Night At The Mocking Widow by Carter Dickson

Night At The Mocking WidowA shadow is hanging over Stoke Druid a village in Somerset. A campaign of poison pen letters is setting the villagers on edge, driving one young girl to suicide. The letters are signed by The Mocking Widow, a figure from local legend, symbolised by the giant rock situated on the outskirts, allegedly a witch turned to stone. But one villager, a bookseller, has the intelligence to summon help before things get any worse. Help in the shape of the Old Man himself, Sir Henry Merrivale.

Making his usually rambunctious entrance, Merrivale finds himself deeply concerned by the campaign of terror and fears things are going to get worse – and, of course, he’s right. The Widow herself materialises and vanishes into and out of a locked room and soon… well, eventually, someone else lies dead. Can H.M. put an end to the troubles and unmask the Widow?

I first read this book over ten years ago and (I think) it was the final one of the Merrivale tales for me. I’d forgotten almost all about it though, apart from a rough memory of how the materialisation occurred. So how was the re-read, undertaken for Past Offences’ Crimes Of The Century #1950book?

The book starts really well. Despite this being a late Merrivale, it has a very strong start and set-up and for the first two-thirds of the book, I was gripped. Merrivale’s opening antics, despite the image of a vicar riding an out-of-control wheeled suitcase, weren’t too over the top. There are some very effective scenes, not least when H.M. deals with the issues concerning a child – no spoilers, obviously – and it shows what a character the Old Man can be when he – well, Carr – is on form. Some of his thoughts aren’t exactly politically correct and he does give a bunch of ten-year-olds some cigars, but that fits with his character.

And then he dresses up as a “Red Indian”, Big Chief Much-Wampum, and instigates a mud fight in the village hall. Which has bugger all to with the plot, so I presume that Carr thought he was being funny… He wasn’t, by the way.

The identity of the Widow is pretty well-hidden, and the clues are there, sort of. But the motive is vague at best and the impossibility relies on a lot of chance to work.

What does it tell us about 1950? Well, basically that at this point, Carr’s best work was behing him and he was already setting books in the past, as this is set for some reason in 1938, so chronologically before the war-set Merrivales. So all we know about post-war Britain is that Carr didn’t want to write about it.

Oh, and we hear a little about Clemmie, Merrivale’s wife. Is this her only mention?

So, nowhere near as bad as the last two Merrivales (Behind The Crimson Blind and The Cavalier’s Cup) and there are some very good bits here, but they don’t make up a perfect hole. Worth A Look.

Here’s the link to my bibliography of other Carr reviews.

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18 comments

  1. It’s been a long time since I read that one, but I seem to remember being very impressed with the way Carr smuggled in a huge clue to the workings of the impossibility by hiding it in a scene where you were too busy laughing at H.M. to realize the significance of the clue (no spoilers, but I suspect you’ll know which scene I mean). Perhaps it’s time for a revisit.

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  2. I rate this as Average.
    There is heavy padding. The book could easily have been reduced by at least 30%.
    I welcome comical interludes but there is too much of them here making it rather irritating.
    The solution is disappointing and far-fetched. I can understand the person writing poison pen letters. But would they go to that extent ? And would they ever [EDITED FOR V MILD SPOILER] ?
    The locked room stuff is rubbish. I doubt whether it would work. Also there are cheats. If 2 persons make a similar statement, a reader will assume that either both are telling the truth or they are in collusion and both are telling lies.

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  3. “Oh, and we hear a little about Clemmie, Merrivale’s wife. Is this her only mention?”
    This seems to be the only book where her name is mentioned.
    There is a brief reference to her (not named) in The Judas Window and The Red Widow Murders where it is stated that she generally stays in the south of France along with two daughters as a result of which Merrivale is generally alone in the house along with the servants.
    Merrivale has two sons-in-law also. The only reference to them seems to be in the novelette All In A Maze where Merrivale says,”I’ve got a house, and a wife, and two daughters, and two good-for-nothing sons-in-law I’ve had to support for 18 years.

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    • Thanks for that info, Santosh. The mention of Clemmie is made all the stranger given what might or might not be going on with H.M.’s landlady in this one. But his behaviour gets worse in a later book…

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  4. According to Doug Greene’s definitive book on Carr, H. M. “did pick up some Churchillian characteristics” by the time World War II rolled around, but didn’t have them earlier – Churchill “was in the political wilderness” when The Plague Court Murders was written and Carr had little interest in Churchill. As for Fell, he’s much more G. K. Chesterton!

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  5. As it happens, I read this one about a year ago and was quite disappointed. Like you, I thought it was quite promising for about the first half or so but it rather abruptly went over the precipice after that. It began to meander about and just became frustrating in that the characters stopped behaving or reacting like real people (I realize that Carr’s characterization could hardly be described as “realistic” but it’s still irritating when I find myself continually thinking, “why don’t you just ask THIS?” or “why doesn’t Merrivale just explain what he means?” or “why does no one follow up on THAT point?”). And for me, the humourous interludes weren’t very amusing, so sadly it was padding that just didn’t work. [POSSIBLE SPOILER] It didn’t help that I found one of the perpetrators an incredibly irritating characterization (though admittedly, the character could have stepped right out of a G.K. Chesterton story–and to say more would be a bigger SPOILER). I love Carr so I really wanted to like the book but by the end, I found it profoundly irritating.
    Then again, I do love The Ten Teacups!

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