Cover of The Skeleton in the Clock (left) and John Dickson Carr. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
Cover of The Skeleton in the Clock (left) and John Dickson Carr. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

The Skeleton in the Clock is a classic novel of impossible crime by the prolific Carter Dickson (pen-name of John Dickson Carr). It is also a novel with a curious cricketing twist. Arunabha Sengupta discusses the link of the noble game with this product of the golden age of detective fiction.

John Dickson Carr was the master of the genre of detective fiction known as the locked room mystery. Complex tales of crime and detection of seemingly impossible murders and misdemeanours.

While The Hollow Man is considered by many to be the greatest locked room mystery of all time, Carr was one of the most prolific of writers who also branched out into historical detective fiction, and for good measure penned one of the much acclaimed biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

His works include 45 novels written under his own name, 23 of them featuring his elderly, eccentric sleuth Dr Gideon Fell. Additionally, there were 26 novels under the name Carter Dickson, in 22 of which the corpulent and increasingly aging and comical Sir Henry Merrivale solves locked room mysteries and impossible crimes.

These two main characters had striking similarities. Both are upper-class, temperamental, unconventional, overweight and of increasingly advanced middle age. Yet, there are differences. Dr Fell is genial, can walk only when aided by two canes, and was probably modelled on GK Chesterton. Henry Merrivale, on the other hand, is physically active despite his bulk, can suffer bouts of ill temper and is in some ways quite like the Lord Ickenham (Uncle Fred) character of PG Wodehouse when it comes to eccentricities.

Neither of these two are ever depicted playing cricket, for their age and bulk make such a role difficult. However, in the Carter Dickson novel A Graveyard to Let, in which Merrivale visits America, the old man walks onto the plate in a private field in Westchester County and starts showing tremendous talent for hitting baseballs hard and long.

However, cricket does make an appearance for each of them.

For Dr Fell, the mention of the game is limited to a metaphor as he discusses a case with a Scotland Yard inspector in The Mad Hatter Mystery.“So far you’ve reasoned closely and well, but to put it pointedly — don’t smash your bat over the wicket keeper’s head when you’ve already made over a century,” he advises the man of the Force.

However, the game plays a significantly more important role in the Merrivale novel The Skeleton in the Clock.

Written in 1948, by which time Sir Henry Merrivale has turned increasingly comical with each passing year, The Skeleton in the Clock is a novel of impossible crime with intersecting themes of young love, complex psychology and hilarious capers. A thoroughly enjoyable tale, it is especially charming because of the confrontations between Merrivale and Sophie, the crusty old Countess of Brayle. While perhaps not the most intricate and complex of the writer’s works, it is one of the most endearing.

Right from the start, when Merrivale somehow finds himself sticking the countess from behind with a seventeenth century guisarme in an auction house, the feud between the two take on increasingly sinister and side splitting proportions. And all along runs the theme of an old unsolved murder in a country house.

The cricketing connection is stark. It is perhaps the only mystery novel of the golden age of detective fiction in which a cricket bat is the murder weapon.

This intriguing fact adds the sheen that makes the eminently readable novel an indispensable part of the cricket and literature lover’s bookshelf.