My Late Wives by Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr

My Late WivesRoger Bewlay is a murderer. Under various pseudonyms, he married various women and then, presumably, murdered them. Presumably because no trace of them was ever found – they completely vanished. As has Bewlay himself…

Eleven years later, actor Bruce Ransom receives a script that catches his attention, the story of a murderer whose victims vanished without trace. Disagreeing with his director, Beryl, as to the ending of the play, he plans to prove her wrong – he heads to the village named in the script to pretend to be Bewlay to see how events play out. But there is a problem with the script – it contains details that only the murderer could have known. Is Bewlay at large in the village? Or is he even closer to home? Luckily Sir Henry Merrivale is around to stick his nose in…

Past Offences – a blog that you really should check out – has been running monthly reading challenges targetting a particular year for a while now and I figured it was well past time I joined in. You can find the other posts throughout November by following the hashtag #1946book on twitter. Rich will also post a summary at the end of the month over on his blog.

But let’s have a look at this one. Written just after the war, there is a sense of London undergoing a recovery, especially in the opening sequences of the book. Merrivale makes his usual over-the-top entrance, this time causing a riot in a penny-arcade, but there is an over-arching feeling of near-horror at times and Carr wisely quickly makes this one of Merrivale’s more serious outings.

The change of tone is a welcome one after the lighter tone of the previous Curse Of The Bronze Lamp – highly regarded elsewhere but not one of my favourites. Carr does a great job of marrying the tension with an adventure style plot akin to the early Merrivale outing The Punch and Judy Murders, another outing that isn’t a complete success for me.

But what about this one? Let’s address the massive weakness first of all.

There isn’t really an impossible crime, but unfortunately the author seems to think there is. The fact that Bewlay has managed to hide three bodies isn’t that impressive really, and even the “clever” hiding place (which is actually pictured on the front of my copy of the book – pictured here, but with a massive spoiler warning) is pretty obvious. There’s a bit more in the disappearance of the fourth victim, but that’s pretty clearly telegraphed as well. The truth seems to elude Merrivale for ages though, despite his apparently knowing who the killer is very early.

On the other hand though, the killer is very well hidden – I remember when reading the book for the first time being genuinely surprised as to their identity even though it makes (mostly) perfect sense. You have to swallow a little about the stupidity of the play being written in the first place, but there are several genuinely gripping sequences here, especially in the closing sequences – some of the tensest sequences that I’ve read in a Golden Age mystery.

Not a book that gets mentioned very often – probably for the lack of an impossible crime – but it’s one of Carr’s best constructed whodunits, and a cracking read as well. Highly Recommended.

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21 comments

  1. I agree. I read this one recently. It has all of Carr’s flaws in spades (some truly mad dialogue, slightly hysterical female characters, scenes that go on far too long and then others that seem very rushed) and the clever setup of the play sounds good in theory but isn’t especially well-executed.

    But it’s his best hidden killer, and not in any gimmicky way. I just didn’t even consider them at all!

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    • Yeah, some of the dialogue, particularly related to Beryl the lovesick play director, is horribly artificial. But you kind of expect that from Carr so I tend not to notice it as much these days…

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    • There is a little bit of a cheat with the killer, regarding the exact relationship with one other character that I don’t think is mentioned until after the fact, but despite that, it’s very well done. Till Death Do Us Part rivals it, I think, but there’s not much else that springs to mind.

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      • I think Carr has some other well-hidden killers, but often they’re rather irrelevant to the impossible crime (Judas Window) or so well-hidden in such a mire of complexity as to be basically ungettable. Surely no-one in the world managed to solve Plague Court Murders, for example, even though it’s not unfair? But I think that’s different from the brazen misdirection here, and much less satisfying.

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  2. I remember, like you, reading this one with a sense of disappointment as to the hiding place, but that’s about it as it’s been a good 30 years so you really make me want to read this again and see if I get fooled as to the culprit (bet I will : ) – thanks chum. Must do another Carr first though …

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  3. This is one of the ones I haven’t got yet; my edition of curse of the bronze lamp (which had the alternative title) describes it as carr’s favourite of his novels, which really surprised me.

    I have to say i quite like the variety of quality in carr’s work; it means that you can always be surprised when a great one comes along. Mind you, i think the carter dickson books are more varied than carr’s under his own name. It must be the case that carr himself wanted to write books with different moods. It can’t be an accident that he who whispers (my personal favourite), has a very menacing, tense and gothic atmosphere, whereas the blind barber is largely a knockabout farce very reminiscent of the marx brothers film monkey business. What is surprising is the same man wrote both.

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  4. I found this quite good and enjoyable. A page-turner, virtually unputdownable. A real surprise at the end. The creation of a sinister,creepy atmosphere is superb. The characterisation is also quite good.
    However I found the final scene lengthy and rubbish. I detest this type of denouement.
    Also, the solution to the impossible crime of disposal of 3 bodies is nothing much to speak of.
    The dissapearance of the fouth victim is, however, clever.
    And, you could have shown the picture on the front of your cover. I have examined it carefully
    and do not think that anyone will infer anything from it.

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  5. This one has been lurking on my TBR pile for quite some time. I keep thinking i’m going to use it for my Vintage Mystery Challenge, but so far it’s keeps getting put off. I really need to commit to reading it so I can see for myself if it’s clever or not….

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  6. In Twitter, you have sought opinions on Carr’s The Crooked Hinge. I give my opinion below.
    I rate it as only Average, though even an average book by Carr makes more interesting reading than many other mystery writers’ books.
    The solution is far-fetched. The murderer has no way of knowing where the victim will go to. Hence to commit the murder, the murderer has to go to a safe place, remove the ——-, search for the victim, murder the victim without any sound from the victim, go back to the safe place and put back on the ——-. It is unbelievable that all these actions would remain unobserved.
    I found the false solution also absurd. [EDITED] !
    [EDITED]. Why is the witness so vague and indefinite instead of being more definite and clear ?
    When the victim sees the thing with the mask, wouldn’t the victim scream ? Yet the murderer writes,” I must, I think have been a sufficiently unnerving sight . It so paralyzed……..” And if the victim had screamed, what would have been the consequences ?
    When the murderer finds that they have used the wrong knife, why don’t they drop the right knife into the water ? The murderer had ample opportunities to do so.
    The false solution is meant to elicit the identity of the murderer. The murderer can’t have any knowledge of this incident. Yet the murderer writes, “You took an impossible crime; and, in order to make ……… confess, you spun out of sticks and stones and rags and bones a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation of the impossible.” And again, “I rather think that in order to make …….. confess you must have deliberately painted ………’s character as much more stiff with wicked impulse than it really is.”
    The automaton stuff. Rubbish. There was absolutely no need to include it. Many of the automatons of that period had [EDITED].
    That Ahriman is disguised would be obvious to clients.[EDITED]
    There are some other points which are difficult to discuss without spoilers.

    Puzzle Doctor – sorry, I’ve had to edit a few points for potential spoilers.

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    • I would like to modify my remarks regarding the automaton. On rereading, I note that the automaton is thoroughly examined and they find that [EDITED]. Thus it does offer some kind of a clue.

      PD – sorry, another potential spoiler edit from me!

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    • Santosh, I complete agree with you, but I’ve had to edit a couple of points for spoilers. It’s a shame, as you make a really good case about it’s problems and I agree, it’s hard to discuss some of them without spoiling too much. But even though I didn’t think much of the book, others do and I’d rather they come to the book as cold as possible.

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