#693: My Late Wives (1946) by Carter Dickson

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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.

But there’s also some clod-hoppingly lumpy stuff here, clues dropped with less a subtle ring of truth than a fog-horn of inconsistency (honestly, at one point I worried he’d even lost track of his own manuscript, and that The Decline was full upon us) which is all the more ear-splitting for how it contrasts with the brilliance herein: the shifting allegiances of one character in particular, the delightfully OTT final face-off with the killer, the motive for the impossible disappearance of a body (the workings are pretty obvious, and it’s a miniscule facet of the plot), and a glorious mid-book surprise.  I’d probably be willing to forgive the worst of these if the eventual result didn’t rely on so many coincidences and positive reams of X knowing and not telling Y, or X and Y not telling Z.

So, this is a sound, enjoyable, and inventive thriller that stirs in more than enough of Carr’s good points to recommend.  In fact, it’s a good novel for those of you who might be on the fence about the Golden Age in general and Carr in particular.  When the British Library get done with reprinting Carr’s early Henri Bencolin novels, this wouldn’t be a bad place to go next — the clues stick out enough to be memorable, the writing is divine, the ending bold as brass, and the emotional colours on display throughout delightfully garish and snappy.  Turns out there’s still life on the Old Man yet…

~

See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: How My Late Wives hasn’t been made into a movie is beyond me. It almost seems to have been written for it. From its intriguing premise of a play manuscript exposing secrets of past murders, up to its tense action packed finale, the story feels destined for the screen. Published in 1946, this latter year Merrivale tale flouts many conventions of Carr’s typical impossible crime plotting, instead providing a story more at home in a Hollywood thriller.

John @ Pretty Sinister: The plot is difficult to summarize since the playscript, the story of Roger Bewlay’s life of crime, and Bruce Ransom’s “research” all intersect and overlap as the novel progresses. There are multiple mysteries to solve and it got a little dizzying for me as Merrivale tried to explain to Dennis and Beryl how he knew Bewlay committed all his wife murders, knew where the bodies were hidden and hinted at one more murder that might take place. Of course it does occur and both Denis and Beryl are devastated that they could have prevented it if only Merrivale hadn’t been so damned ambiguous.

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: I remember when reading the book for the first time being genuinely surprised as to [the killer’s] 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.

49 thoughts on “#693: My Late Wives (1946) by Carter Dickson

  1. Perhaps a bit generous on your rating, but I suppose that’s relative to other books you read and not just Carr. In fact, I think this was the Carr novel that made me think “maybe I should read some different authors instead of just burning through one”. I suspect that if I read it now – in these days where I’m drawing my last few Carr books out – I’d enjoy it a bit more. The ending was certainly riveting.

    But come on, that one scene totally gave away the killer, am I right?

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    • I’m always impressed — that might not be the word — when someone is able to read a bunch of books by the same author in a short period. Had I, rather than Puzzle Doctor, been the one to rediscover Brian Flynn you’d all still be waiting on the third review, never mind the reprint of the 11th to 20th books.

      As to the scene of which you speak, it unfortunately sticks out a mile — as I said, it was so clunkingly obvious that I worried Carr had gone completely off the reservation and forgotten what he’d written to that point. But that might also help those who are uncertain about GAD appreciate how clues can be dropped, even if it’s not the best example, and I stand by my assertion that this would be a good inclusion for the BLCCs for that reason.

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  2. Second post for the interesting topic that you brought up above. I agree that Carr did a sawtooth pattern following Till Death Do Us Part, but I like your question of when the downward trajectory became the prevailing trend. To answer this, I think you have to separate the historical mysteries from the rest. Purely from a contemporary standpoint, I think the downward trend started after Below Suspicion and A Graveyard to Let in 1949. None of the Fell or Merrivale books after the point come close to the previous work, and the only highlight would be the non-series The Nine Wrong Answers (Patrick Butler, for the Defense not being as bad as people make it out to be, but feeling more like one of his historicals).

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    • I shall bear this in mind, since a bunch of the Carrs I’m now coming to are new to me — I acquired copies of most of his post-1950 work only in the last few years. Heard good thing about Nine Wrong Answers, and Patrick Butler is so universally despised that I’m almost certain to love it 🙂

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    • Having finished Below Suspicion last night (and trying to put my thoughts into words for my review today), I can tell you that (at least for me) the book is on the downward slope of any chart of Carr’s work. Not at the bottom yet (but then I have five Fells left so who knows where it will end up).

      Post-war Carr feels cynical…disillusioned with the world…and I definitely feel it come through in his writing.

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      • Interesting, I’ll have to see if I get that vibe from BS. This one doesn’t feel cynical to me — if anything, the creativity that goes into the main situation is pure puzzle plot, and feels like someone still possessed of a real enthusiasm for the genre. It rattles louder than a box of saucepans being thrown down the stairs (or should that be “Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin”) at times, but I get no sense of disillusionment at this stage,

        I’ll now consult Doug Greene’s Carr biography and find that Carr wrote this one with arch cynicism pouring out of him, but that’s certainly not the lingering taste I get here.

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        • Doug Greene’s biography is wonderful, but I now have to avoid it because I found it’s filled with spoilers.

          He does often make note of Carr’s increasing distaste for the modern world, and how it shows in his writing (hence his move into historical?).

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          • Oh, yeah, I think it’s pretty widely accepted that Carr’s move into historical fiction was motivated by an increased disinterest in the modern world. There’d always been a seam of history through Carr’s books — c.f. Plague Court, Red Widow, etc — but I believe the turn into Historicals was far too marked, sudden, and consuming to be simply an expansion of an itch he’d occasionally scratch.

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  3. I agree that this is one of the best of the later Carrs, but there is a major plot problem – amounting to the feeling “But surely X would have mentioned Y – there was no reason for them not to…”
    Great example of those early Pan cherry-red covers, too!

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    • Yeah, this really is a gorgeous cover. There’s one paperback reissue — the Berkley — that has a frankly unforgivable cover from a plot perspective and honestly makes you wonder how in the hell it got drawn, okayed, and published.

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      • I presume that’s my version which does tend to give away one aspect of the plot. Still, I stick by my guns on this one – it’s a great demonstration of Carr’s overlooked talent of hiding the murderer. I think he’s better than Christie at it…

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        • I wanted to write something about the characters in this, but it occurred to me that he does a very Christie-esque job of giving you types and allowing you to draw your own, often incorrect, conclusions, and so the less I said about who does what the more I’d preserve for future readers. It is a very Christie-an performance.

          And, yes, it is the cover of your edition to which I was referring. What…just what were they thinking?!

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          • I know – at least it’s a minor part of the mystery and the least interesting bit. Imagine a similar cover spoiling The Crooked Hinge, say… Apparently there’s a similarly thoughtless Crispin cover – an edition of Swan Song, I think, but I haven’t read it so I’m not looking for details.

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      • My bulk bought most of my Carr books and so many of the covers were pretty mediocre. I did manage to scoop up this Pan edition of My Late Wives though. It is very nice, as Pans generally are.

        And yeah, I knew about that other cover before hand, and I wonder if that factored into me spotting the solution to one part of the mystery.

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        • I mean…yes, it definitely did. It would take a feat of superhuman memory, er, badness to see that cover, read this book, and not link the image of the first and the plot aspect of the second. Might as well have a cover of Murder on the Orient Express showing the murder in that one taking place…

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  4. I read this one very early on in my Carr apprenticeship, probably 35 years ago while visiting my Nan in West Sussex. Her local library had several (and the first edition of BLOODY MURDER). I really need to re-read this. But I do wonder JJ why you began from such a negative standpoint – why make the review about a point of decline? Not a criticism (your house, your rules) but I see this more and more – I truly don’t understand why one would want to start there? Hell, Carr had his biggest commercial success with the historical books of the 50s …

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    • I, er, don’t now how to answer this, Sergio, without appearing to be just passive-aggressively repeating the points I made in the review 😄 There’s so much fixation on Carr’s decline, on account of the heights he reached, and the ingredients which contribute to the lessening of his quality — interruptions solely to delay an explanation by 40 pages, characters not sharing information that would make a situation clear in a way that would resolve the conflict easily — crop up here for the first time in a noticeable concentration. So, one begins to reflect on where Carr’s decline begins.

      So much here is brilliant, but the elements which are bad really, really stand out — c.f., that scene where either the killer is making themself horribly obvious to the reader or Carr has entirely forgotten a thread of his plot — and jar so suddenly against, say, the absolute brilliance of things like the motive for that vanishing body that it’s fair to assume that, while he’s obvious capable of doing a magnificent job, at times he simply seems to forget how to write. From there, it seems a fair (indeed, inevitable) question to ask about when the greatest proponent of detective fiction started to slide. I…really don’t see what else I can say.

      Er.

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      • Wasn’t trying to trip you up JJ, honest. If we take HE WHO WHISPERS as possibly his crowning achievement, then 1946 is the right date. What surprises me, and I am not describing your excellent review, is this sense that Carr, in particular, somehow let himself go and let down his fans. Douglas Greene has described in persuasive detail why Carr, after the war, felt cast adrift. And there were serious health and emotional issues. But there is tendency, very much among Carr fans, that he was somehow at **fault**, just not prepared to make the effort. I just don’t understand that, nor the idea that there are clear milestones, markers and grid lines in such long and varied careers. But you know what Jim? That’s just me – if the positives outweigh the negatives, then that is where I put my emphasis as a natural cheerleader. And you wonder why I don’t blog any more 😉

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        • Yeah, I think you raise an excellent point — I experienced the same sort of attitude towards Christie, who’s accepted as terrible after Date X, and was delighted to find a lot of wag in the tail of her supposedly “bad” works in the latter stages of her career.

          I promise I’m not coming at Carr from that perspective, though, having learned the false value of it with Dame Agatha. It may appear like it from the opening paragraph, but every Carr I read — hell, every book by everyone — is approached with the genuine hope that it’s going to be great.

          And, interestingly, I was having a conversation only the other day about another GAD-era great who began to feel somewhat cast adrift and disenchanted when their time was perceived to be up. Expect details on that in the next podcast episode…

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  5. I just scanned what you wrote here as this is one I still haven’t read – one of a bunch of Merrivale titles I need to get round to: And So to Murder, Seeing is Believing, Nine and Death Makes Ten, The Unicorn Murders, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp.

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      • 😀
        Yes, I understand that’s not so well thought of.
        I’m actually curious to see what you make of Patrick Butler since I didn’t think it’s anywhere near as poor as some will claim.

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        • I think I have about 7 or 8 Carr books between me and PBftD, so we’ll find out what I make of it maybe two years from now…but, let’s be honest, given my history of loving things I’m expecting (or maybe expected) to not get on with — Freeman Wills Crofts, Anthony Rolls, R. Austin Freeman, Edgar Wallace — it’ll probably turn out to be my favourite Carr ever 🙂

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  6. I never have a very clear idea of where the JDC’s sit on the timeline (unlike Christie, say, where they are strung out nicely in my mind) so don’t really have a feel for decline and so on. But, this is one of those that I haven’t read, (and there aren’t that many) and you are encouraging me to get on with it – even if it’s not perfect, I love the sound of the setup.

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    • I spent a long time trying to compile a chronology of Carr (because there wasn’t one easily available on t’internet when I started…and may not be now for all I know) so I have an almost ingrained sense of what comes where simply through so much repetition and correction.

      I reckon it would be possible to read this and, without knowing the dates, be able to call that it comes later than certain touchstones in his career and earlier than others. Might be an interesting game in that, actually — a sort of Play Your Carrs Right…

      But, yes, do read it. The mid-book surprise is magnificent, the language superb, the motivation for vanishing a body absolutely top-drawer…so much to love here.

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        • For other H.M.s, I’d definitely call that it came after:

          White Priory
          Red Widow
          Unicorn
          Ten Teacups
          And So to Murder
          Nine — and Death Makes Ten

          It feels oddly contemporaneous with

          Read is Warned
          Punch and Judy
          Plague Court
          Patience

          …which given the span of years those books represents, is, frankly, a confusing state of affairs. Oh, god, I have to go away and mull over what this means…

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  7. JJ – I enjoy not only your reviews but also the comments that follow them. Informative and entertaining to understand the perspectives of others. I have noticed with GAD bloggers (e.g., you, Ben, Kate, Puzzle Doctor, Tomcat, Brad, Laurie, etc.), that reviews of Carr books almost certainly generate the most comments.

    This is one of the few Carter Dickson’s I don’t own so ordered a copy of it today. Your review has me wanting to read it.

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    • I suppose it makes sense that Carr and Christie generate a lot a talk, because they’re such “big” names that people have read and enjoyed — the same is probably true of Sayers, but I dunno if I have any other Sayers books to read that I’m likely to review on here (Have His Carcase being the obvious choice, but I’ve now started that one on two occasions and…not got far) and so that will have to remain surmise for others to point out examples posted elsewhere.

      And, yeah, we’re very lucky to have such a diverse group of folk who are so great at jumping in to discussions so readily. And among the bloggers there’s such catholic tastes, too, so we’re lucky to get a pretty sweeping coverage of GAD from a relatively small coterie of sites, which never ceases to amaze me.

      Hope you enjoy this one, it’s got some superb elements, it really has. Look forward to hearing your thoughts when you get to it.

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      • And among the bloggers there’s such catholic tastes, too, so we’re lucky to get a pretty sweeping coverage of GAD from a relatively small coterie of sites, which never ceases to amaze me.

        I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: the true scope of the detective story, even when confined to the classics, never ceases to amaze me. Even today! Every time you think you’ve got an idea what is out there and have most of it mapped out, someone comes along to push you down another rabbit hole. After ignoring the 1950s and ’60s for years, John comes along to say there’s still gold in those hills (he was right). JJ finds an Enid Blyton novel that’s not only a locked room mystery, but a masterclass in how to use clues and red herrings. Puzzle Doctor spreading Brian Flynn fever or John Pugmire opening up a whole new frontier with Locked Room International.

        Anyway, it’s been too long since I read My Late Wives and have nothing to add to your review, but four stars seems alright for a mid-tier Carr.

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  8. This one’s great , even if I figured out the killer pretty easily. But then again, my tastes are a bit particular. I consider A Graveyard to Let and And so to Murder to be top Carrs.
    Patrick Butler is a romp and I think it’s better than Punch and Judy. There, I said it.
    Btw, as far as I know Carr never had mental issues, not even after the stroke, so IMO, there was no decline. If anything, his prose became much more verbose and purple and that hurt his pacing. The thing is, well, we are GAD fans, so we prefer ingenuity and impossible crimes when it comes to Carr.

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    • Patrick Butler is…better than Punch and Judy.

      I’m being very serious when I say that I legitimately consider Punch & Judy to be one of Carr’s top ten books. So this opinion is…mind-blowing.

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  9. Well,JJ,I think both Patrick Butler and Punch and Judy are three star novels, maybe 3.5 for PB. I’d say putting P&J in the top ten is even more mind blowing and controversial 😋
    Anyway, it’s Carr we’re talking about… The amount of great novels he wrote is staggering.

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    • Too late, Andrés, I’ve already built PBftD up in my mind as a 7-star genre-defining masterpiece of masterpieces 😛

      And, yes, one of the many wonderful things about Carr is that individual readers will stumble into books with little or no expectation of them being good only to find them amazing. The experience that represents this best is probably that of Ben @ The Green Capsule, who started off his blog with a series of lists about how good he expected certain sets of Carr novels to be based on general consensus and has been having his mind blown time and time again as those expectation have been up-ended. It makes for magnificent reading (as does his blog in general),

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  10. You all seem to know each other, so I feel rather daring venturing a comment, but I love Carr and none of my friends have read any of him, so if I want to share thoughts it’ll have to be here. This review prompted me to dig out my copy of My Late Wives from the shelf containing all his books in my basement (I have the edition with the horrible cover — these were all bought decades ago in whatever used-book store I could find them). It took me weeks to finish it, for unrelated reasons, so I’m late to the discussion.

    One reaction that I find shared here is that my surprise at finding what I think of as “late-Carr stylistic faults” so well entrenched here — I tend to think of them as starting a decade later. People interrupting themselves at a crucial moment to recall something else they meant to say; people getting interrupted just before the final (and crucial) noun in the sentence by a new person bursting in; people chattering pointlessly out of nervousness or elation or whatever. Still, for all that, a unique premise and situation and atmosphere. I probably last read this in 1980 or thereabouts.

    But I do have a question, which will probably stamp me as an inattentive reader: I see “that one scene totally gave away the killer”, and I wonder, what scene? Can someone give me a hint, by chapter or some other non-spoilery way? (I in fact had a different killer picked out as soon as the character appeared, and still think he would have been an excellent unexpected choice.)

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    • The one scene that gave away the killer occurs — er, possibly spoilers but I’ll be vague — when a discussion is had that outright contradicts a previously-made assertion in a way that isn’t even vaguely subtle. It reads like someone forgot what happened in a key part of the book, but it’s actually just a very lumpy piece of (I suppose, if we’re being generous) red herring-ing.

      I know what you mean about the stylistic faults starting to creep in here, and that’s why I talk about it in the review I know there are books ahead which do not demonstrate this, but I feel those might be the ones Carr was more confident about the misdirection in. Maybe it’s a drinking game he was playing; if not, maybe it’s one we can play now…

      As for picking out your own killer for a good reason…why not write that story? That’s what I’m doing (slowly…okay, very slowly) having had that exact experience with a novel from Mrs. Christie. And if you’ve got a good basis from a novel by the master of the form, what you come up with might be pretty good. Go on, give it a go 🙂

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      • Thanks so much for the response, but that’s a little TOO vague for me to pick it out still. Could you maybe say which chapter? That wouldn’t mean anything to a reader of this page.

        Yes, I noticed your mention of the stylistic faults in the review, that’s why I felt bold enough to speak up about them. I don’t go looking for them, I swear! I want each book I pick up to be a gem, and I can look past a lot. But there are things which happen on almost every page in the later Carr, and I’d always told myself that they happened only after a certain (much later) year, which on the whole I think is true. But here they are at a relatively early point.

        Thanks for the encouragement, but I just don’t have the fiction-writing spark in me. I write very well on analytical or critical subjects, I think (and my editors have agreed), but somehow it doesn’t translate.

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        • Terribly sorry for the delay in replying to this, it’s been a busy few days!

          I have had a quick flick through the book and can’t find the chapter at first glance, but I’ll come back to it in due course and have a more careful scan. Expect updates in another week or so, and please feel free to give me a nudge if they’re not forthcoming 🙂

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