Sunday, 25 September 2011

Penguin no. 816: She Died a Lady
by Carter Dickson

Though it is dangerous to make generalities, this was far from 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 emotional needs, like Adolf Hitler's.

At first it is assumed to be a suicide pact. Rita Wainwright and her young lover vanish one evening from a small gathering, leaving a crumpled farewell note in the kitchen, and a trail of footprints ending abruptly at the cliff's edge. But when their bodies are recovered a few days later, things no longer seem so simple. It becomes clear that the pair fell from the cliff after being shot with a weapon later recovered some distance from the coast. But why would someone murder a couple who seemed so intent on suicide anyway? And how is murder even feasible? There are no other footprints at the scene, and the cliff provides a natural barrier to escape. There are only two possibilities, and yet each seems impossible: if it was suicide, how was the gun removed from the scene of the crime; if it was murder, how did the murderer leave?

This was my first exposure to Carter Dickson or John Dickson Carr, and so I am unaware if this is a common theme in his books, but the mystery at the centre of this book is very firmly focused on the mechanisms of the crime. There is an answer to the conundrum that will transform the impossible into the possible, and once it is revealed, the identity of the murderer seems almost secondary. I suspect a convincing case could have been made against almost any character in the book, as the motive is only revealed in retrospect. I don't see this as a flaw, only an observation: it is the solution to the puzzle which is impressive; a different motive and a different suspect would have worked just as well. And the author plays very fair: the clues are not hidden, and the important elements are mentioned again and again.

Four people think they have an idea about the answer: two favour suicide as an explanation, and two are not so certain, leaning more towards murder, and so both solutions are explored. The most perceptive of the investigators is Sir Henry Merrivale, an old, bald, coarse and curmudgeonly figure, frequently described as wearing a malignant expression, and here confined to a motorised wheelchair on account of an injured toe. The key to his perceptiveness seems to be his doubt, his willingness to admit he doesn't know, or at least doesn't know yet. And his intuition that things that appear impossible are not necessarily so.

In this he is contrasted with the Superintendent and the local solicitor who are so certain that they do know, so convinced of the correctness of their conjectures, that they invert the conventional processes of inference and set about contorting the facts to fit their theory, or at least pressuring a witness to do it for them. And this I found perplexing: there seemed no limit to what they were willing to believe rather than to give up their theory. I found myself looking at the characters and longing for someone to behave rationally.

In this way the book seemed a little inconsistent, an uneven mix of inventiveness and incongruity. I found repeatedly that the author would engage my attention, but then fail to sustain it, by having the characters behave in ways that made little sense, or offering up Sir Henry Merrivale in his motorised wheelchair as a buffoon. And yet the final chapters of the book are compelling. From the moment at which the narrator sits down to think through the puzzle, the book is hard to fault. An interesting story that could have been much better.

Also by Carter Dickson:
Penguin no. 814: And So To Murder


  1. I think I prefer character-based mysteries to puzzle-based ones. The mystery can be weak for me as long as the motives are strong. I'm not sure I would like this.

  2. I too prefer character-based mysteries but they were much less common in those days - the early writers in the genre did not really bother about character apart from logging a few idiosyncrasies or habits in their main characters. I don't think I've read this one - I've read the penguin collection of his three "greatest" novels but those were written under his J D C name so probably not this one. Sounds quite intriguing from your (as ever) excellent review.

  3. Just stumbled upon this blog-absolutely brilliant! Have been collecting the cerise travel series, and trying to work through these at present. Currently immersed in "The Sea and the Jungle" by HM Tomlinson, a ripping yarn.

  4. You've got me intrigued, Karyn. I'll look out for it.

  5. Hi Guy,

    This was recommended to me by puzzledoctor as a good introduction to Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr, and he has a more enthusiastic review up on his site:

    And thanks for those encouraging words, Jim. I see that you already know about Duncan Smith and his cerise Penguin site. I've only read four so far, and Flying Dutchman is the one I've enjoyed most.

  6. Hi Anbolyn and Maxine,

    I do tend to really enjoy these early puzzle-based crime novels, particularly when they are set up well with a unique discoverable solution, such as with the Ellery Queen novels. But when some of the pieces don't fit satisfactorily, it can be very distracting, and you can find yourself dwelling on it for days afterwards.

    Just as you suggest Maxine, there is little character development here. They are mostly stereotyped (particularly the women as you can surmise from the passage I chose to quote), and there are the oddest passages involving HM which descend into farce.

  7. I laughed out loud when I read the quote. I almost hate to say it, but it is so true. :)

    Oh, if you want rationality, then Dickson Carr aka Carter Dickson is not the one to go to. His characters always behave oddly. It's one of Carr's 'shticks'.

    The stories are all about the mechanics of the crime. You definitely have to be in a mood for this sort of thing.

    I read all the Carrs and Dicksons I could get my hands on once upon a time. But I've since forgotten them.

    I don't know if I have the temperment anymore to re-read them.

    But it was good to read your review.

  8. I love reading your reviews! I hope you don't mind if I link your blog to mine.

  9. I found the characters in this book fully formed and compelling. When do people behave rationally when there is murder involved?
    I think some critics have mistaken Carter Dickson as trying to write great literature - (in fact - his historical references continue to interest me) - he wanted to write great stories with sparkling dialogue. And he jolly well did!
    I find Ellery Queen like a poundshop version of Albert Campion.



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