I love a good village poison pen mystery but, as I’ve said before, they’re difficult to write because both the village and the mystery must convince and compel. Night at the Mocking Widow (1950), the twentieth book written under John Dickson Carr’s Carter Dickson nom de plume to feature Churchillian sleuth Sir Henry ‘H.M.’ Merrivale, starts off seeming like a great example of both…but once we hit the halfway stage and the impossible appearance and vanishing of the sinister Widow presents itself, the life rather goes out of things. From that point on, it feels more like a writing exercise than a novel, and one that Carr is forcing himself to complete.
The Somerset village of Stoke Druid is where we find ourselves, with a raft of anonymous letters accusing the denizens of all manner of misdeeds from sexual impropriety to Nazism. Carr sketches in the village well, with an opening that introduces us to perhaps too many people but lays the ground for the suspicion that will continue to fester, and before too long H.M. hoves into view — on an entirely independent mission, it must be stated — and is convinced by a friend to take up an investigation of this blight.
The first half finds Carr in fine fettle, with H.M. making an exceptionally memorable comedic entrance and became his metier, struggling out of a taxi with a multi-wheeled suitcase much to the delight of the children of the village:
“Got any cigarettes, sir?”
H.M., outraged, puffed out his chest and glared at the four boys.
“Now don’t you go smokin’ cigarettes, you hear me?” he thundered:
“No, sir,” said the Marlborough boy dejectedly.
“Don’t any of you go smokin’ cigarettes; got that’?”
All the spirit had gone out of them.
“Smokin’ cigarettes,” sneered H.M., “is sissy. If you want to smoke-” here he produced from his inside pocket four excellent Havanas, each cellophane-wrapped “you smoke cigars like me. Here’s one for each of you.”
Perhaps because Carr is busy trying to draw the wider picture of the village at large, shown in a series of overlapping encounters from which we follow a different member of the core cast, there’s not much time and space for his oft-praised atmosphere. Aside from a bookshop “exhal[ing] that fragrance of old books which, far more than your dull roses or any flowers, is the true breath of dreamland” we’re in the sort of territory here that feels typical for anyone except Carr. Against this relatively anodyne background, however, the sudden stirring of village feeling is felt even more keenly, as if standing out sharply for not having to fight against the fog of oppression Carr might otherwise stir to life. The experiences of the newly-arrived Rev. J. Cadman Hunter are particularly important in this regard, especially when his efforts from the pulpit to stem the tide of accusation results in an angry mob confronting him after the service on Sunday morning.
All wore their Sunday best, its lightest shade being a dark brown. They wore bowler hats, except for an occasional brown or dark gray fedora. Some had one shoulder inclined. They stood there, black against a line of poplar trees. Their eyes were fixed on him like one eye, and its current he could feel when he approached.
It was not hatred. Hatred is very deep and quiet. It was a wave of sheer uncomprehending dislike; and dislike is balanced dangerously, ready to spring with claws.
Just before the halfway point, it is revealed that the letter writer — signing themselves ‘The Widow’ after a local stone formation — has promised to visit a recipient of a letter at midnight, and H.M. and the retired Colonel Bailey wait outside the door while the windows are guarded by two other men. Sure enough, The Widow visits and vanishes before anyone sees her, the nebulous threat of exposure replaced by a very physical menace…and suddenly the life seems to go out of everything. Perhaps it’s the lack of urgency around this particular bafflement — no-one really seems to care, they’re just confused — or perhaps it’s because there still seems to be so much time for the meandering plot to really struggle to generate any stakes…but, for the first time, an impossible crime in a book by the master of the form seemed to be the ingredient that highlighted how much of a trudge this whole thing was becoming.
Now, the fact that I already knew the trick here because it is repurposed from Carr’s radio play ‘The Blind-Folded Knife Thrower’ (1948) — included in the recent Island of Coffins (2020) collection — doesn’t matter, because the way the impossibility is achieved makes it thunderingly obvious who the malefactor is. The real problem is how none of this feels especially threatening or interesting, like the problem is about something as unimportant as who tied the parson’s shoelaces together. There is also, come the end, none of the brilliant reasoning or evidence as achieved in the very best poison pen letter novel ever written — The Moving Finger (1942) by Agatha Christie, as if you had to ask — with all H.M.’s talk of “great big blazin’ clue[s] that [jump] up in your face” being so much eyewash when laid out in the final chapter. Carr, it seems, has been caught napping — though I’m willing to allow that he was trying something new in seeing how long he could sustain a narrative without the intrusion, or even suspicion, of murder — and has to cobble together something thoroughly unsatisfying as a result.
One can see, too, Carr’s eye on the historical mysteries that would come to define his later work in the old world creed of the village as a whole and, slightly less edifyingly, in H.M.’s rough treatment of his landlady and the claim that “she did not really mind this treatment; she liked it and would have understood no other”. The following year would see the publication of Carr’s historical magnum opus The Devil in Velvet (1952), and you can increasingly feel his head turning in that direction in these late 1940s and early 1950s works. If it sometimes produces the odd bit of broad comedy, that’s difficult to mind — the wheeled suitcase was built for such a set piece, and the report of the boxing match is rather wonderful in my opinion — but the shame is how dull the plot surrounding some good ideas proves to be.
This might, in the fullness of time, prove to be the novel which best exemplifies Carr’s career: starting enticingly, building magnificently, gradually fading away only to stir to life when the sniff of older times reaches the page, to then peter out to a disappointing end. Still, you can’t write 75 books and countless radio plays in 41 years and have everything explore the very upper echelons of your genre. We can be thankful for when he was close to his best, and acknowledge the role in works like this when it came to letting off a little steam or clearing away half-formed ideas for better ones to take their place. A shame when it happens, but his quality elsewhere is never in doubt.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: This had all of the potential to play out as one of Carr’s better locked room mysteries. Again though, the distributed nature of the narrative causes the mind boggling impossibility to be swept aside. We experience the locked room from HM’s point of view, but then the book jumps away to follow other characters concerned with other plot lines, resulting in the impossibility getting watered down. The rest of the novel focuses either on the core poison pen mystery, or follows Merrivale through a series of slapstick antics.
20 thoughts on “#930: Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) by Carter Dickson”
Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy this one! This is a Merrivale so I know it has to be in my collection somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t remember ever reading or hearing the title “Night at the Mocking Widow”. I was excited for a good Carr people don’t usually talk about!
We’re all excited for a good Carr no-one talks about, but he’s been around for a while and I have a feeling the ‘good ones’ are pretty widely known by now.
And I’m not one of those readers put off by the physical comedy of the Merrivale books. This one was just…dull.
You enjoyed the first half of this quite a bit more than I did, although I was at the tail end of a ~40 Carr novel binge and this stood out by a mile as the weakest of the bunch. In hindsight this is the start of the decline of Carr in terms of his contemporary mysteries, and he never really recovered. He had plenty left in the tank when it came to the historicals, but everything from here on out when it comes to Fell and Merrivale isn’t worth much. The exceptions are his two non-series contemporary mysteries Patrick Butler for the Defense and The Nine Wrong Answers.
By my estimation, this is Carr’s fiftieth novel — an incredible feat on its own, and, given the quality of so much of what has come before, it’s perhaps understandable that he started to flag somewhat. I mean, how many more genius variations can you really find? And how much will does the mind retain after that many plots — plus short stories, radio plays, collaborative endeavours, etc? It’s a shame that Carr dips so badly towards the end, but it’s hardly a surprise!
So I’m looking forward to seeing what the historicals bring — I’ve read a handful, but hitting his largely chronologically has made his growing interest in that direction clear. Here’s hoping the new life he finds for another 30ish books is well-directed…
This book holds the record for days spent sitting on my nightstand without ever being read. Maybe if I ever come across one good review I’ll change that.
There’s a one (out of ten!) star review for The Problem of the Green Capsule out there on the interwebs, so I can guarantee you’ll find a glowing write-up of this somewhere. And that person is not wrong for enjoying it — subjectivity it what makes these blogs fun — it’s just far from Carr’s best work.
I have not actually read this one. The bad reputation did put me off. Glad it wasn’t a complete waste at least 😁
H.M. is on fine comedic form, but mystery-wise I’d say you’re safe missing out here. Save it for a very rainy day 🌧️
I think I have half a dozen by Carr for that purpose 😁 in some cases I have had the book in question for about 25 years, so probably should give up the ghost!
Never forget: others hating something is no guarantee you’ll hate it…maybe this is the lost masterpiece you’ve been waiting for…!
I’m still traumatised by reading POSTERN OF FATE and it’s been years … 😆
Oh, it’s nowhere near the, er, standard of Postern. Carr has yet to plumb those depths in my experience of him to date.
He never got that bad / sad, even with HUNGY GOBLIN.
Good to know 🙂
I haven’t read this either. As others have said, its weak reputation has probably put me off. Still, I like to think I’m generally open-minded and I’m certainly going to give it a go at some stage.
This raises an interesting question for me: at what point am I committed to reading everythingby an author, regardless of reputation? I did with Christie — her criminous stuff, I mean, not the Westmacotts — and intend to with Crofts and Carr…but what’s the threshold?
Is it after I’ve read 10 books by an author, say? Or is there genuinely a point where I’d read 19 of an author’s 20 books but leave one alone completely because it’s apparently too bad to waste time on? Will I, for instance, track down and read JJ Connington’s Common Sense is All You Need, which I don’t currently own and Nick Fuller assures me is terrible?
It’s not just about availability — I managed to track down Crofts’ oeuvre before these recent reprints, and have all but one of Carr’s…obviously you can’t read books you can’t find (take a bow, Henry Wade) but clearly there’s some quality that makes me willing to persevere with some authors anyway. But what is it?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, Colin. See what you’ve started?!?!?!??
If I generally like an writer then I’m happy to try to read all their stuff at some point even if some of it is said to be poor. Again, just because others have issues with a book it doesn’t necessarily follow that I will. It not only depends on what we’re each looking for but I’m increasingly of the opinion that mood plays a role too. I guess my only rule in these matters is that I don’t set rules for myself in these matters.
What’s the missing Carr? I’m curious to know now.
Yeah, I’ve been mulling this today, and I honestly don’t know how I decide. I’ve enjoyed the three Henry Wade books I’ve read, but if he became completely available in affordable paperback tomorrow…I don’t think I’d rush out and buy them. Yet Patricia McGerr I definitely would, ditto Craig Rice and Cornell Woolrich. Weird, innit? This is something I’m going to ponder for a while, if only because can’t seem to make sense of my own reasoning.
And it turns out I’m mistaken: I don’t own two Carrs — To Wake the Dead and Deadly Hall. I have TWTD in ebook, but that doesn’t really count when I have everything else in paper. Gotta catch ’em all 🙂
Great point you make. With a TBR pile that resembles an avalanche, I have decided that I will not be a completist with any author including Carr, where I will stop with Fell at The Sleeping Sphinx and Merrivale with Graveyard to Let. There are better books by other authors for my limited time than to read the Carr novels that come after those two.
With your GAD blog and the many others I follow, I valuably use those posts to curate the best of both prolific authors as well as those with more limited output and leave the rest.
Looking at authors with 10+ novels, I’ve already got everything by Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Norman Berrow.
Authors I’d like to complete include Carr/Dickson, Craig Rice, R. Austin Freeman (I’m concentrating on Thorndyke right now, but have no doubt I’ll include his other works), Woolrich (his novels, at least — the short stories will take some doing…), Patricia McGerr.
Authors I like but am happy to simply find as I find: Philip MacDonald, James Ronald, John Rhode (too prolific…!), Walter S. Masterman, Erle Stanley Gardner (I doubt I’ll read every Perry Mason), Henry Wade.
Where’s the line? WHERE’S THE LINE?!?
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