A Graveyard to Let by Carter Dickson

Originally Published 1949
Sir Henry Merrivale #19
Preceded by The Skeleton in the Clock
Followed by Night at the Mocking Window

Welcome to that great favourite, grumbling old Sir Henry Merrivale, master of the impossible crime, in his first American case!

It all starts with a cryptic cable received on board the liner as he is crossing the Atlantic. It is virtually an invitation to watch a miracle and a challenge to explain it.

“H.M.” would, of course, be the last to decline such a challenge. The impression he makes upon New York in his tweed cap and suit of plus fours is staggering. There is mystery in the “disappearance” of the millionaire at the swimming pool and the “reappearance” of a devoted wife.

Frederick Manning is a successful and respectable businessman but his children have become concerned that he is acting erratically and may be keeping a mistress. There are even rumors circulating that he may be embezzling money from his charitable foundation. When they confront him about it he says he will reveal a secret at a dinner to which he has invited Sir Henry Merrivale with the promise that he will perform ‘a miracle’.

At dinner he upsets them by talking about how little he wanted children though he says he will make some provision for them and implies he will be disappearing soon. Then the next morning as the Police sirens approach he calmly dives into the swimming pool fully clothed and when the party look for him in the pool they find he has vanished leaving all of his clothes behind.

Up until now I have stuck tightly to those novels that John Dickson Carr published under his own name because of how much I have enjoyed the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. I never doubted I would get around to trying some of the Sir Henry Merrivale stories but there was always some book I wanted to get to first.

The reason I have deviated from this approach comes down to the premise of this story that grabbed my imagination from the moment I heard Dan describe it on an episode of the impossible crimes mystery podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles. The idea of a disappearance from within a swimming pool seemed an entirely novel take on the idea of someone vanishing from inside an observed room and I was really curious how Dickson would manage it.

Since learning about this novel I have, as it happens, encountered a short story by Ed Hoch with a similar premise albeit that has someone appearing out of a swimming pool. Both stories are excellent and make good use of this concept to create striking moments that appeal to the imagination. I did have a moment’s worry that the solutions might be similar too but I was very happy to discover that they take create distinctly different answers to these challenges.

I really admired the way Carr sets a mood and builds up a sense of anticipation in the novel’s early chapters. By opening the novel in a moment of conflict we are thrown right into the story and have to make judgments about the characters involved. I certainly was curious what could be driving Manning to be so blunt and cruel to his children and wanted to know more about their relationships with him.

The moment in which he disappears is wonderfully theatrical right down to the detail of his underpants bobbing up to the surface. It is perhaps not one of Carr’s trickier puzzles – the method used is quite simple and may occur to some readers pretty quickly – but it is logically worked through and clearly explained at the end.

Even if the reader can work out the way in which the vanishing was worked they will still have plenty of details to pick up on while we may also wonder where he has gone and what he is planning. While the second half of the novel is much less flashy than the first it can be just as exciting and mysterious, packing in some very enjoyable reveals.

I also found the novel to be really quite funny, though I do acknowledge that humor is highly subjective. Not every joke hits and a few of them, such as his reason for visiting Washington, may be predicted but there are amusing moments spread throughout the narrative.

One of my favorite sequences comes near the start of the novel where Sir Henry messes with a police officer near the turnstiles in a subway station by suggesting that he can use a voodoo incantation to walk through turnstyles without paying the fare. It is not only amusingly written, there is a puzzle there that readers may ponder about how a trick was pulled off. That method wouldn’t work today but I could still appreciate the cleverness of the idea and the grudge the officer holds is referred to at several later points in the story with amusing effect.

While I can understand why this story isn’t more highly rated, given its simpler solution, I found the case to be thoroughly enjoyable. The scenario is bold and imaginative and I enjoyed my time spent with these characters. It is certainly one of the most entertaining experiences I have had reading Carr and I would happily recommend this to anyone who comes across an affordable copy.

24 thoughts on “A Graveyard to Let by Carter Dickson

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much – it was the first H.M. story I ever read (other than the two short stories) and it’s still one of my favourites, even though I have to admit it doesn’t measure up to the great books of the 30s and earlier 40s. If I were reading it for the first time today, I’d like to think I’d be able to figure out how the disappearance was worked, but as a teenager I quite enjoyed being baffled. I remember feeling disappointed when I realized there was no later book telling us what H.M. did once he got to Washington.
    I enjoyed the character of District Attorney Byles — a very different character from Chief Inspector Masters, but an equally effective foil for H.M.
    I did find the second half of the book contained a lot of padding – entertaining padding, but still padding.
    Lately I’ve been thinking about those Carr books where the central mystery, however brilliant, isn’t enough to carry a full-length book, and he had to either throw in a second mystery or just have a lot of stuff happen that didn’t have much to do with the main plot. Examples: The Peacock Feather Murders, The Problem of the Wire Cage, Death in Five Boxes, Seeing is Believing… and this one. (Examples of ones where everything is well integrated? The Three Coffins, The Case of the Constant Suicides, She Died a Lady, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience.) The novella The Third Bullet strikes me as just the right length for its mystery, and the books in the first group might have been better off at half their length. I know the series of novellas that included The Third Bullet didn’t sell well, so it may have been economic necessity that kept him from writing more at that length.
    Looking quickly at a list of Carr’s works, I think this inflation happens more with “Carter Dickson” books than with those under his own name.
    I won’t spoil the vanishing method or use the name of the culprit, but I’m going to give away one plot development, so from here on be warned…
    What I couldn’t buy was the idea that Elizabeth Manning, who unlike her husband was totally into having kids, would have allowed Fred and the children to think she was dead because her face had been scarred in an accident. How many mothers did Carr actually know?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Firstly thanks for this great comment. I think it is probably one of the easier puzzles to solve if you think it through logically but just like the business with the toll gate, if the reader allows themselves to be hocused by the presentation and the drama of it all they can overlook the obvious. What I do appreciate is that this puts the lesser mystery first and ties the two together so that they compliment each other thematically in a way that the secondary puzzle really doesn’t in The Problem of the Wire Cage. I do agree that the shorter Carr novels I have read seem to be about the perfect length.

      As for your point, SPOILER HERE I don’t know quite how she would have been able to survive all those years financially on her own. If she relied on a friend surely they would tell someone and it would get back to her husband, right? Still, I think it is fairly clued and I enjoyed the reveal.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It helps that the subway trick is clever, while the solution to the second murder in Wire Cage is one of the weakest things in Carr’s oeuvre!

        I guess Elizabeth’s success at maintaining the deception for all those years would depend on how good any confidant was at keeping secrets! One hopes she didn’t have to resort to the extreme used by a character in Panic in Box C…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Although I enjoyed this one, there is a major plot problem which seems to have gone unremarked – to avoid any further spoilers, I will simply say that one person has to do something connected with the impossibility that seems totally implausible…


    1. Thanks for avoiding spoilers. Were you thinking of the aspect of the plot that Justice for the Corpse mentions in their comment or was it another aspect of the plot?


      1. That’s the problem, they’re the last two but definitely not to be saved until last, namely Behind The Crimson Blind and The Cavalier’s Cup, both dreadful for different reasons. Mocking Widow isn’t great but it’s miles better than these two…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for sharing your review Santosh. It does sound utterly awful! I suppose every prolific mystery writer has an off day or two but the way you describe it sounds really disappointing.


      3. Cavalier’s Cup is probably the extreme example of what I was talking about above – a decent locked-room idea that would have been fine for a short story or novella, but the padding… the padding! And since most of it is Carr trying to be funny and failing, it’s not even entertaining padding.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I just re-read this a few weeks ago, and I concur in your assessment. An enjoyable read, though not one of the classic Merrivales. The main impossibility is very good, but there’s too much surrounding it that doesn’t totally hold up.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the review. I recall quite liking this title, especially with regard to the disappearance from the pool. It was not a great Carr novel, but certainly a decent, even good, one.

    I’m currently dipping into Abir Mukherjee’s second novel, somewhat more slowly than I’d prefer to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am enjoying dipping into these second (or even third) tier Carr works. It’s nice getting to come at them without the expectations you get with a Hollow Man or The Man Who Could Not Shudder!

      I will be interested to hear what you make of A Necessary Evil when you are done. I need to get around to importing a copy of the third one in the series!


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