A Scandal in New Orleans

"When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies,
and inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight skies –
When the footpads quail at the night-bird's wail, and black dogs bay at the moon,
Then is the specters' holiday – then is the ghosts' high-noon!"
- Sir Roderic Murgatroyd (Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, 1887)
Last week, one of my fellow locked room enthusiast, "JJ," posted a two-month notice, "John Dickson Carr is Going to Be 110 – Calling for Submissions," which is an open invitation to post Carr-related reviews and blog-posts on the day marking his 110th birthday – which is on November 30, 2016. I immediately called dibs on the criminally underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955), but the notice still left me with an urge to return to Carr.

Fortunately, I still have about half a dozen of his (primarily) non-series work residing on my prodigious TBR-pile. And one of them promised a Last Hurrah for my all-time favorite mystery novelist, the great John Dickson Carr. 

The Ghosts' High Noon (1969) is a historical mystery and Carr's third-to-last novel, which would only be followed by penultimate Deadly Hall (1971) and the much-maligned The Hungry Goblin (1972). These titles were published during the last twelve years of Carr's life and this period showed a painful decline in the quality of his writing. A downturn that first overtly manifested itself in The House at Satan's Elbow (1965), but one of these last novels seemed to be relatively rot-free: the aforementioned The Ghosts' High Noon, which received some honest criticism, but never the abuse leveled against its contemporaries – e.g. the mediocre Panic in Box C (1966) and the tedious Dark of the Moon (1967).

On his excellent website, Mike Grost has shown the greatest amount of enthusiasm for the book, which he labeled as "a genuine mystery classic" with "a well done impossible crime."

So it has always struck me as a sudden, but briefly lived, revival during the final stage of Carr's literary career. I simply decided the time had come to take it off my TBR-pile. And I know, I know. I should've probably saved the book for November, but who asked you to drag common sense into my decisions? Get out!

Wooda Nicholas Carr
The Ghosts' High Noon is set during the early days of Carr's early childhood, 1912, when his own father, W.N. Carr of Pennsylvania, was elected to Congress and the United States was in the throes of "a three-cornered fight for the Presidency" – pitting the incumbent W.H. Thaft against Democratic Governor Wilson and the boisterous Teddy Roosevelt for the Progressives. There are references throughout the book to these three gentlemen, because the plot of the story is tinged with political intrigue.

The protagonist of the story is a newspaper reporter, Jim Blake, who wrote bestseller, The Count of Monte Carlo, which gave him new found prosperity and "freedom from the ancient shackles." But he's adverse to take on special assignments as a reporter. So when Colonel George Harvey, "president of the stately old publishing house in Franklin Square" and "the very active editor of Harper's Weekly," contacts him with a particular request he accepts. Colonel Harvey wants him to travel down to New Orleans to write an article on a promising Congressional candidate, James Clairborne "Clay" Blake.

James "Clay" Blake is a young lawyer and a colorful character, who's running for Congress, but he's unopposed and therefore can't help being elected. So the Colonel wants James "Jim" Blake to write a personality piece on his namesake, but there's also an underlying motive: the underground wire is reverberating with rumors "that some enemy is out to ruin him." As an investigative reporter, Blake immediately sets out to work and makes a stopover in Washington before traveling to New Orleans. There he learns from a legendary police reporter, Charley Emerson, what the tool of Clay Blake's potential downfall could be: a high-class courtesan, Yvonne Brissard, who captured the full attention of the future Congressman. In spite of their discreet conduct, it became very evident that "the Creole siren and the Anglo-Saxon lawyer" have "fell for each other like a ton of bricks." A scandal in the making, but could the courtesan be a part of "the alleged plot" against the budding politician?

On his way to New Orleans, Jim encounters a pair of mysterious figures: first of them is his love interest, Gillian "Jill" Matthews, who literary walks into his arms, but also vanishes when she wants to and her role in the overall story is a actually a genuine plot-thread – a pretty good one at that! The second figure is an unknown person on the train, who knocks at his compartment, but when he opened the door there was nobody outside. And the porters on either side of the corridor swear they saw nobody.

This incident is presented as an impossible problem, but the explanation is extremely bad and Robert Adey did not even deign it worthy of being mentioned in Locked Room Murders (1991). Luckily, there's a bone-fide locked room mystery in the second half of the book.

However, the pace of the story considerably slows down until the murder occurs and this section of the book has Jim encountering several characters in the New Orleans setting: the Colonel and Charley recommended Jim to ask Alec Laird for help, the high khan of the Sentinel newspaper, who is described as "an unredeemed puritan," but also someone you want to have in your corner. One of his relatives an elderly dowager, Mathilde Laird, a crusty aristocrat who inexplicably rented the village of her dead and beloved brother to Yvonne Brissard. She has a son, Pete, who she overly mothered and refused to even let him drive his own car. So he has his own personal chauffeur, Raoul. And then there's Flossie Yates. A woman who can discreetly be described as "the madam of a brothel."

Eventually, the plot begins to pick up the pace again. One of Jim's old classmates, Leo Shepley, "a rake and bon viveur," becomes entangled in the plot and this does not end well for him: there are several witnesses, including Jim, who saw him speeding like a devil out of hell in his two-seater Mercer – which ended with a crash and the sound of a gunshot inside a partially locked-and watched shed. Shepley had been shot through the head from close range, but the police fail to find a gun at the scene and nobody could've entered or left the shed without being seen. So how did the murderer or the murder weapon manage to vanish from the closely watched shed?

The seemingly impossibility of the murder frustrates Lieutenant Zack Trowbridge and wonders out loud "what kind of a murderer" vanished "like a soap-bubble as soon as he pulled the trigger," but Jim "pieced the whole thing together less'n twenty-four hours" after the murder. Admittedly, it's a pretty clever piece of work and showed how Carr was still capable of constructing an intricate locked room puzzle. Even if the execution required some low-conscience life forms (i.e. pawns) to make it work. And the motivation for making this an impossible crime is also noteworthy.

So the storytelling, characterization, setting and the plot were somewhat uneven, but, overall, The Ghosts' High Noon is a very consistent detective story. In any case, the plot and writing are far better than what most readers would expect from one of his novels from this late date. That being said, I've to point out one thing: by the late 1960s, Carr had sadly lost his ability to write historical fiction. Carr's writing used to be able to breath life into long-dead, dust covered periods of history (e.g. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, 1937), but here he never came further than making some clunky (pop-culture) references. One of the characters even notes how long-distance phone calls would've been considered a miracle only a couple of years ago, which felt really, really forced.

I thought this was a sad aspect of the book, because Carr was not only the undisputed master of the locked room, but also an early champion of the historical mystery novel. And the historical mystery novel was also his retreat when began to tire of the modern world (i.e. post-WWII England). This allowed him to add a few additional classics to his resume when the quality of his regular series began to suffer. Nobody will deny that his post-1940s historical mysteries were better than any of the Dr. Gideon Fell or H.M. novel that appeared in the same period. So it was sad to see that by the late 1960s he was unable to bring the past back to life as once had done in such delightful works as The Devil in Velvet (1951) and Fear is the Same (1956).

Well, look at me, I still managed to end this review on a depressing note! So, yes, The Ghosts' High Noon has some of expected flaws of later-day Carr, but not nearly as many as most would expect and large parts of the plot shows flashes of the old master. That alone should warrant investigation.

Let me end this overlong review by directing your attention to my previous review, which is of the excellent translation of Alice Arisugawa's Koto Pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989).


  1. This one I just found dull, though it doesn't have nearly the egregious bits that I recall from most outer late Carr. (Dark of the Moon, yikes.! I don't believe he wrote a strong book from the mid-sixties to the end of his life. But there was so much before!

    1. Oh, don't get me wrong: pretty much everything he wrote before the (mid) 1960s blows this one clean out of the water. But judging it against the others from this late period, it stands out. Despite all of the flaws, it really does stand out.

      For example, take the time and effort Carr obvious put in constructing the impossible murder in the watched shed with the ones from The House at Satan's Elbow or Dark of the Moon. Only way you can describe those two, as impossible crime novels, is uninspired.

      I see I forgot the mention (as I hastily banged out the final part of this review) that two minor characters, old General Clayton and his wife, apparantly appeared as much younger characters in Papa Là-Bas.

  2. Thanks for the review. :) I was hoping for a positive review, as this is one of the few Carr titles available in my local Kindle store... But oh well.

    Then again, I just bought a stack of second-hand Carr novels. :D

    1. As I said before, these late period Carr's are inferior to pretty much everything he wrote before 1965. But compared to the other books surrounding it, this one really stands out. So I hope you'll be able to enjoy the good bits.

      However, if I were you, I would start excavating that stack of second-hand Carr novels!

    2. I'm quite excited about my stack of Carr novels as they are meant to be good, even if they miss out on being great: Lost Gallows; Hag's Nook; Mad Hatter, Arabian Nights; Bowstring; Crooked Hinge; Five Boxes; Seat of the Scornful; Later Wives. (Couldn't find cheap copies of Patience or Unicorn.) But they will only arrive at the end of the year.

      I also have a couple more on my Kindle that are meant to be just below good but still above average: Fire, Burn; To Wake the Dead; In Spite of Thunder.

      But I've saved the best for the last: Hollow Man; He Who Whispers; Reader is Warned; Burning Court. All sitting on my shelf. :D

    3. I love Bowstring Murders, it might even be my favourite of Carr's first five years. The impossibility is better in, say, The White Priory Murders, but Bowstring works so well as a book overall. It's a shame we never saw John Gaunt, that book's detective again...though he was perhaps a little too dull for Carr to be able to do much with...

    4. @Jonathan: I envy you! You still have all of these wonderful discoveries in front of you.

      I only have The Nine Wrong Answers as the last reputable good JDC on my TBR pile. The Demoniacs, Most Secret and the Conan Doyle biography might turn out to be good, but otherwise, I only have such titles as Papa Là-Bas and The Hungry Goblin to look forward to. Oh well, Nick Fuller was somewhat positive about Deadly Hall. So there's that.

      It's been years since I took a look at In Spite of Thunder, but it might need a bump to the good list. I remember liking it and Dr. Fell should've bowed out there and then.

      @JJ: If you like John Gaunt, you should read some of Anthony Boucher's short stories about Nick Noble, because it has been suggested that Gaunt was the model for Noble. You can find some of the Noble tales in Exeunt Murderers. A great collection of short stories, by the way.

    5. Well how's this for a coincidence: I'm currently working my way through Exeunt Murderers, and was mulling the idea of a post on the Noble stories when I'd finished them (got about three to go at present). He's certainly a great character, but I feel he's somewhat ill-served by some of the plots he finds himself in...however, possibly more on this in the next couple of weeks.

    6. Most Secret is excellent. (I reread it a couple of months ago.) It's a historical swashbuckler rather than a historical mystery, though. Period language, more gusto than any of his books since the mid-'50s, and a robust, bawdy sense of humor. It reminded me of George MacDonald Fraser.

    7. Sounds great! I now have to bump that one up the list.

  3. This is one that I'm keeping for my Later Carr years as I've heard it's good in that context, so I'm doubly pleased to see that your concur with this. It guarantees nothing, I know, but I'm pretty sure our Carr fanboying overlaps pretty comprehensively...!

    Thanks for the mention of Carr's 110th, too...let's get a lot of people in on this, and maybe someone might think "Hmmm, we really should republish this guy..."

    1. As long as you read it as a 1960s Carr novel, you'll probably end up being pleased seeing a glimmer of his old brilliance. It is very much better than a House at Satan's Elbow or a Dark of the Moon.