As a reader, there’s a tension to be found at the heart of every writer’s work once it’s a closed set, especially when they’ve scaled the heights that John Dickson Carr did: with nothing else to be added, at what point does The Decline set in? From Till Death Do Us Part (1944), arguably the pinnacle of his glittering career, it’s a sawtooth diagram of quality all the way to Papa La-Bas (1968), arguably the nadir, but at what point does a downward trajectory become the prevailing trend rather than the occasional, forgivable oversight? It’s obviously impossible to pick the precise moment — helloooo, subjectivity — which inevitably makes such a moment impossible not to look for.
My Late Wives (1946), the seventeenth novel of Carr’s under the nom de plume Carter Dickson to feature “the Old Man” Henry Merrivale, exemplifies this tension magnificently for me, because it’s overall a very enjoyable book — swift to pass, easy on the eye, with a couple of blistering surprises along the way — that nevertheless darkens at the edges with signs of the encroaching habits which would typify Carr’s overall decline in form. You know the sort of thing I mean: one character about to explain to another the key thing they (and we) need to know only for a third character to blunder in for no purpose other than delaying that revelation, or the withholding of information purely for the purposes of making someone seem guilty when the sensible thing would be for that point to be addressed and for everyone to move on. We’re not quite at a critical mass of that behaviour here, but it’s the first time you really begin feel it used as a legitimate narrative strategy in Carr’s writing.
We’re a long way from a farrago, however; the setup is gorgeous, the execution mostly sublime, and the fun to be had along the way unquestionable. Starting with a summary of the criminal career of the murderer Roger Bewlay presented with all the wit and vim of peak Carr — enough to make you lament the absence of a legitimate inverted mystery in his canon — we then encounter Bruce Ransom, actor extraordinaire, who has been sent a play that is a thinly-veiled summary of Bewlay’s life and crimes. And that’s interesting in itself, since Bewlay has evaded capture for these last eleven years and many details contained in the script were never made public.
The less said about the plot from this point, the better. But it develops speedily along the sorts of lines only the Golden Age could invoke with a straight face, saving its laughter for the comical shenanigans of H.M. and his Scots golfing instructor, who are swept up in events and deposited in the small town of Aldebridge along with Ransom’s friends Beryl West and Dennis Foster. Since Beryl produces Bruce’s plays, she’s the first to notice how elements of that script begin to manifest themselves in real life, and that would imply that Bewlay himself is on the march…an impression reinforced when bodies begin to turn up, which in turn lends itself to difficulties of the precise motivation, and indeed identity, of the people around them.
A lot of wonderfully subtle work is done here: not just in placing Bewlay in the real world by referencing actual publications by the Detection Club and murderers George Crossman, Henri Landru, and others, but also by throwing in casual mentions in chapter one that don’t pay off until chapter 9 or 10 as the noose begins to tighten. And Carr has no need to emulate the best in the genre with his mood setting, since he still is one of the best: exposing the fallacy that to communicate horror on the page one must revel in pornographic violence and cruelty by giving almost tender moments of mundanity (c.f., the hairpins on the carpet) and elsewhere leaving more than enough room for your own imagination to do the vital work:
The room was lighted only by an oil lamp, in a yellow silk shade, hanging from the ceiling. The flame of the lamp had been turned low. And all human evil seemed to breathe out of that room.