w):

Yet another plume in Mr. Carr’s well-feathered hat.

 

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 6th September 1959, 90w):

One of the best the author has given us so far…  Read it for story or puzzle or period colour—but by all means read it.

 

San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 13th September 1959, 360w):

The ‘period’ detective stories in which John Dickson Carr has specialised of late…are all alive with Carr’s major preoccupation: A vivid sense of the past.  This feeling with its brilliant evocation is the best feature of his latest novel…  It is enough to make the book thoroughly readable, but not quite enough to overcome certain flaws which are unhappily evident…  A mystery writer should not be blamed if luck allows the reader to stumble on the correct answer, and many will not.  The annoying feature of this story, however, is a minor trick of technique which can only be described as a verbal cliffhanger.  A salient revelation is hinted at, even spoken aloud, but we are not allowed to hear the words until the next chapter.  The detective is about to elucidate and is interrupted.  Carr has used this often before, though more sparingly.