It seemed a good idea at the time, but in the cold light of day, calling this event “GADzooks!” seems a shuddering case of The Cutes! The Puzzle Doctor calls his a “chapter to chapter”, and JJ will appear with his own “Spoiler Warning” in this format in July! True to form, PD remains spoiler-free, yet for my first read-along, I make no such promises. Thus, I urge you to follow along only if you have already read Carter Dickson’s The Red Widow Murders (1935), the third Sir Henry Merrivale mystery. The plan is to follow along with me as I look like an idiotplay armchair detective, stopping at the end of each chapter to comment. Since Carr’s tendency to divide his Golden Age novels into twenty chapters happens to clash with my verbosity, I have decided to divide this adventure into two parts.
Ready? Let’s go!
CHAPTER ONE: INVITATION IN THE FOG
Well, it looks like JJ has landed me into a sort of sequel! Blast you, man! What makes you think I’m well read? Two of the three men we meet here appeared in The Bowstring Murders, the only mystery published under the name Carr Dickson. (Here’s Ben’s review.)
The first, Michael Tairlaine, is a distinguished doctor of fifty who was evidently lured into the adventure at Bowstring Castle by his crony, Sir George Anstruther, who once again has a mystery to dangle – and he does so . . . er. mysteriously. He instructs Tairlaine to get all dolled up the evening, take the Piccadilly bus to a certain stop, and then walk about “looking for a queer thing.” As a result, Tairlaine finds himself invited into the home of the third man, Alan Brixham (a.k.a., Lord Mantling), for dinner and, more importantly, to witness a sinister event involving the host and his many houseguests: they will draw cards whereupon one poor soul will enter a certain room in the house, one which historically leads to the death of anyone who remains inside for more than two hours!
It’s a charming opener, to be sure, but I’m here to analyze, not evaluate! So here are a few ideas that occur to me:
- I imagine that Michael Tairlaine must be considered an innocent bystander from start to finish. There’s the matter of his having fulfilled a similar role in a previous novel. Carr tends to give his Watsons a couple of adventures before changing them out, and these guys are not murderers. He is an excellent observer, and he witnesses things that seem suspicious without always casting suspicion upon them.
- Sir George Anstruther was also in The Bowstring Murders, but I’m not going to cross him off my suspect list quite that quickly. For one thing, he has a relationship with Lord Mantling and is taking part in the game. For another, he mentions casually that he is a neighbor of Mantling’s. He says this to provide cover for Dr. Tairlaine, but it could have a more ominous significance. (See #3) And finally, it would be a cool surprise ending if a repeated character were to turn out to be the killer.
- Tairlaine describes the neighborhood on his walk from the bus to Lord Mantling’s as dark and in disarray.
“They were tearing down many of the stolid town-houses that had bulwarked Mayfair for two hundred years. A ragged side-wall or two still remained standing, still patched with the wallpaper of vanished rooms; a heap of stones, a gaping vastness of cellars in the open spaces, a street gutted to ruin.”
I would venture to say that if the mystery centers on a “killer room”, there is a good chance that the topography of the neighborhood might be significant to the “how.” And since Sir George lives in that neighborhood, he might have knowledge that would aid him in killing somebody at a neighbor’s home.
- The one other significant thing is that when Dr. Tairlaine enters Lord Mantling’s home, he is witness to a shower of playing cards in the hallway. Who was responsible for tampering with the decks, and what was their purpose? This might have something to do with the lottery that Lord Mantling proposes: the cards will decide who enters the room.
CHAPTER TWO: HEADSMAN’S HOUSE
This chapter is crammed with exposition, including more history about the house and how Lord Mantling’s grandfather was the last of four people since the building was erected to spend a couple of fatal hours in the room, with the result that Mantling’s father had the place shut up. The original name for the room was the Red Widow Room – “red widow” being a nickname for the guillotine – but is now called simply the Widow’s Room.
His Lordship also explains the reason for this evening’s bizarre game of opening up the room and choosing by a draw of the cards which of their party will spend the night in the room. According to his father’s will, Mantling was not allowed to open the room until the house was scheduled to be torn down. Interestingly, this novel takes place when the neighborhood of Mayfair is going through a huge transformation from a clutch of fashionable mansions to a more modern location full of flats and shops. Mantling has sold his house for a fortune and has decided to celebrate.
We heard a bunch of names in Chapter One, and now His Lordship offers more information about what will amount to our suspect list. The only other characters that we actually meet in this chapter are Aunt Isabel, a grand dame who has been forbidden by her nephew from participating in the lottery, and Mr. Bender, an innocuous-seeming artist whom Isabel has taken under her wing. We know from the back cover that Mr. Bender will be the first victim, so it seems significant when Sir George mentions in passing that he knows Mr. Bender from some past encounter and that “Sir George’s tone became cheerful, but his expression told of something else . . . There was a strange and ugly silence; Mantling, it seemed, was the only one who did not notice.” (Methinks things are looking ever more suspicious for Sir George!!!)
CHAPTER THREE: AT THE DARK DOOR
This chapter marks the entrance of Sir Henry Merrivale, the great detective, as an invited guest to the proceedings. In response to his first pointed question, we learn that in order for a person to die in the Widow’s Room, they must be alone!
Another of the guests is M. Martin Ravelle, whose great-uncle was the third to die in the room. Sir Henry has correctly deduced that young Ravelle has asked to buy some of the furniture in The Widow’s Room. (This is one of those off the wall deductions that cast suspicion on a person but usually have an innocent explanation. My guess is that Ravelle is playing detective himself. Even though an examination of every stick of furniture had yielded no poison traps, Ravellemight have ideas of his own. So, it seems, does Sir Henry.)
The sleuth’s next question- Why wasn’t Lord Mantling’s sister Judith allowed to take part in the lottery? – reveals a delightfully creepy plot twist: it seems that a member of Mantling’s family is insane! Two household pets have been killed in gruesome fashion in the past week. That makes the fact that Judith’s fiancé, Dr. Eugene Arnold, is a brain specialist highly significant!! Aunt Isabel fears that the psychopath will use the lottery as an opportunity to have some fiendish fun!!!
So far, I’m loving this book!
We then meet Lord Mantling’s brother Guy, the family historian, and Martin Ravelle who have been in the drawing room together all this time. The author heaps suspicion upon Guy from the start: he is hollow-cheeked and frail; he wears dark glasses due to a sensitivity to light; he evidently practices the dark arts; and he knew about the dead dog before anyone else. (Sacrifices to Satan???)
Guy reveals more details about the people who died: the original owner (who was mad), his daughter (on her wedding day!), Ravelle’s great-uncle, and Guy and Alan’s father. (All this history is probably red herring material; it usually is in Carr.)
Then they open the room, and here’s where I usually trip up in locked room mysteries because I’m not good at conceptualizing how things fit into a murder trap. It’s odd that the room is located off a passage in the dining room. Tairlaine notices a hook in the dining room ceiling (where the parrot’s cage used to hang – is that why he had to die?). To everyone’s shock, the hallway has been swept clean which, according to the butler, is supposed to happen only once a year! There’s a small brown gouge in the door, and the lock has been oiled. (Sir George shows them a smear of oil on his cuff. Did he just receive it, or did he have something to do with this??? Another link implicating Sir George, or am I falling into Carr’s trap?)
CHAPTER FOUR: THE DEATH CARD
Nine people sit at dinner: Tairlaine, H.M., Sir George, Lord Mantling, brother Guy, Aunt Isabel, Ravelle, Ralph Bender, and one last introduced character: Robert Carstairs, Lord Mantling’s pal. He is a likable young sportsman with a dismal war record as an airman, who hangs around because, as he tells Tairlaine, he is secretly in love with Judith.
Incidentally, Judith and her young doctor are not at dinner, but seeing as this is a Carter Dickson novel, I would be insane not to include them on the list of suspects! H.M. and Tairlaine are our Holmes and Watson, and assuming one other person besides Bender will die – and because I refuse at this point to eliminate Sir George simply because he appeared in The Bowstring Murders– that makes seven suspects, a larger assortment than I’m used to finding in a Carr mystery.
In a nicely suspenseful scene, the cards are drawn. Out of the blue, Mantling allows Aunt Isabel to participate at the last minute. (She insists that she would have drawn a card at any rate.) It is revealed that when the men first entered the room, they were shocked to find that it had been thoroughly cleaned and furnished. And here’s a fact that I think might be important: Although no windows are broken, a faint drought can be felt in the room.
Aunt Isabel voices what most of them are thinking: if there had been a murder trap hidden in the room decades before, the fact that the room has been re-entered and cleaned offers the possibility that said murder trap has been re-set!! The significant thing here is H.M.’s response: having gone over the room closely, he would be ready to swear that no murder trap exists!!!
Just in case this becomes important, the cards (going around the table counter-clockwise) are drawn as follows:
- Mantling – nine of clubs
- Carstairs – three of hearts
- Guy – seven of spades
- Isabel – queen of clubs
- Sir George – ten of diamonds
- Ravelle – king of diamonds
- Bender – the ace of spades – the death card!
Bender is escorted into the room. Every fifteen minutes the others call to him through the door to ascertain his condition, and he responds – all the way up to the two-hour mark. Just after midnight, Judith and Dr. Arnold return from their date and are horrified to learn that Mantling has gone ahead with his experiment. Mantling assures them that Bender is fine, and yet – he does not emerge from the room. When H.M. and Dr. Arnold burst in, they find Bender on the floor, dead – according to Arnold – for at least an hour. (This is confirmed by H.M..)
If – and this is a huge if! – any hocus-pocus had to be perpetrated by someone who was absent from the dining room, the list of suspects has been reduced to three: Isabel, Guy, and, briefly, Ravelle. But the idea that the killer is someone who was not in the room does not conform with everything I believe about Carr! Clearly, I need more information!
CHAPTER FIVE: TOO MANY ALIBIS
Inspector Masters of Scotland Yard, H.M.’s partner in crime-solving, arrives to investigate. Two items have been found by the body: a crumpled playing card, the nine of spades, close by his right-hand side, and lying atop his shirt-front is “a long but very narrow strip of stiffish paper, rolled up so tightly that it would fit into a thimble.” Scrawled on the paper is a phrase in Latin which Sir George (who knows Latin!!!) has trouble deciphering for the group.
H.M. Adopts a mea culpa attitude over having been present at the murder scene that becomes hilarious as he professes his frustration over what has happened nearly before his eyes. “And even if I had a mind to stop it, how would you suggest I went about it? Rush out and collar a policeman, hey? ‘For God’s sake, constable, come quick! One of Lord Mantling’s guests is in horrible danger. He’s going to go into a room and sit down.’”
The impossibilities are now laid out clearly: the victim appears to have died at 11:15, and yet somebody in the room called out a response to the people in the dining room three times before the body was discovered at midnight. It appears that all but Guy and Isabel have clear alibis; none of them could have been the voice in the room (unless one of them is a ventriloquist!) because they were all under the watchful eye of H.M.(Seeing that this is Carr, I’m inclined to eliminate Guy and Isabel right off the bat! And while Carr could be pulling a fast one in us, my prediction is that one of these alibi-less suspects will be the next victim!)
The medical examiner confirms H. M.’s hypothesis that the poison that killed Mr. Bender was curare, which must be injected somehow into the body to be fatal; mere ingestion would be harmless. This lessens the possibility that Bender was poisoned before he entered the room.
Isabel and Dr. Arnold barge in to reveal that Bender, far from being a mere artist, was a brilliant medical student in Arnold’s employ who had been brought in to the household incognito to suss out which member of the family was nuts! Arnold – who turns out to be an insufferably pompous ass – suggests Bender was murdered because he had unmasked the loony!
We are now 25% through the book, and if I had to be pinned down as to who I think the killer is, I’d say either Sir George (for no good reason; I’m just ornery) or Dr. Arnold. The case against the latter is looking good for the following reasons:
A. He is a psychiatrist and knows about poisons
B. He has a perfect alibi! (He should be strung up on the dock for that alone.)
C. He was the first to attend the body!
D. It is suggested that Arnold was “probably as fond of money as Marlborough.” He could be marrying Judith for her money!
E. Bender was Arnold’s employee and could have something on his boss that could endanger Arnold’s plans!!!
And there’s another point: the mystery contains a romantic triangle in the form of Judith, Arnold and Carstairs. 1930s mysteries in literature, onstage, and film were chock-full of romantic triangles that provided romantic entanglements as background to the mystery. In the hands of a clever author, like Carr or Christie,, one of these three people usually ended up being the killer (in movies and plays it was usually the nicer suitor- I call this “The Cat and the Canary Effect.” It is also known as “The Ralph Morgan Syndrome” since Morgan (brother of Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz) tended to play meek, gentle men who were unmasked as vengeful psychopaths at the finale.)
CHAPTER SIX: THE BOX WITHOUT A NEEDLE
The bulk of this chapter consists of interviews with Dr. Arnold and Isabel wherein Carr does what he does so well: spreading the suspicion around.
I was charmed by Dr. Arnold’s alibi: he and Judith had dined and attended a performance of the play Ten-Minute Alibi. It’s a wonderful joke and it makes me suspect him all the more. However, most of the suspicion here is heaped upon Guy. Arnold doesn’t come right out and say he has tabbed Lord Mantling’s brother as the resident madman, but he does eliminate everyone else. (Means nothing!)
Isabel is a wreck sitting in the murder room. The table and chairs remind her of the set-up from when she was a little girl and her grandfather brought a distinguished group of men in for a meeting.She doesprovide Guy with an alibi, saying he was in her room from 10:30 to midnight. Isabel also confirms the presence in the house of curare as part of Lord Mantling’s collection of native arrow weapons.
There is some ruminating over whether a poison trap set 100 years earlier could still be potent. (H.M. thinks it could.) H.M. also reveals a box in the room that contains a poison trap, although it is not loaded, and he shows the others the signature of the box’s manufacturer, a direct relation to M. Ravelle! I think this is all red herring stuff, even when Guy appears at the end of the chapter and reveals his knowledge of the box’s existence.
Probably the most important thing in this chapter will turn out to be an off-comment Guy made to Isabel about putty. It probably means something important (something to do with the windows? With the slight breeze? With the fact that the neighborhood is being rebuilt?) I haven’t forgotten any of this; I’m just terrible at putting it together. I should have destroyed all chance of happiness by becoming a math teacher! They’re really good at this stuff!
My favorite cover so far . . . !
CHAPTER SEVEN: AGAIN THE ACE OF SPADES
If Judith were merely beautiful, I would place her right at the top of the suspect list. Carr loves his beautiful women, but he definitely sees their potential for evil! However, here’s the descriptor that makes me cross Judith right off my list: “Also she had a trick of wrinkling one eyebrow, looking very thoughtful, and then smiling as though she were remembering some excellent and not very reputable joke.” It’s a well-known fact that male jokesters make excellent murderers, but women with a sense of humor are heroines through and through! (Or they get away with their crimes. See Irene Adler.) Although I will add that the fact that Judith shares her brother Guy’s love of the dark arts is a tad suspicious.
Their joint interview adds a few interesting facts to the pile: Ravelle is actually a distant relation to the Mantling family. (Could he possess the taint of madness? It turns out that Guy had toyed with Bender, providing such bizarre answers to his undercover psychological questions that it would have been natural To conclude Guy was nuts.)
Next, Guy admits that the parchment found atop the body belongs to him but insists it’s an attempt to frame him. The Latin phrase is an imprecation to banish evil. (Note: Guy asks Sir George: “YOU don’t recognize it?” This implies the familiarity of the latter with this stuff. Another mark against Sir George!!)
One thing I love about Carr is that as we barrel along toward the BIG reveal, he offers solutions to the smaller problems along the way. The reason the nine of spades was found next to Bender’s body was that this was the actual card he drew. Bender was the person who fiddled with the deck of cards in the hallway at the beginning of the story. He took that deck’s ace of spades and palmed it so that he could be sure that he was the person who would enter the room. One mystery solved – but why would Bender want to be the designated victim?
I’m still leaning toward Dr. Arnold or Sir George, but I also believe we’re faced with a situation common in these cases: more than one person was up to some shenanigans here, (possibly Guy and/or Ravelle and/or the victim himself!) and that accounts for the impossible crime and the braceof alibis!
CHAPTER EIGHT: TALISMAN ON A DEAD MAN’S CHEST
After Masters makes a fool of himself proposing theories as to Bender’s position in the room and the presence of the card and scroll on his body (to which H.M. replies: “Oh, Esau, my son! You know, I’ve heard rummy reconstructions in the course of a misspent life, but I still had to wait for one that defined the law of gravity as well as the law of common sense.”), the great detective retreats to Lord Mantling’s study where we find Ravelle and Carstairs amusing themselves with a game of bagatelle!
This is one of those fun chapters where Carr hurls suspicion right and left. In summary:
- Lord Mantling: After a shocking discovery of his dummy in the study cabinet, we find out the guy is a ventriloquist!
- Isabel: Was seen rushing in and out of the study, hell bent in search of a collection of darts Carstairs and Mantling had brought home from their travels.
- Carstairs: (see Isabel above) – Had knowledge of the darts and told a charming story of having stuck himself with one, felt a mild reaction and lied to Judith that he was dying, causing her to manifest great attraction to him. (Could he be immune to the poison, having fed himself minute amounts? Does the damn poison even work that way???)
- Ravelle: Was hiding the fact that he is related to the Brixham family in order to buy certain items off them. Admits that some of the furniture in the Widow’s room was built by his family.
- Guy: Oh my lord! Everything is done to implicate Guy, from his physical descriptions to his clearly-up-to-somethingactions, like asking for the miniature that lies inside the Cagliostro-like box, which contains pictures of Charles Brixham, the first victim of the room, and his wife. If Guy isn’t dead himself in five chapters, I’ll eat my hat!
- Judith: She looks like the woman in the miniature!
The only suspects not treated with more suspicion are Dr. Arnold and Sir George. I find that highly suspicious, don’t you?
CHAPTER NINE: THE LEGEND
You know from the title that this is one of those chapters JJ is likely to skip! Reading it reminds me that this book was written in 1935, as the Grand Guignol melodrama of the Bencolin mysteries dripped off these pages too and got all over my new sofa!
Set against the background of the French revolution, we learn how Charles Brixham met his wife and went mad. Her name was Marie-Hortense Longueval, confirming that Martin Ravelle is a direct relation to the Brixhams (Motive: inheritance?) We also learn That Charles seems to have warped his brain watching daily the execution of the Royals at the guillotine! Imagine his horror when he discovers his bride is actually a member of the family that governs all executions, and that her vast wealth was built on the severed heads of the dead! Carr writes extremely well about the horror that preys upon Charles for having married into this family, watching them deal with the mundane details of being executioners.
The couple finally escape to England where their marriage – and Charles’ sanity – gradually disintegrate. Marie’s great-grandmother, upon her death, bequeaths the younger woman with the furniture that will fill the Red Widow Room. And if I’m reading this right, it seems to me that Marie set her husband up to die through whatever booby-trap old Martha sent from France!
CHAPTER TEN: BLOWPIPES AND VENTRILOQUISM
This is Carr’s genius: following up an atmospheric history lesson with some modern-day sass that gets to the nitty gritty of the case. Because while Guy argues that his tale proves the existence of an ancient booby-trap exported to England by nasty old Marthe, we’re all thinking about Alan’s hidden dummy and the collection of curare darts, right?
Cue Alan returning from – what, a nap? – to see where H.M.’s investigation lies at this point. Seemingly willing to incriminate himself, he pulls out the dummy (its name is Jimmy) and dexterously demonstrates his ability to throw his voice. Just as he’s beginning to realized his own contribution to putting a noose around his neck, Masters returns and helps move matters further along by revealing that Mantling’s collection of darts are all tipped with curare. The third strike against His Lordship occurs when the man realizes his key to the dart box, which should be on his person, is mysteriously in the desk drawer.
But it’s Ravelle who gets in the best – and most meta – comment of the first half of the book. When asked for a brief statement of his whereabouts, he replies, “On my oath, sir, I do not know one thing about it! No, I have an alibi, which is bad for me I know. But even though I have an alibi I still did not kill the poor Bender.”
But it’s Ravelle’s explanation of where he went after he left the dining room that seems to clinch matters for Masters. The Frenchman returned to his room to send some wires, and on the way he passed by Isabel’s boudoir. He peered in and saw the old lady sitting in a chair. (But I think he only saw her back!!) And he spotted no sign of Guy!
At that point, the party breaks up. H.M. invites Tairlaine to spend the night at his house, and Masters reveals that he is only a few details away from arresting Guy for the murder! And we are a good 4400 words into my read-along, so while I would like to predict that when I come back to this book, Guy will be the second victim, I leave you halfway through TheRed Widow Murders with a promise to return in a few days to read and analyze the second half.
And please . . . . . . . no spoilers below!