The Skeleton in the Clock (Carter Dickson)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Morrow, 1948; UK, Heinemann, 1949

Blurb (US)

Carr - The Skeleton in the Clock US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

When sardonic, grumbling old Sir Henry Merrivale—master of the “impossible” crime—goes after the most vicious murderer of his career, twenty years between “accidents” isn’t long enough to hide the secret of…



The old case was forgotten until someone mailed three post cards.  Thereafter it became routine to hear the nonchalant maid of Fleet House saunter to the drawing-room door and announce, in imported Hollywood tones, “It’s the cops again, m’lady”.

The family of Sir George Fleet—dead twenty years—didn’t like it at all.  Lady Brayle, of nearby Brayle Manor, liked it even less when a whole carnival, complete with the Maze of Mirrors, was set up in her backyard.  But Sir Henry Merrivale thought you might see something in a mirror besides yourself—he thought you might see a murderer searching for the fairest one of all.

Whipping action, unexpected gallantry, and two young people terribly in love support an airtight plot to make this one of the most chilling and dramatic of all Sir Henry Merrivale’s adventures.

My review


Late Merrivale needs to be eyed askance, for H.M. is apt to behave childishly and obnoxiously, and the plot is often forgotten in a welter of thrillerish or farcical material, but there is plenty of entertainment to be found in this tale.

Poison pen letters spark off an inquiry into the impossible murder of the local squire, who fell off a roof twenty years before the action of the story; H.M. and a ghastly dowager attempt to purchase a skeleton, leading to a very amusing quarrel in which they attempt to score off each other with gibbering skulls and the biggest travelling fair in the British Isles; the hero succeeds in finding a girl he met only once, only to discover that she is engaged to the dead squire’s son; and an expedition to a disused prison results in the discovery of a girl’s corpse. Carr doesn’t wallow in gore, but passes over it with the line ‘Her body mutilations: well, those are for the morbid.’

The identity of the murderer is a genuine surprise, although similar to Carr’s SPOILER He Who Whispers and My Late Wives (both 1946), and suggests Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (1949).

Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (16th October 1948, 100w):

The solutions are plausible enough, in view of the material they’re based on, but the prevailing tone of this mystery is one of almost complete hysteria.


Sat R of Lit (23rd October 1948, 50w):

Redoubtable H.M. as bluff and perceptive as ever in case which, as usual, involves considerable unscrewing of inscrutable—also much neat comedy.  First rate.


Unknown American newspaper:

This serio-comic puzzle features Sir Henry Merrivale on the trail of whatever fiend pushed Sir George Fleet off the roof twenty years ago, and while he’s about it he must foil the miscreant attempting to kill Martin Drake, a young artist engaged to pretty and aristocratic Jennifer West.  What is the significance of the grandfather’s clock with a skeleton inside?  What will happen during a night spent by the rivals in the execution shed of Pentecost Prison?  And who will be harmed or saved in the maze of mirrors?


In this performance Sir Henry’s efforts to amuse struck us as less funny than usual—and that, son, is no laughing matter.  He’s at his best when he drops his slapstick and turns relentless.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 3rd September 1949):

Carter Dickson disdains to murder except in the most improbable circumstances.  In The Skeleton in the Clock an old gentleman is assassinated on a flat roof-top by an invisible assailant with half the village watching.  If you wish to cope with Carter Dickson you must learn to disregard his stage properties—the skeletons, the dark passages, the whiff of the supernatural and the comic interludes with Sir Henry Merrivale.  Keep your eye on that roof-top and you won’t go far wrong.  For, whatever liberties this author takes with human nature, his mechanical devices can be counted on to work.  As long as his contraptions, Nicholas Blake’s psychology and Mrs. Christie’s duplicity continue to puzzle us, the game of detection will justify its proud boast as “the normal recreation of noble minds”.