“The story of the Widow’s Room…begins in the month of August, and in the city of Paris, and in the year 1792. It begins with the Terror, but it has not ended yet.”
Upon reflection, it’s fairly astounding that John Dickson Carr published novels for 20 years before finally writing his first ‘true’ historical tale with The Bride of Newgate in 1950. Throughout so much of his early work there is a miasma of the past pushing through, and a revelling in the detail of such times that threatens to overload the present story as Carr seems far more interested in dumping as much detail as possible from, say, the French Revolution upon you so that the Weight of History can be added to the press of his peculiarly heady tales of mystery and imagination.
The Tuesday Night Bloggers’ topic for November is ‘History and Mystery’ and, before going Full Historical upon you, I want to look at the use of history as a backdrop to inform the present story, and there’s nowhere better to start than the early works of Carr. I’ve picked The Red Widow Murders based on a couple of things, but mainly on account of a stray comment made by Puzzle Doctor and the fact that the newly-established and Carr-themed Green Capsule Blog had a run at this one recently and I was keen to look it over myself for a second time in light of these events.
The Red Widow Murders is the third of Carr’s novels under his Carter Dickson byline to feature Sir Henry Merrivale, commonly known as H.M. (to everyone else) or The Old Man (to himself), and it uses a bloody history in a manner not unlike H.M.’s first appearance The Plague Court Murders (1934) in that there is a location with an undesirable past which has an entire chapter given over to it to appropriately fill in the pertinent details. It’s true that in both cases these chapters can largely be skipped (Carr doesn’t quite have the confident grip on backstory that he would later develop, and these forays into the past are, if I’m honest, a slog to get through and work far too hard to add a Sinister Atmosphere), but Carr has at least learned from Plague Court by also adding a sprinkling of history to lighten the load throughout the narrative.
It all revolves around the Widow’s Room, found in a house built by the Mantling family in 1751 — conveniently far back enough to both be beyond living memory and so subject to interpretation of the ‘house archives’, while also intersecting with another slice of bloody history to overlay significance on the events that follow:
“For forty-odd years there was no trouble whatsoever with that room … Then in 1793, his son Charles returned from France with a French wife. She was followed by a wagon-load of fancy furniture. Bed-hangings, carved gilt stuff, cabinets, mirrors, enough to smother you. It was her room. But he died there, the first of them. They found him in the morning with his face black. I think that was in 1803.”
Carr is deliberately placing these events out of reach. There is a horror of history and the massacres of French Revolution that form the backdrop which enable him to add significance to the arrival of these French Things and the dawning of the problems in that venomous room. I love that final line above — “I think that was in 1803” — and how the absolute conviction of the events preceding it suddenly fade into vague obscurity when it comes to the finer and more pertinent details. This puzzle requires a certain element of the unknown, the intangible, to imbue the novel with a sense of the horrific and the ungraspable. If you’re told “This is exactly what happened, and he died on August 5th 1804 at 7:04 pm” it suddenly clarifies the picture and gives you a firmer belief that, because what came before is so well documented and understood, the problem itself must have a similar outcome.
It is this blurring through the lens of history that adds to the malice of the impossible death that follows. Now, of course, the past of all the characters involved in this kind of fiction has a bearing on the events that unfold — put simply, people are always murdered because of things that happened in their past — but the extra distance here adds that atmosphere of terror. As a comparison, take the backstory of Charles Grimaud from The Hollow Man, published the same year as The Red Widow Murders: undoubtedly those events (no spoilers, don’t worry) have as significant an effect on the plot of that book, but they’re given a much gaudier hue, almost as a sort of horror subplot, and remain firmly focussed front-and-centre as the cause of what unfolds.
The significance of the extra distance here is not just to allow a sort of ab initio sense of violence and death to permeate the creation of that room (though, in truth, it’s harmless for “forty-odd years”) but also for the precise cause to remain both in sight and also out of view. If you’ve read this book you’ll know the level of misdirection Carr is employing here (and — hey — it could be high or it could be low, I don’t consider that observation to spoil anything) and the fact that the weight of real historical death lies at the back of all this is as effective a way to grasp your readers’ attention as anything else yet tried. The moment where real history osculates Carr’s fictional characters is deliberately blurred, as I’ve already said, and the bleeding through of the first into the second — guillotines, the aristocracy, the street of Paris running slick with blood — added to the absence of a reliable witness to supply fixed testimony in either case commends the use of such a conceit.
It’s also worth reinforcing how nerdy about his history Carr was even at this early stage of his career. A footnote in the chapter giving the background of the Mantling family and their links to that horrible time reinforces how historically correct Carr’s surmise is, the “account agrees with the records of the time in almost every particular”. It may simply be pedantry on his part, but equally the fact that he goes to such detail makes his representation of these events more trustworthy: he’s not claiming anything ridiculous, but an additional step such as this — and the fact that he even cites a book for readers to check the details in (which, for all we know, might not even exist…) — adds weight to his own fictional appropriation and therefore in turn to the events that unfold herein.
It’s enough to make you wonder why people have such a difficult time writing decent historical mysteries these days…I mean, Carr virtually supplied the blueprint right here! But, well, that’s a lament for another time…