Thursday, April 19, 2012

She Died A Lady

Dr. Luke Croxley, the narrator of this novel, gets a visit by one of his son's patients. Rita Wainwright's worries are not of medical nature though. She has an affair with a younger man called Barry Sullivan, a young American actor, while being married to her older husband Alec. The latter however is more interested in radio broadcasts about recent war developments than what his wife does behind his back. Rita is fond of Alec and does not want to hurt him, but at the same time she feels the urge to run away with Barry. One night when Croxley is over at the Wainwrights Rita and Barry vanish, leaving two sets of footprints leading to the end of a cliff and not coming back. Later the dead bodies are found, but they did not die from the fall or from drowning. They were shot at close range.

A Sir Henry Merrivale Mystery and for what reason H.M. happens to be in Lyncombe, the village this novel is set in, is better left open, as this was the first time I actually found the old man really funny. And usually I don't care about comedy, with an exception for sadistic black humour certain neo-orthodox Japanese writers tend to display. But this is by far not the only reason I ask myself why this seems to be a rather hidden masterpiece.

First of all, the narrative is just as, if not even more compelling than in He Who Whispers, but differs in that it doesn't feature any grotesque elements as Carr is known for otherwise. I could care less, as I seem to prefer this down-to-earth and somewhat sophisticated style after all. The characters have personality and are likable, the plot is a bit quiet yet enthralling and does not let you put the book down after a certain point and probably the best thing: The mystery is still the focus of the story and it's weaved into the narrative in an interesting fashion. While the initial situation seems a bit simple it soon gets more complicated and intriguing and the way it unfolds is less formulaic than in other Carr novels or GAD novels in general. I don't mind a Queen novel being formulaic, but I seem to have problems in that respect when it comes to Carr. Which might be totally irrational and subjective, but anway...

I love classical locked rooms, as in a room locked with a key or bolt or both and a corpse lying inside with no culprit to be seen, but I'm open to anything else as long as the questions at hand are challenging and absorbing. As already mentioned this novel features a murder without footprints of the murderer and while some characters suppose the narrator messed around with the "crime" scene and that it actually was suicide after all, most of the important ones, including of course the narrator but also Merrivale, call it murder and the impossibility has to be proved or otherwise Dr. Croxley has to lie at court just to "simplify" things for everyone.

Funnily enough, this novel does feature a narrative trick that's not necessarily important for solving the impossibility as such, but to deduce the murderer. I won't tell what category of trick it is and which other GAD novel used a similar device, but even though I knew beforehand it did not spoil anything for me. The culprit is hidden in a unique but fair way and you'll slap your head when Merrivale points out the only possible murderer, quite similar to Queen-ish logic for once (?).

The trick behind the impossibility is just as neat. Not overly complex but all the more fair and guessable without being too easy. I came up with about half of the solution, not including the identity of the murderer as the solution of the impossibility does not automatically lead you there if I remember correctly. This is also one of those tricks that only work in their own particular novel, which can turn out rather unguessable or even improbable, but here it actually helped in making the method deducible.

I feel like I've already said too much. Just read this. Especially if you (like me) haven't been particularly crazy about Carr before but felt like you had and wanted to be. I still like the trick in The Judas Window slightly more, but as a novel with a splendid narrative and an impossible crime situation that does not feature any too contrived factors, I highly recommend this one.


  1. Based on your previous comments (and praise of The Judas Window), I simply knew you would love this one. It's one of his soberest novels, which has been describe by another fan as an intelligent romance novel with an impossible crime worked into the plot. I also loved the mental image of H.M. in a wheelchair roaring across the countryside.

    If you like Carr in this mood you should also check out The Four False Weapons, which is an addendum to the Henri Bencolin series and nothing like the neo-baroque Gothic stories from the earlier books.

  2. I don't really know why, but I seem to like his 40s novels more. It might be because they are less formulaic and instead, as you said, try to work the impossible crime into a narrative that can also stand on its own. Which shouldn't be necessary in detective fiction and I don't mind the Queens often being formulaic in their nationality series, so it might be my personal subjective thing concerning Carr's writing style and his settings. I generally like eerie atmosphere in novels I read, but looking back to novels in that fashion that I genuinely loved, the atmosphere and origin of uncanniness seem to be of a slightly more minimalistic tone (e.g. creepy mansions without mentioning any supernatural entities in particular).

    I just started Till Death Do Us Part because it seemed to have a setting similar to She Died A Lady or He Who Whispers character-wise. Opinions seem to differ on that one, but those who think positively about it seem to like it a lot.

    Put The Four False Weapons on my list and I'll see if I can cram it in an order somewhere :)

  3. I think I begin to understand your taste and Carr's post-1930s novels can be considered as his most mature period as a writer when they became more sober and serious in tone, while also managing to strike a funny note (HM's hilarious feud with an old dowager in The Skeleton in the Clock, which is actually a pretty grim novel for the most part) and the impossible crimes tend to be a result from the actions of the characters (e.g. She Died a Lady and He Who Whispers) rather then the apparent fulfillment of a curse.

    This makes them for a lot of readers a lot more satisfying then some of the earlier, and perhaps more artificial, stories, however, personally I won't scuff at a Gothic tale of revenge set at Castle-shaped castle on the Rhine, aptly named Schlosse Schadel and owned by a magician, with two rival detectives investigating a series of bizarre crimes (c.f. Castle Skull, 1931). It's just fun and the atmosphere is great!

    It's a pity that you prefer the minimalistic approach when it comes to atmosphere because I was thinking of recommending Poison in Jest, which is a grossly underrated gothic mystery set at an old decaying mansion during the dead of winter and filled with a dysfunctional family. It's wonderfully atmospheric and I have a theory that the creator of The Addams Family may have read this book. One of the subplots involves the dismembered hand of a statue of Caligula, which was seen walking around the house like a spider and even attacks someone (if recall correctly), and the back cover of the Green Penguin edition has a picture of Carr in which he looks exactly like Gomez Addams. Coincidence? Ha! ;D

    Anyway, I think you will like Till Death Do Us Part, which also has a village setting as well as putting greater emphasis on characterization, but I remember very little of the actual solution except that I thought it was quite good.

    Other books from the post-1930s era that might have what you are looking in JDC (yes, I take this evangelizing very seriously ;-): Nine-and Death Makes Ten (H.M. aboard a munitions-carrying ship braving submarine infested waters and the disquieting atmosphere is derived from the threat of enemy submarines and mines), Death Turns the Table (JDC's most character-driven crime novel about a judge who loves to play cat-and-mouse games finds himself the main suspect in a murder investigation), My Late Wives (the tale of a multiple wife murderer who seems to have turned up in a quiet sea-side town), The Sleeping Sphinx (a murder-in-retrospect story steeped in psychology with a sub-plot about coffins being flung around in a sealed crypt), The Devil in Velvet (an excellent historical mystery in which a contemporary professor sells his soul to the devil to travel back in time to prevent a murder and shows how underrated JDC was an author of historical fiction) and Captain Cut-Throat (a wonderful and underrated novel that combines the formal detective story with the spy-thriller set during the Napoleonic Wars).

    ...I'm babbling on and on again.

  4. That seems to be the point: Some of the earlier and apparently seen as characteristic Carr novels are a tad too artificial and contrived for my taste. Even The Hollow Man, while I admit it's a cornerstone for the genre, falls into this category for me.

    Being German, I guess Castle Skull would be either totally unbearable or awesome for me ^^°

    I already have a copy of Nine - and Death Makes Ten and it's rather high on my Carr list because of the setting.

    Unfortunately I'm a dead loss at history, so settings of historical novels are rather difficult to imagine and get into for me. But then, I do have some of my more immediate knowledge from detective novels funnily enough...

    After Till Death Do Us Part I think I'll catch up with some Queen novels first... *ignores university*

  5. Well, I have always had a love for history, however, it took me a while to warm up to (good) historical fiction after having a few unfortunate encounters with authors who preoccupied themselves mainly with showcasing their modern sensibilities rather than accurately depicting the time and setting. They basically let a contemporary characters loose on the pass and have them stick up their nose at the prejudices and crudeness of a bygone time, which, IMHO, totally defeats the purpose of historical fiction.

    Luckily, I also stumbled across John Dickson Carr, Robert van Gulik, Bertus Aafjes and more recently Paul Doherty (a teacher, historian and prolific writer of mysteries set in the ancient past often with a locked room worked into the plot). When it's done right, it's also an excellent way to brush up your knowledge of history. Carr's The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (often touted as a masterpiece of this particular sub-genre) is a reconstruction of a real-life, unsolved GAD crime and he has done a first-rate job at bringing that time and era alive and provides a solution based on the clues and information that history left us with. I recommend the IPL edition because it has a detailed and interesting afterword from Douglas Greene.

    So don't let a lack of knowledge deter you from discovering these gems for yourself.