Friday, August 9, 2019

The House at Satan's Elbow by John Dickson Carr (1965)

About the author: See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Pennington Barclay, master of Greengrove
  • Deidre Barclay, his young wife
  • Fay Wardour, a.k.a. Fay Sutton, his secretary
  • Estelle Barclay, his sister
  • Dr. Edward Fortescue, family doctor
  • Annie Tiffin, cook
  • Mr. Justice Wildfare, long dead, but returning as a ghost?
  • Nick Barclay, New York magazine publisher
  • Garret Anderson, historical writer
  • Andrew Dawlish, attorney

Locale: England

Synopsis: Old Clovis Barclay had left the Greengrove estate to eldest son Pennington. Then a second will is found, which left the estate to grandson Nick Barclay instead. Nick comes to the UK, and heads for the estate with his friend Garret Anderson. Nick doesn't want the estate, and plans to give it to Pennington anyway.

The estate comes with a legend that the ghost of former owner Mr. Justice Wildfare visits periodically. They arrive to find the ghost has just visited Pennington, and shot at him; but the gun was loaded with blanks. They also discover that Pennington's secretary, Fay Wardour, is Garret's old girlfriend. The ghost makes a second appearance in a locked room and tries again with real bullets, this time wounding Pennington.

Review: First off, it is not a murder mystery - no one gets murdered, despite the cover blurb. It is two consecutive locked-room puzzles (same room each time). The Greengrove mansion is a sprawling, massive place with lots of overly specific description in the text - one sketch map would have been preferred - and could have avoided absurd statements of the obvious such as:

"What had been the left-hand window of the library as you stood inside the room looking out had now become the right-hand window as you stood outside looking in."

The details of room layouts, window layouts, etc. led me to believe something would be up with that, perhaps mirrors or a secret passage, but no. The household itself is an amusing collection of characters - manic Estelle is always running around, and beyond the sedate library and music room (with ear-shattering Gilbert and Sullivan records playing) is - yes, a pinball room at which the family enjoys playing pinball. Toss in a couple of love interests, and amongst all this fun is Annie Tiffin, the cook; who proves to be an enjoyable character and provides one of the keys for Dr. Fell to unravel the two puzzles.

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