Friday, July 6, 2012

The Red Widow Murders

Michael Tairlaine is invited to a strange kind of gathering at the Mantlings' house, where Sir Henry Merrivale will also show up as an impartial witness. The partakers draw cards, which will determine who stays in a supposedly haunted room. Well, not exactly haunted by a supernatural force, but the room itself seems to be killing people as soon as they stay alone in that room and supposedly it does so by poison, since that seems most likely considering the records of the cases in the past which reach back to the time of the French Revolution. After someone is decided to go into the Widow's Room, he is to answer the others' calling every 15 minutes. And he does so just until the time is over and the others barge through the door to find out the victim must have already been dead for an hour! He died of curare, but no wounds for the poison to enter are found on the body and nobody could have entered the room anyway since it was under constant observation. And how did a dead man answer their calls?

The latter point is explained pretty early and it's a very simple reason, but it's not the focus of the mystery anyway. The main aspect of the plot is the legend of the room that kills and the method how the victim of the current case was poisoned in that locked room. Sadly, the locked room factor kind of gets pushed in the background since it's obvious there must be some kind of poisoning trick that works without the culprit entering the room himself. At least H.M. and Masters aren't wasting their time on the impossibility part and focus on the poisoning trick.

And surprisingly enough, with the mostly distinct and vivid characters (best so far after the first two Merrivale novels) and constant revelations and developments Carr manages to keep the plot interesting despite of its length. The trick itself is rather simple but pretty ingenious nonetheless. However, there are some issues concerning fair play and clueing. Or at least, Carr's convoluted plotting (I think he kind of entangled himself this time) will divide readers' opinions. This is mostly due to the murderer being... not a clever criminal, as Masters also points out in the final chapter. I for one don't mind that fact as such, since it's not unrealistic for a murderer's plan not to be perfect. After all, they always get caught in these novels eventually, so does it really matter? It might, in terms of fair play. Depending on the reader, it might not be expected of the murderer's plan to be flawed and extremely risky and dependant on luck. But is it really that different from the cases in Carr novels where the culprit does not even have something one could call a plan and is helped by exterior factors and the actions of other characters? Personally I don't think so and the latter situation isn't often criticized while the one in this novel is, so I don't think that's really fair.

Anyway, for those who read the book, a small summary of the clues, whether they are fair or not (SPOILERS!! mark to read):

1) Bender's habit of clicking his tongue against his cheek.
2) Him not eating anything but soup.
3) The corn; i.e. Bender not telling anyone about such matters.
4) The blood in the washbowl.
5) The flask. At least after considering all the other facts.
So we have quite some hints, but as H.M. also admits, you need a lot of imagination rather than logical thinking to figure out this one. I think the clues are quite apparent though, at least compared to those that need a page reference like in The White Priory Murders.

I agree that it's kind of unfair to say they didn't find any wound for the poison to enter and then pull that solution in the end, but it's not as unimaginable as the thing the police overlooked in The Three Coffins... And let's face it: There simply had to be some way. Otherwise there wouldn't be any point in the characters constantly speculating about that matter just to totally discard it in the end. You don't read a whole novel for that outcome. I think the murder method is quite well done and the clues are there, they just don't solely rely on logic.

All in all, I do not dislike the trick, but the whole plan that was built around the essential murder method relies on luck, chance and a compliant victim, even though I personally did not find the latter to be that inconceivable. Carr also manages to hold up the atmosphere in comparison to The Plague Court Murders and surprisingly he does so without any real suggestion of the supernatural, so points for that and the characters this time. It's a shame that Carr seems to have lost himself in his own plotting somewhere along the way though, so this is not recommended for newcomers. It's a pretty solid novel nonetheless, but not on par with his really great ones, so anyone already liking Carr might just give it a shot as long as it cannot do any damage.

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