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.