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CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE MAN AT THE WINDOW
The delightful entr’acte that opens this chapter takes place at Sir Henry Merrivale’s house, where Dr. Michael Tairlaine has a sleepover with His Corpulence! Many games are played and much whiskey is drunk, after which H.M. bestows upon Tairlaine the highest of compliments: “You’re all right. You’re the best Watson I’ve tumbled across.”
The next morning, the two men are joined by Sir George (who’s looking less and less like a suspect to me) at H.M.’s office. He fills them in on the unquiet night at Chez Brixham, where the suspects are beginning to turn on each other. After bidding good night, Carstairs broke back into the house and lay in wait in the Widow’s room, where he surprised his supposed buddy Ravelle sneaking in, and the pair got into a terrible fight. Lord Mantling, trying to deflect suspicion off himself due to his abilities as a ventriloquist, lobs the theory that Ravelle killed Bender while sitting next to him in the dining room with a curare-dipped dagger he was carrying with him, cutting the man in such a way as to cause a delayed reaction, and then using some undiscovered rigged gramophone to cause the dead man’s responses. The most suspicious thing against Ravelle, however, is that he was found carrying a half dozen sticks of plasticine, a substance that sounds to me a lot like Play-Dough!
But all of this seems moot when Masters arrives, claiming the case is solved. He posits that Guy set up his alibi with Isabel to cover having slipped outside to stand in front of one of the broken window panes leading into the murder room, and there he fired a blow dart at the victim. (The room is described in great detail here. It sure would have helped this visual learner to have a map included!) Masters feels the case is cinched by announcing he has matched fingerprints on the pane to Guy’s wine glass!
Honestly, I have no new theories here. I figure all of this is Dickson-esque gamesmanship. It’s fast-paced and fun, but I’m not buying any of it.
CHAPTER TWELVE: THE VANISHING DART
Let’s subtitle this the, “I Told You So!” chapter. Masters concocts a doozy of a plot for Guy: he unraveled the bottom hem of his silk robe, tied a fine silk cord to a wisp of a blow dart, fired at Bender, leaving a mark like a shaving nick on his neck (I forgot to mention that part), and then pulled the cord and removed the dart from the room through the broken window pane.
Of course, Masters’ theory leaves out a few factors: Bender’s missing notebook, the presence of the scroll atop Bender’s body. What’s more fun is the jovial smugness with which he relates his solution, and the image of H.M., Masters, Tairlaine, and Sir George, all pacing and gesticulating throughout the scene.
It’s especially fun when word arrives that Guy has been found in the Widow’s Room. Dead. Murdered. His head bashed in.
I told you so.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE SECRET DRAWER
The revelations are coming fast and furious and, true to form, they make little sense to me.
Guy is found in the same spot in the cursed room as Bender, only his body is turned in the opposite position. According to H.M., Guy was killed around 4am, which means that Carstairs, who says he snuck back into the house and the room in order to solve the mystery and impress Judith (and hopefully end up nabbing Dr. Arnold, his romantic rival, for the crime), ended up engaging in fisticuffs with Ravelle while Guy’s corpse lay under the bed.
There is much talk of thread. If I were to reveal all that is said, I’m sure some of you would roll your eyes and say, “Oh, my, the answer is obvious.” And finally, the reason Guy was in the room in the first place is revealed by H.M.: he was seeking the contents in the false bottom of the silver box – a lot of really snazzy jewels. This explains why Guy was so eager to get his hands on the box earlier. Are they a motive for murder or a red herring? I plump for the latter because I can’t think of anyone but Guy who would know about the jewels, except perhaps Ravelle, (was that why he sneaked into the room?), and I can’t imagine he would have had to kill Bender in order to lay his hands on them.
We are two-thirds of the way through the novel, and although my keen mind has figured the whole thing out, I’ve decided to keep you all in suspense a little while longer . . .J
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: MARTHE DUBUT’S CHAIR
One of Carr’s gifts as a mystery author is that he doesn’t do a total info dump at the end. Mysteries unfold during the first half, and insights are offered, bit by bit, during the second. Even better, these solved mini-mysteries manage inch us forward to the final reveal even as they obfuscate the truth.
Here, we learn the secret of the room. As much as my locked room friends might itch to uncover the murder method, I wanted to know why people would continue to want to spend a night in the murder room and why people only died when they were alone!
The jewels explained it! Greedy folks would look for them on their own, and an ingenious murder trap was set up in the chair in which the jewels were hidden. Evil Marthe Dubut had set it all up to kill her loathed son-in-law.
This chapter mixes in more delightful history concerning the aftermath of the French Revolution. The jewels are fabulous, but their history is horrifying: they were the bribes given to the executioner by the wealthy in order to assure that the Red Widow would do her job as quickly and painlessly as possible!
We also learn that Masters’ theory that Guy had killed Bender from outside the window had a grain of truth to it! Worried that the snoopy Bender might find the jewels, Guy eavesdropped through the window . . . and saw the murder committed! It was Guy who, for reasons of his own, made the responses that kept the listeners believing Bender was alive. Although Guy kept the truth to himself, the worried killer felt the need to silence him.
Ravelle turns out to be a cad, albeit a charming one. His purpose in coming to Chez Mantling was to find and extract the jewels without falling victim to the trap. Unfortunately for him, Guy Brixham had gotten to the booty ahead of Ravelle and hidden the jewels in the secret compartment of the silver box. Ravelle also has a chapter-ending bombshell to drop: he saw who lifted the poisoned darts from their box: it was Judith!
I would like to obnoxiously boast point out that at the end of my analysis of Chapter Seven, I wrote:
“. . . 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!”
Got that part right! But who’s the killer??????????
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: LAST CLEW GONE
Reading this chapter caused me to reflect about my own relationship with Golden Age mystery and my friendship with other bloggers. I count among my comrades a whole posse of locked room lovers, and I follow their thoughts with interest. But I can’t truthfully say that the “how” aspect of a mystery has ever inspired the same rapt attention on my part as the “who” and “why”. Over at JJ’s right now, a bunch of guys are rattling down a list of “impossible” poisonings and debating the concept of whether a person being poisoned in a locked room is even worthy of discussion, since poison could very well be administered before the person entered the room.
This group probably loves chapter fifteen because it seemingly plugs up the holes of Bender’s poisoning. All of the curare-dipped darts are accounted for. The nick on Bender’s neck is eliminated as the entry-point of a dart simply by Lord Mantling having witnessed Bender cut himself shaving. So how the heck – and when – was the curare administered?
It’s interesting, and I’ll admit the method still baffles me. I wonder if Bender’s manipulation of the cards so that he would be selected had to do with the jewels rather than with learning which member of the family is insane. I feel Bender has been manipulated by someone – either about the strain of madness or the jewels.
For me, however, the fascinations of this chapter are found in the continuing ping-pong game of suspicion that Carr plays so well. You know, I figure this is one of the things that drew me to read him as a kid, this zeroing in on one suspect after another. I think Carr thought about this a lot, even as he kept coming up with all those fiendish murder methods.
At any rate, we zero in on Judith and her two paramours, Dr. Arnold and Bob Carstairs. “I got a fancy to see how this triangle works,” H.M. says, and we finally see the three lovers in action. At first, Arnold appears in a terrible light, embracing his own coldness as Shavian or Wellsian thought. But when he delivers a simple declaration of love for Judith, of belief in her innocence, his character takes on a new light.
It does seem damning that Judith would have been seen stealing the darts. Her explanation – that she wanted to make sure they were clean before she stuck Carstairs with one as revenge for his little joke the other day – is pure Golden Age drivel and is therefore – in my eyes, at least – believable!
Which leaves us with Carstairs, that loveable boob. Except . . . unlike Arnold, he doesn’t automatically assume there was an innocent intent in Judith’s actions. He also did stick himself, and I wonder if there was another reason. He found the darts on vacation with Lord Mantling. If the brothers die and Judith inherits everything and marries Carstairs, he would be a rich man. He claims that he went into the room the night before to solve the mystery. The focus has been on his fight with Ravelle because the latter snuck into the room. But Carstairs was also there, and all that time Guy’s dead body was right under the bed!
Could sweet, loveable Carstairs have put him there?
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THE HYPODERMIC NEEDLE
In the gentlemanly confines of the Diogenes Club, Tairlaine poses questions to H.M. about the exact viewpoint Guy had at the window. What could he have seen in that limited range that would 1) explain HOW Bender died, and 2) reveal WHO killed him. It must involve the table and the chair in which Bender sat, a chair whose position was altered from facing the window to facing the table. (Wasn’t it because Bender was writing in his notebook? Could Bender have written something there that Guy saw which revealed the truth?)
It looks like Bender must have died with nobody actually in the room. But if he did bring his notebook inside, who took it? I’m back to Dr. Arnold, who was the first to enter the room after Bender’s death, but my head is starting to spin. H.M’s is not, however; he has that final moment of clarity all detectives have – that “mon dieu, but I have been an imbecile” moment so dear to mystery fans – when he finally knows the truth! And then the chapter ends with the news that Isabel, who had insisted on cleaning the Widow’s Room, had the old mattress dismantled, revealing the presence within its folds of an old hypodermic syringe that had belonged to Guy, and it contains a vile, yellow-brown fluid.
But if the bed was not visible to Guy, and his understanding of the “who” and “how” depends on something he could see, what significance can the syringe possibly have?
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: HANGING EVIDENCE?
The stuff in the syringe is curare, and Inspector Masters pronounces the “how” question solved! But of course H.M. bursts his bubble with the bigger query: if the syringe was on hand, why didn’t the killer use it on Guy instead of bashing him to death with a hammer, thus preserving the supernatural aura around the room?
The killer really did a number on Guy, even using the hammer to dislocate his jaw. What was with the seeming anger against this man? Are we back to the idea of a madman (or – woman?) Speaking of which, Arnold had sent for noted psychiatrist William Pelham, who also happens to be an acquaintance of Sir Henry’s. They sit down and talk, and Pelham assures H.M. that Lord Mantling is as sane as they come. The conversation is nicely textured to cast suspicion on the lord of the manor: if he is sane, he can hang for the crimes!!
Cue Aunt Isabel, who comes in to tell the gentlemen that she knows who the killer is: it’s her nephew Alan, Lord Mantling! He killed the animals, Mr. Bender, and finally his own brother. Isabel relates how she awoke feeling restless around 4am, left her room, and beheld her nephew, quite mad, leaving his own room and making his way down the hall with the filled hypodermic syringe in his hand. Isabel checked Guy’s room and found it empty, making it imperative that she follow Alan downstairs. Instead, though, she went into Alan’s room, switched on the light and found an open drawer containing a bloody knife that had obviously been used to kill the dog, as well as what appears to have been Bender’s notebook. Terrified, Isabel left the room and cowered as she saw Alan returning upstairs, smiling and muttering, “That’s done for him, right enough.”
Masters goes upstairs and returns with the items from Alan’s drawer exactly as Isabel had described them. I don’t know about you, but at this point I became dead certain that Isabel was either a. the family nut job, or b. a woman as evil as Marthe Dubut, determined as she was to get her brother falsely arrested for murder! She certainly soundswacky as she tells her story!!! And as Lord Mantling is taken to headquarters by Masters, I had to ask myself: if Isabel is the family lunatic, why would Dr. Arnold insist she was sane – unless he was using her as a tool in his own murderous schemes? That leaves someone who was on the scene all the time to help the partly absent Dr. Arnold put his murderous plan in motion. And with Guy dead, Alan arrested for his murder, and Aunt Isabel put away, Judith would have the whole Brixham fortune to spend . . . on her husband!
Of course, this could also apply to Bob Carstairs. Yikes! Which is it?
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: BLOOD IN A WASHBOWL
“With the formal detaining and informal arrest of Alan Brixham, Lord Mantling, for the murder of his brother, the case that came to be known as the Red Widow Murders entered its last and most terrible phase.”
Don’t you just love these penultimate chapters, with all the false endings and “gotcha” moments? Does anybody believe that Lord Mantling is the killer? He has a perfect alibi, so that’s suspicious, but who gets arrested forty pages from the ending and ends up being the killer? But if not Mantling, who set him up? Isabel? Dr. Arnold? Shorter, the butler??? (I’ve read two mysteries where the butler indeed done it, so we can’t rule Shorter out!) And is it possible that Mantling is being set up to look insane and that the double flip twist at the end is that H.M. must prove his sanity before he can prove Mantling guilty???
H.M. is certain that Isabel is not lying, as certain as he seems to be that Lord Mantling will eventually go free! She knew Guy was killed with the hammer, and yet she placed Mantling with the hypodermic. Why do that if she was lying? H.M. hints that an arrest is imminent, the arrest of a killer who “has done one of the finest bits of actin’ ever seen on any stage. Ingenious!” That sounds more and more like the amiable Carstairs!!!
The team picks up Sir George on the way to the denouement. He provides H.M. with a mysterious telegram that cinches . . . something! And it all has to do with . . . something called “the Red Dragon.” H.M. refuses to clarify anything for Masters because the great detective, in a grand meta moment, is aware that he is about to reveal all in true GAD fashion.
Judith welcomes them excitedly with the news that her brother has been released for lack of evidence. (Oops! There he goes, back on the suspect list!) H.M. then interrupts their dinner, gathers Carstairs, Ravelle and Judith, and takes them to the Widow’s Room to tell them how Bender was poisoned. He reminds them that Bender was very conscientious about his health, that Bender only ate soup for dinner, and that the washbowl he stood over while shaving was filled with blood despite him only having nicked himself shaving.
These are three details that I did not notice! And they all point to the startling conclusion that on the day of his murder Bender had . . . dental surgery!!!!!!!
What the . . . huh?
I have a feeling that by the end of the next chapter, the murderer’s name will be revealed. So before I read it, I will suggest that Dr. Arnold is the killer, that he used his friendship with Bender to poison him, possibly through some “pain killer” he convinced the man to give himself in the gums, thereby establishing an alibi. He had to kill Bender because the man became aware of his plot to eliminate all of Judith’s relations in order to enjoy the Brixham wealth.
CHAPTER NINETEEN: HANDCUFFS
Whoo hoo!!! Nailed it!!! I was right! I was right!
I . . . was . . . right!!!!
CHAPTER TWENTY: H.M. SITS AND THINKS
I’m so freaking proud of myself you won’t be able to stand it! Arnold was the first to get to the body, so only he could take the notebook and the pocket flask that we were supposed to know Bender carried, filled with poisoned brandy to ease his suffering gums. (I called that!) Arnold needed to make sure Alan was deemed sane when he was framed for murder or else his fortune would be tied up indefinitely, and Judith would not inherit. (I called that, too!)
I didn’t figure out the whole dental thing, but come on, who could have? I didn’t figure out how Arnold got a hold of the curare. It was quite simple: he offered to test the darts Mantling had brought back from safari and returned saying they were clean. Well, yes . . . NOW they were clean! But Arnold had siphoned the poison off and used it on Bender.
I could go on for another thousand words, trying to distill the complex solution of this mystery into one page. I will not do that. Most of you who have read this far have already read the book anyway! But I will bring up a few salient points.
- The motive for Bender’s death was interesting in that Arnold had no beef with Bender. He merely needed to have a death in order to establish the working curse of the Widow’s room and lay the foundation for Guy’s murder. (This reminds me of the infamous motive from a 1930’s Christie novel!!)
- I loved how Carr made “the madman in the family” plot point essential to the murder rather than a red herring. Guy’s insanity was both the inspiration of Arnold’s plan and its undoing. It was Guy’s attempt at self-preservation that caused him to let Bender die of poison in order to give Guy power over Arnold. Arnold was not prepared when hearrived home with Judith to learn that Bender had “spoken” for an hour after his death, and he reacted accordingly – perhaps convincing some gullible readers that he was innocent! In other words, the impossible nature of this crime is the result of more than one person’s actions. (I believe, if you check this record, that I called that a long time ago!)
- I don’t think Carr played particularly fair with us in terms of leading us to the point where we could figure out the access to poison. But I fully admit I will never be an observant enough reader to pick up every little clue needed for an utterly-complex-beyond-belief howdunit like this one – putting together the bloody basin, the flask, Arnold’s testing the darts, and Bender’s attitude that evening and coming up with the fact that he had just had dental surgery! And then tying that into why Guy was pummeled in the head with a hammer. (It’s pretty gruesome: Arnold hit Guy too hard and fused his jaw, making it impossible to inject the poison into his gums.)
So there you have it! I hope you enjoyed following my read-along. I have to say that writing about a book this way is far more difficult than I dreamed it would be. It chops up the reading experience so much that it’s harder to maintain your sense of continuity in the novel, and this makes picking up and remembering clues a much bigger challenge. I will do this again someday – but not for a while, I think. And next time I will pick a less knotty plotter than Mr. John Dickson Carr.