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.