Monday, November 14, 2011

Scandal at High Chimneys - Murderous Victorian Intrigue by John Dickson Carr (3/5)

John Dickson Carr is regarded by many as the master of the “locked room mystery,” or a mystery in which a seemingly impossible crime is committed (often times involving a locked room or some other completely inaccessible space), and the protagonist must use brilliant powers of deduction to root out the perpetrator. The puzzle is always paramount, which makes the genre one that only a handful of storytellers can excel at because of the logic and attention to detail necessary to pull it off successfully. Carr wrote no less than seventy novels and assorted short fiction and was honored as a Grand Master of the Mystery Writer’s of America in 1963. One of the more interesting facts about his personal life (to me, anyway) is that he passed away from lung cancer in the same small-ish town where I currently live. Yeah, it’s kind of morbid, but on the other hand it’s also kind of cool. Anyway, I digress.

Scandal at High Chimneys is one of Carr's later and lesser known novels. And while it may not be on par with The Hollow Man or The Burning Court, that doesn't mean it's a bad book. I mean, come on. He’s is a Mystery Writer's of America Grand Master for a reason. Just about everything he writes is good. It’s just that some are better than others. As far as High Chimneys is concerned, the plot goes a little something like this:

Clive Strickland, a novelist in Victorian England, is approached by his foppish friend Victor Damon to broker a marriage between one of his sisters and a particularly loathsome nobleman. Victor intimates that there are some strange happenings going on at the family home, the "High Chimneys" of the novel's title, but he refuses to speak about them. Having been a long-standing family friend and being concerned for the wellbeing of the family (especially one of the daughters, hint-hint), Clive reluctantly agrees. During the train ride to High Chimneys he runs into, of all people, Mr. Matthew Damon (Victor's father) and his second wife, Georgette--the very people he was on his way to see.

After the usual pleasantries, he learns about some of the strange goings-on at High Chimneys. One of the servants' daughters recently encountered a strange man in checkered pants on the stairs late at night who promptly ran off and disappeared as if a ghost. Mr. Damon also hints at something far more worrying, but he withholds that information until he and Clive have the opportunity to convene in his study. He tells Clive that one of his daughters is actually the child of a murderess named Harriet Pyke whom he had prosecuted as a young barrister. He originally adopted the child because he felt he had been responsible for hanging an innocent woman and wanted to in some way make the matter right. But just a few months prior to the events of the story, he learned that the woman had in fact confessed her guilt before she died, that she’d committed the murders after all. He hired a private investigator, a Mr. Whitcher formerly of the Metropolitan Police, to perform further investigations. But before he can say which of his children is the changeling, low and behold in comes the ghost-man in the checkered pants, who shoots Mr. Damon between the eyes, locks the door behind him, and prances off into the ether like the faerie of yore.

In comes Mr. Damon's doctor friend, who insinuates that Victor might have been the one to kill Mr. Damon. In answer to the charges, Victor complicates matters by running off to London to find the detective Mr. Whitcher to help unravel the mystery. Various happenings converge upon Victor to thicken the plot. A lot of red-herrings are dropped, competing theories on the murder put forth, and another family member winds up dead. Then Victor elopes to London with one of the Damon daughters, which doesn’t help his case at all. Eventually the murderer is discovered and apprehended and the puzzle explained. All is right with the world, and everyone lived happily ever after… except for the murderer, who gets to swing by the neck until dead. But Carr doesn’t tell us about that part.

Anywho, High Chimneys is a great example of a classic "Golden Age" mystery, and while it isn't the best I've ever seen, it's certainly an entertaining read. Carr's depictions of Victorian morals and the city of London are vivid and accurate, and he does a wonderful job laying out the clues to keep the reader enthralled in the mystery. I figured out the culprit halfway through the book, but only because it was the most un-obvious culprit and therefore the most likely to be the killer (as is often the case in novels of this vein). My only complaint? The exposition was almost farcical in that the detective regurgitated verbatim details and innuendo from a conversation that occurred between two other characters when he was miles away. Admittedly, the main character related to him the specifics of the conversation later on, but at no time did he tell him precisely what was said, nor would he be able to do so even if he wanted to. Conversations are never retold exactly the same way as they were first told--the "whisper game" is proof enough of that--so I found it a little far fetched that Whitcher could piece together the mystery partly on the minute details of a conversation he never participated in.

With all that being said, however, it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book. It just... tempered the ending somewhat. But don't let that dissuade you from reading the book, or anything else by John Dickson Carr, for that matter. Scandal at High Chimneys is a wonderful Golden Age detective novel that will appeal to readers of the genre both new and old. Masterpiece? Not at all. But a fun read? You betcha.

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