Before I conceived of this chronological Carter Dickson celebration, my experiences with Sir Henry Merrivale were more piecemeal. Even when I spotted and grabbed a lot of Carter Dickson novels on eBay and placed them carefully on my shelf in order of publication, I grabbed down She Died a Lady first because . . . well, just because, I guess.
Now that I’m journeying book by book, I’m fascinated to observe Carr/Dickson’s progression as a writer and plotter. And with his third H.M. mystery, The Red Widow Murders (1935), Dickson takes a huge leap forward.
Last summer, I engaged for the first time in a read-along, where I read and provided commentary chapter by chapter as I went. It was a memorable experience, for me at least, and rather than give you a synopsis, I invite you to relive the entire novel – and that read-along experience – here and here.
I didn’t have the time (or the inclination after so short a period) to re-read the novel, so I simply read my own posts. In retrospect, I marvel at what a glorious time I had with this book. The body of its plot has everything The White Priory Murders did not: a magnificently complex chain of events meshed together brilliantly, a series of chapter-ending reveals that count for something, a better drawn circle of suspects, including two much more interesting women than before (more reminiscent of The Plague Court Murders but even more integral to the story here). We’re also treated to Sir Henry Merrivale’s first starring role: he comes to the murder house at the start of Chapter Three and never leaves the story from that moment on. We get to see him at home. We get to see him being funny without being ridiculous. We get brilliant detection and wonderful characterization. This is A-One Prime H.M.! Finally, in terms of impossibilities, we take a welcome departure from a remote shack/pavilion surrounded by mud/snow, with footprints leading to/from the spot which only serve to mystify the situation. Here, instead, reminiscent of Bluebeard, is The Room That Kills!!!!!!!!!!!It’s one of my favorite devices, and it’s beautifully rendered.
There are only two problems (of a sort) with Red Widow. The first is that the solution, while logical and nicely rendered, is solvable by even a moderate locked room mystery fan like me. As you can tell if you read my read-along, I solved the thing. The killer is . . . fine, but for various reasons this choice robs us of a certain sense of true surprise, especially if we have read a lot of classic mysteries, especially a lot of Carr and Christie. The solution of the “how” is suitably complex and was fine to me, although in the comments section of the read-along, a few people may have expressed more disappointment. The sense I get is that folks feel more shocked by the method in White Priory than here; that may be true, but I’m hardly knowledgeable enough to judge.
When it comes to whodunit, however, none of the four CDs I’ve read here have totally satisfied. I had the Bowstring murderer pegged nearly from the start. I was totally surprised by Plague Court, but I am not convinced the author played completely fair here, considering the cast list. And I think the most satisfying surprise in White Priory concerns the method; the killer’s identity almost didn’t matter (but I glommed onto it well before the final reveal, for reasons that have nothing to do with actual detection and everything to do with understanding the patterns of classic mysteries.)
The other problem is minor, but it is a niggling one. In order for the murder to run like clockwork, Dickson inserts one element that is . . . just . . . plain . . . ridiculous. It ruined the Puzzle Doctor’s enjoyment of the book, but most of us who discussed the novel were willing to give the author a pass. (Just don’t do it again, CD!) Since we’ve all been talking about the rules of Van Dine and Ronald Knox, I checked and found nothing about this issue. (I wonder if it falls a bit under Van Dine’s Eighth Commandment about pseudo-science. What do you folks think?)
Neither of these issues was large enough to stop me from thoroughly enjoying myself. I agree with several friends here who suggested that The Red Widow Murderswould be a perfect introduction to Carter Dickson! Which means that the rankings below should come as no surprise to you:
Next up (at some indeterminate time, mind you): something very different from Carter Dickson: disguised super-criminal vs. disguised French detective – with Sir Henry Merrivale refereeing – in The Unicorn Murders!