The Red Widow Murders by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

Who in their right mind would accept an invitation to spend the night alone in a locked room if they knew they were in a detective novel? Especially a locked room that has, over the past centuries, killed a number of other individuals without leaving a trace on their bodies? Good thing that the characters don’t know that they’re in a book, otherwise no-one would do something so stupid.

When Michael Tairlaine, previously from the pre-Merrivale Dickson novel The Bowstring Murders, receives an invitation to attend such an event, he accepts, especially as Merrivale himself is invited as an independent witness. The guests sit down, draw cards, and one of them, Bender – no christian name that I’ve noticed, draws the high card and heads off to spend a couple of hours locked in the room. He calls out every fifteen minutes so that the observers know that he’s alive. But when there is no response at the end of the time, the door is broken down and Bender is dead, without a mark on his body. All signs point to curare poisoning – which must be injected into the bloodstream – but there are no such indications. And, as he’s been dead for over an hour, how did a dead man call out three times?

Way back when, I wrote a Carter Dickson top five and I put The Red Widow Murders in at number five, mostly from the very fond memories that I had of it – especially the mechanism of the murders, both past and present. But does the memory cheat?

It did a little. I’m still impressed by both of the murder methods herein. Very simple, mostly fairly clued… but as for the rest of the book… I think I’m going to have to change that list.

The best murder mysteries have, at their heart, a simple plot made complicated by the actions around them. The plot here is absolute nonsense. Seriously, if the murder was write down their plan, it would require a flip-chart to explain it, with an accompanying PowerPoint. And it’s another book where the over-complicated plan also requires another innocent person to play along absolutely perfectly, despite not knowing what the plan was. Oh, and one of those plot mechanisms that really shouldn’t be used is used for one aspect – clue – it begins with an h.

It is still a decent enough read, and the locked room aspect is still clever, but it’s let down by its surroundings. Merrivale is on good form, although he does allow one clue, which would have sped things up considerably, is put to one side – it is noted, but then ignored until much later.

As I said, I enjoyed it enough on my first reading, but this time round… I think it’s coming off the list.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Carter Dickson, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Sir Henry Merrivale. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Red Widow Murders by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

  1. I’ll have to get back to you on this one Steve as I too have not read this one in a long time (could be decades in fact). I remember liking it a lot and enjoying the references to John Gaunt and the BOWSTRING MURDERS as one of the few examples in Carr’s books which referred to earlier cases, though as this is an early Merrivale case that probably explains it in terms of establishing the character and his pedigree. I shall whip out my slightly battered Berkley edition (same cover as yours by the look of things) and report back …

    • Ah – that picture’s a place-holder until I can get to my computer and scan my green Penguin copy.

      Of course, now I have to pick a different fifth book for my five – so, The Reader Is Warned, She Died A Lady, The Judas Window, Nine – and Ten Makes Death are the first four… White Priory? Plague Court? Patience? Something I’ve forgotten?

      • Nice to be so spoiled for choice, isn’t it? I’d probably go for PATIENCE (if I were being asked)

      • richmcd says:

        Odd that both of you seem to rate PATIENCE. I thought the general consensus was that it was a bit of a duffer. A lot of people seem to mock the… auditory aspect of the plot, shall we say.

        I’m probably too biased to judge. It’s got one of those bickering couples who don’t realise they’re in love that make me want to gag. Same deal with CONSTANT SUICIDES.

        I think the only time Carr managed to make a couple like that seem even remotely believable was Ken Blake and his fiancee. Not sure I’d want to go to the pub with them, but I also don’t feel like I’d have to push them in the river. Luckily they’re in a few.

      • To be honest, I don’t recall a lot about Patience – the memory might be cheating like it did with Red Widow – but I don’t mind the bickering couples. In fact, apart from them being cousins, which always seems a bit odd, I think they add something to Constant Suicides, which is one of my favourites.

  2. richmcd says:

    RED WIDOW was the third Carr I read (after THREE COFFINS and PLAGUE COURT) so I have fond memories. But I agree it’s nonsense in retrospect.

    If anything, I think calling the murderer’s plan overcomplicated is too generous. Can something that makes no sense at all (it’s SUCH a coincidence that it works) be classed as anything other than a crock?

    If I had to guess, I’d say that some of the complications were added in a second or third draft and Carr forgot to go back and check that he wasn’t breaking the story. I may be totally wrong, but I have some experience with ruining perfectly good mysteries by trying to be too clever and it just has that feel about it…

    It’s a shame, because I think it’s got one of the best bits of atmosphere of anything he wrote.

    What else…? There’s also a pretty shoddy portrayal of mental illness that I find sticks in my throat, although it does throw up a nice bit of legal reasoning.

    I absolutely love the clues at dinner. That’s my favourite sort of clueing and I’m always trying to think of things that can be clued in that way.

    I don’t remember any ridiculous “h???” mechanic, although I can guess what it stands for and I agree it’s best avoided. I do remember some “v???” suggested as a possible explanation for the calls, which I think is also something that should be left out of mysteries. It’s so hard to take seriously!

    • The h… is towards the end, and is to give the killer an alibi for one particular event. The v… that you mention is, at least, dismissed as an impossibility in the case in question, although a lot of the discussion of what you can do with it seems to be absolute bull-excrement as well…

  3. I’ve not read this novel – or any books by this author – but it sounds intriguing. I might just give it a read.

    • I’d go for The Judas Window or She Died A Lady first – they’re easily the best of the bunch. Not convinced that this one will make you a convert. Do let me know if you do try it though

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  5. mousoukyoku says:

    http://kontonnohazama.blogspot.de/2012/07/red-widow-murders.html

    I’ll just leave my own two cents worth and thank you for your efforts on the Carr and Queen bibliographies. Being a newcomer, they are greatly appreciated.

    • Many thanks for the kind words. I think you’ve put your finger on the crux of the problem in your blogpost – the trick is fine – apart from the voice – but the rest of the plot is nonsense.

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