First published: US, Harper, 1972; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1972
“I found it ingenious, polished, baffling, with its cluster of worldly characters moving about in Victorian London, colliding in Madame Tussaud’s, and tangling with the live Wilkie Collins as he outsmarted Scotland Yard.
“It has the transatlantic flavour of the Civil War period, a slight suggestion of the demonic, and it’s done with the finesse and taut dialogue that one expects of John Dickson Carr. This is a civilised mystery of subtle twists to engage the interest of the thoughtful reader.”—Ishbel Ross
it was 1869. Christopher (Kit) Farrell, just over (by boat, of course) from New York, was checking into the Langham Hotel in London when he thought he saw an old friend, Patricia Denbigh, leaving the hotel—but the reception clerk said no such person was registered there!
Kit Farrell had been away from England nine years—he was a reporter for the London Evening Clarion and he had been sending back dispatches about the War Between the States.
Back in London, ready to pick up the local runs again, Kit was looking forward to seeing his friend Nigel Seagrave. Nigel was now a famous African explorer and was married to Muriel Hildreth, whom Kit had never met, just as Nigel had never met Patricia Denbigh.
Nigel had sent a message to Kit in New York, by electric cable; the message read, “Kit my boy: It’ll be good to set eyes on you again, you old bastard. How’s your ugly face? Though I can’t explain much here, I must consult you soon on a matter of some little importance. You’ll travel by the Russia, you say, and put up at the Langham. Unless circumstances make a hash of it, as they so often do, try to be in the Small Lounge downstairs at six-thirty on the evening of Friday, the 29th. All the best, and don’t fail me.”
But when Kit went down to the Small Lounge that evening the first person he met was Colonel Edmund Henderson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
Then came Nigel, who invited Kit to visit him at his home, Udolpho, so named by Muriel, who liked anything mysterious.
As things got ever more mysterious—Wilkie Collins himself lent a hand in the unravelling of odd happenings.
JOHN DICKSON CARR is having a fine, puzzling and colourful time in the gas-lit days of the haunted past.
Carr’s last book: a notoriously iffy mystery set in Victorian London, with Wilkie Collins as detective. It’s better than everyone says it is – and is more likeable than some of the early books, written when Carr was younger and more alert. Granted, plot and storytelling are both weak. The plot involves wife-swapping and two identical women both named Muriel. (Jenny-Muriel suddenly becomes Cathy at one point.) This is resolved in a rather unconvincing romantic manner – would Nigel really behave like that in real life? There are too many flat characters who speak in meaninglessly oracular epigrams or wildly out-of-period slang (I never knew that ‘sons-of-bitches’ was so common a term in 1870s London!). There’s also a stupid fight scene, eagerly watched by the girls (‘I’m fully as lewd as she is, or more so, and I’m loyal too’); an overuse of ‘-ish’; and weak descriptive dialogue (‘Except,’ Kit pointed out aloud, ‘just halfway along. There the avenue east to west is intersected by a cross avenue of tanks from north to south’) and attempts to use modern metaphors (‘It’s too much like handling this new stuff called dynamite’). The murder method comes from “The Sealed Room”, and is OK, but not as good as the ones in Ghosts’ High Noon or Deadly Hall. The clue of the inner breast-pocket is very weak, because it’s much too feeble and relies on specialist knowledge to be the main clue, and is the sort of thing Carr himself complained about (because the murderer in one of Carolyn Wells’s stories wears a wrist-watch with a dinner jacket, he can’t be a gentleman, and must be a murderer)
Still, one can’t help but have a sneaking liking for a book with the following line:
‘Yes, my instructions. You might take the gentleman’s head and shoulders, Timmons, carrying him very carefully indeed. If Mr. Farrell will take his feet…’
‘That’s scarcely necessary, sir; we employ a footman.’