STEP BY (FOOT)STEP: Carter Dickson’s She Died a Lady

Maybe it’s because of the company I keep: JJ over at The Invisible Event, Tomcat over at Beneath the Stains of Time, and Ben at The Green Capsule all focus much of their energies on impossible crimes and the work of the Master of that sub-genre, John Dickson Carr. (Heck, The Green Capsule is entirely devoted to examining Carr’s work!) Maybe it’s that Ben has started an index of Carr reviews that span the blogosphere, and I was lucky enough to land a few of my modest analyses on there. (Check it out here!) Or maybe it’s that I just purchased nine Carter Dickson titles (Dickson being the alias Carr used when he wanted to write about that gargantuan sleuth, Sir Henry Merrivale.) I wrote earlier about my youthful bias toward Dr. Gideon Fell and how I intend to make up for it now. So far, I have read two Dickson titles: The Judas Window and The Ten Teacups. I don’t know why I never reviewed The Judas Window, but I will state here that I found it in every way superior to Teacups as a mystery and as a novel. Its premise is what you want every impossible crime to be: simultaneously straightforward and utterly mystifying. Teacups, to my mind, tries too hard, yet it fails to deliver enough bang for its buck. (Considering the weapon is a magnificent antique gun, we deserve more bang!)

At any rate, 2017 is shaping up to be the year when I really hone my focus on this alternate side of Carr’s prolific career. And since Rich Westwood over at Past Offenses has invited everyone to explore the year 1943, how lucky for me that one of the books in my new pile is the ‘43’s She Died a Lady. So, on a scale started by placing The Ten Teacups at the low end and The Judas Window at the top (this scale is fluid, I assure you), just where does She Died a Lady fit?

 

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It starts out just great! The novel begins, and I can’t help feeling like I’m firmly in . . . Agatha Christie territory. The narrator here is not one of those earnest, dull young men who Carr loved to place in the “point of view” position. Rather, we meet Luke Croxley, a semi-retired doctor in the village of Lyncombe on the North Devon coast. His son Tom having all but taken over his practice, Dr. Luke has little to do but ruminate on the many friends he has made in the town, particularly Rita and Alec Wainwright. With his first words, Dr. Luke warns us that he will be an imperfect narrator and, in doing so, we are endeared to him immediately:

“Rita Wainwright was an attractive woman, and only thirty-eight. Alec, her husband, must have been twenty years older. At that dangerous phase of Rita’s mental and emotional life, she met Barry Sullivan. As for me, I regret to say I was the very last person who noticed what was going on.”

Carr takes a few chapters to set up this emotional situation rather than dropping us immediately into an impossible crime scene as he did in The Ten Teacups. (He did the same thing in The Judas Window, but that scenario was so brilliantly rendered and massively superior to Teacups that it all worked out just fine.) Further, Carr sets up the romantic triangle in the midst of village life: Rita and Barry plunge headlong into their affair, and only her husband seems to be ignorant of this fact. Alec seems to have good reason for this, however: war has broken out with Germany, and the impending invasion by German forces has driven Alec to drink and to an obsession with the radio news reports.

In fact, the first chapters are beautifully grounded in giving us a picture of this seaside community at a perilous moment in world history. The rising fears of invasion, the increasing costs of petrol and food, the evening blackouts, the memory of Dr. Luke’s late wife coming to mind when he hears the song, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.” All of this provides a strong historical context to the proceedings. The other striking factor in these early scenes is Carr’s frank treatment of sexuality, something we will see come to full force three years later in his masterpiece He Who Whispers. Rita comes to see Dr. Luke, and they have this exchange:

  • “Dr. Luke, I’m terribly, horribly in love with Barry Sullivan. I’ve – I’ve slept with him.”
  • “That’s no news, my dear, from the look of you.”
  • “You mean you can tell?”
  • “In a way, but never mind that. Go on.”
  • “I suppose it shocks you.”
  • “It doesn’t exactly shock me, Rita, but it worries me like the very devil. How long has this been going on? What the lawyers call intimacy, I mean.”
  • “The – the last time was last night. Barry’s staying at our house. He came into my room.”

The pair are brazen in their carryings-on, as Tom indignantly informs his father. (“If it weren’t for this war situation, you’d hear nothing else.”) When Luke is invited by Alec to visit one evening, he finds his hostess canoodling in the summerhouse with her lover – with her husband just across the way in the main house. The atmosphere is thick with barely concealed hysteria, and it culminates in a shocking event where Rita and Barry appear to commit a double suicide by hurling themselves off the cliffs just behind the Wainright’s bungalow into the sea below. Only two pairs of footprints are found in the muddy ground, and a note is left in the kitchen that indicates suicide. And yet, when the bodies are recovered two days later, it is discovered that both of them have been shot to death.

As the Rita/Alec/Barry triangle culminates in death over the first four chapters, Carr weaves other things into the narrative: hints that Rita has been quarreling with other villagers, that she might have had another lover before Barry, that the local artist is hosting a visitor from London who has broken his toe –

Ah, yes! That visitor! It is none other than Sir Henry Merrivale himself, and he makes a grand entrance into this story, barreling along atop a motorized wheelchair, terrorizing villagers and their dogs until he careens straight into the local pub! HM is of course just the sort of person you want hanging around when an impossible situation or locked room murder occurs, and he sets to investigating the situation.

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What he finds is typical of Carr/Dickson: a small number of people embroiled in a situation that is rife with elements that cross over into the unlikely and border on the absurd. The husband is Suspect Number One – except that he couldn’t have done it, which for any respectable reader of Carr makes him even more suspicious. And there’s the lover’s widow, who turns up under circumstances that would feel right at home in an Edgar Wallace thriller or an episode of the old serial, The Perils of Pauline. There’s also the dead woman’s solicitor, with whom she had quarreled, an inebriated gardener Rita had fired, and one or two comely young men hanging around who might or might not have been involved with the victim, or else why are they hanging around?

Rita, who dies almost at once, comes across as a more vibrant character than any of the males she leaves in her wake, and at first I took that to be a flaw of Carr’s, one that I have found elsewhere. As often happens for me with this author, things can get a little draggy in the middle, and your enjoyment of this section depends on how much you appreciate the author’s farcical sense of humor. The thought of Merrivale cavorting around the downs in a Roman toga seems to alarm the characters much more than it fazed me. In addition, the behavior of our narrator is rather confounding, as his take on events is often so oblique that I wondered if his sense of “unreliability” might have more sinister overtones. Without getting spoiler-ish, I have to say that all of these quibbles sorted themselves out in a most satisfying way by the end. In fact, this is one of those rare novels that, by virtue of its structure, becomes meta-fictional as it discusses the role of the narrator in a mystery. This is one of the most fascinating elements of the book.

Dr. Luke also has some interesting takes on the fairer sex. On the one hand, for an old codger he is refreshingly modern in his take on sexuality, refusing to judge Rita harshly over her infidelities and even scolding another character who suggests they shouldn’t bother bringing her killer to justice since she got what she deserved. On the other hand, when urged by two female characters to lie at the inquest and save everyone a lot of emotional distress, Luke has this enlightening claptrap to say about women:

“Though it is dangerous to make generalities, this was far from being the first time in my life when I have observed the absolute incapacity of any woman for telling the truth when truth becomes unsuitable. There is no intent to do wrong in this. To the female sex, it simply does not matter. Truth is relative; truth is fluid, truth is something to be measured according to the emotional needs, like Adolf Hitler’s.”

I mention this for two reasons: it’s always fun to see gross generalizations made about genders, ethnicities and other groups in historical fiction. And secondly, it occurs to me that the italicized sentence embodies the entire philosophy of the current Trump administration.

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Anyway, in impossible crimes it often boils down to the final pages and whether the author was able to extricate us out of the craziness with suitable aplomb. And Dr. Luke redeems himself from any inherent sexism when, unlike so many Watsons, he proves to have several brains in his head, figures out the solution himself and risks his life to find the evidence. It’s an exciting climactic scene, and it is followed by a doozy of a summing up that does what a good summing up of a case should do: it explicates and confounds, makes all clear and surprises you at the same time. I love falling into traps when I read mysteries, and I fell slap dab into one here, leaving me agog when the final truth came out. And that’s all I’m going to say about that!

Now, let’s try and place She Died a Lady on the scale I indicated above. The Judas Window has the other two beat in terms of the opening set-up (the impossible situation is brilliant!) and the interpolation of humor into the narrative. (HM as a defense attorney is a riot!) But Lady easily wins out among the three in terms of the “who” aspect and all that this information entails for the characters. It’s expertly clued, to the point that one can feel mighty clever for figuring out the solution as I did – only to find that I had fallen into Carr’s trap and ignored all the real clues! The ending is narratively original and packs an emotional depth that rivals my favorite Carr title, He Who Whispers. The resonance with actual history is especially strong here, and Dr. Luke ascends to the throne as my favorite narrator in all of Carr. And so, in this early stage of a highly personal comparison, She Died a Lady inches out to the head of the pack.

Here is Tomcat’s take on the novel.

And here is the review at The Green Capsule.

 

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22 thoughts on “STEP BY (FOOT)STEP: Carter Dickson’s She Died a Lady

  1. I think it’s great, Brad, that you’re branching out to read Carr’s Carter Dickson work. I always gave him a lot of credit for being prolific and, most of the time, maintaining a very high standard. I’m glad you thought She Died a Lady is up there in terms of its quality.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed this one too. Plot and characterisation do work really well here together. One is not sacrificed for the other, which can happen in some books. Similar strong characterisation can also be found in The Emperor’s Snuffbox and also has a good plot to boot, so I think you’ll also like that one. Can’t remember if it is in your TBR pile or not – if it isn’t then it needs to be!

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  3. Thanks for the review. I think I should re-read this one, as my impression of it was that, like ‘Judas Window’, it belonged to the category of ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ – but I agree that it’s better than ‘Judas Window’ on the whole. I read ‘She Died a Lady’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ one after another, and thought the latter was definitely stronger. The culprit for ‘She Died a Lady’ (and also ‘Till Death Do Us Part’) was very well-hidden, though I felt the surprise was very much attributed to the number of times the person actually appeared… Then again, the trick used was undeniably clever.

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    1. If I had one criticism, it would be that we do not see the killer enough in SDaL. But the overall emotional effect of the reveal pretty much mitigates that little complaint.

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  4. I know that I should have a lot to say about this one, but I really don’t; it’s been a while since I read it, and I remember loving it in every regard, but part of me now questions how much of that is a) naivety and b) falling in line with everyone else loving it. *sigh* Looks like another one I’ll have to take a second look at…

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  5. Brad, I read some of your interesting review of “She Died A Lady” and not only do I feel compelled to read it but I also want to explore John Dickson Carr’s body of work. I have to put him on my “TBR” list.

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      1. Great! I love it reading a prolific writer –it means there is a great body of work to indulge and feast upon, rather than reading an author with a couple of books to his credit and your mouth waters for more . . . . only you wonder if he/she will write anything more or rather when the next book will come out

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  6. Great work Brad, glad you drew out the ‘unreliable narrator’ angle more, especially with how it actually relates to the denouement, it is extremely clever – I hadn’t thought enough about that. Man what a final few scenes! The pace and grip are just marvellous. And you are spot on about the clueing, Carr has traps in abundance here, particularly in how he describes the scenery/locations. That super clever combination of how he leads you astray in his slight over describing of something, when the real clue is in a perfect throw away comment.

    I also think Alec Wainwright is one of the most interesting characters. How he folds further and further into himself and into repetitive madness due to a growing obsession with the war gives a really nice edge. I also felt the same sadness you did when Rita was killed, I was really enjoying Carr’s handling of her, and wanted her to have more stage time!

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    1. SPOILERISH HERE: The traps are great! There’s something a little bit off about Dr. Luke, so when he insists that Alec couldn’t be the killer, you start to wonder if 1) Alec IS the killer in some sort of sleight of hand, or 2) Luke is lying about something. Then Alec starts to fade out of the picture and EVERYONE starts to insist that Luke is lying. Meanwhile, I’m being extremely clever and opting for the artist as the killer. So when Luke reveals that the artist WAS the killer, I am feeling pretty darn smug! And that’s because I paid no attention to all the REAL clues and got flabberdashed, gobsmacked, and whiffenpoofed! (And I LOVE being fooled!)

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      1. Reminds of this quote from Chesterton:

        “Now the essential of a good detective story is that it is simple. It is almost
        the definition a bad detective story that it is complicated. The ideal story
        does not depend on a mass of details that nobody could possibly know; it
        depends on one fact which anybody could easily guess–but nobody does.
        For the murder story has for its high and holy purpose the pious intention
        of making the reader feel a fool. It is thus an encouragement to Christian
        humility, and a most excellent leveler of the foolish and the wise. The
        reader thus religiously enlightened should leap from his chair with a yell,
        crying aloud that he is an accursed ass, for not having seen something so
        obvious and simple as the mystery.”

        Love that.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. “For the murder story has for its high and holy purpose the pious intention
    of making the reader feel a fool.”

    The whole quotation is brilliant, and the sentence I pulled is the way I like to feel at the end of a mystery. I jumped out of my chair at all the best Christies, at Queen’s Greek Coffin Mystery, at Brand’s Tour de Force. I LOVE feeling like an “accursed ass,” and I only wish I could give that feeling to others as a writer – then I might have become an author like them!

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    1. That’s the feeling I would love to give to others too! I would love to have the reader feel like a fool and say at the end of reading the mystery, “It’s all so simple!” The best way to give that feeling to other readers is to read from the best

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  8. The ending of this one really sticks with you – there is a haunting emotional quality similar to He Who Whispers. Pretty much any Carr book makes you want to flip back and read a few choice pages. This one makes you want to immediately reread the whole thing, as you realize that your entire experience has been through a lens. The most comparative Carr books in that sense are The Nine Wrong Answers and The Witch of the Low Tide – although both to a lesser extent.

    I’ll be interested to watch you progress through the Carter Dickson books. Like you, I prefer a good Fell. However, I will say, Carr seemed to give his better set ups to Merrivale. Say what you want about The Ten Teacups, but I’m sure that you’ll admit that the first few chapters had you fully sucked into the book. The Reader is Warned, The Red Widow Murders, The White Priory Murders, Seeing is Believing, and The Unicorn Murders are similar to a degree – they may not be Carr’s best work, but the puzzle set ups are astounding.

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  9. We’ll see how it strikes me, but I’ll bet you’re right, Ben. Besides, I have very few Carrs that I have not read, so Dickson will have to suffice. I’m saving The Emperor’s Snuffbox for a special occasion! 🙂

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