Monday, 15 September 2014

Poison Pen: Night at the Mocking Widow by John Dickson Carr

-- using the pseudonym Carter Dickson

published 1950






[Set in 1938]

As Joan lay there, the door to the passage was in the wall facing her, but well to her right. The shrilling of the doorbell made her start, but she sat upright only when she heard the soft voice of Stella Lacey moving nearer along the hall… Stella’s charm was reflected in male faces, her ash-blonde hair swinging at her shoulders as she turned her head…

She was wearing a blue ‘creation’ with one of those black hats with the half veil popular in that year. Her gray eyes shone through the veil as she turned to Colonel Bailey.



observations: I am a huge fan of John Dickson Carr (who also wrote as Carter Dickson  - I file all as Carr for simplicity) and the long list of his locked room mysteries has given me enormous pleasure over many years. In a fairly random way, I seem not to be picking his very best works to feature on the blog – I liked The Reader is Warned, but had a problem with a racist strand in it (others disagreed with me on this: there has been some really interesting discussions below the piece and on a Golden Age detection board.) I ordered Mocking Widow after Martin Edwards wrote about it on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name? website – I liked the idea of the village setting and the poison pen letters. And I did enjoy both those aspects: the book is great fun. Although written in 1950 it is set firmly in 1938, and (although politics, war preparations and Hitler are mentioned) perhaps he was looking back with nostalgia at the very Golden Age he is associated with. There are some very funny bits – and it turns out that Sir Henry Merrivale invented the wheeled suitcase a long time ago. However the locked room secret was a bit of a non-starter – not one of his best, no huge gasp of surprise when the solution is revealed, and the motivation of the culprit (as Martin also pointed out) was a bit vague.

In a slapstick scene near the end, HM dresses up as what we would call a Native American for a church bazaar, and gets involved in a mudfight involving most of the village and a Bishop. The ‘Red Indian’ references would be unacceptable today, but somehow they weren’t as much of a blocker as the problems with The Reader is Warned.

This book inspired me to read a couple more poison pen mysteries including Christie's classic Moving Finger – look out for more entries, which will of course be carefully constructed from cutout letters from newspapers, and a list of books and tropes.

The outfit above (from Dovima is Devine) is, exactly, from 1938, and seemed to fit the bill, exactly.

27 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, what an interesting topic!! And as far as those 'impossible' mysteries go, you can't do better than Carr. Speaking of 'poison pen' letters as a theme, have you ever read Nicolas Freeling's Double Barrel? That's a major theme in the novel and your post made me think of it. Can't wait to see which novels you choose to discuss. And of course, how could you not include The Moving Finger...

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    1. Oh well done Margot! I had completely forgotten that one, but it all came flooding back to me. Doesn't Van Der Valk's wife get a very sexy one? It will make a nice change from the village mysteries...thank you!

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  2. Moira, I'm going to end this year with at least one book (and my first) by John Dickson Carr and probably review it too. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

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    1. And I will look forward to you review Prashant. I think you will like them, and they are mercifully short & very easy reading.

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    2. If you can, Prashant, pick one originally published before 1950!

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    3. Thanks, Sergio. I'll probably have to go vintage hunting for that one! I thought of your liking for Dickson Carr's fiction when I was reading Moira's review.

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  3. I'll have to try one from this author, and can't remember if I hoovered one up last year or not. I'll check.

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    1. Does it take a long time to check in the Criminal Library Stacks, or are you well-organized now? Sergio has a full list of Dickson Carrs on his website, which is very useful.

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    2. Yes and no. I have to refer to a hand-written acquisition list which is in date order. I perhaps should have done it on my pc, but couldn't be bothered. The books haven't been sorted into any semblance of order either, so no help there.

      I checked this year's list and can't see anything from Carr on it.

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    3. Why does none of that surprise me?

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  4. I've never quite got to grips with this writer but I do have a few books on my shelves. Which, in your opinion, is his best?

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    1. I like Crooked Hinge, also He Who Whispers & The Judas Window. Sergio, on the Tipping my Fedora website, has both a full list of his works and a suggested top 10 - I highly recommend a look there. I'm on a tablet where it is not easy to do links, but it is easy to find, and you should go and look at his expert views too!

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  5. I love Carr's books but the last three of the Merrvale books are quite poor unfortunately - but in the 20 or so mysteries he published as 'Carter Dickson' from 1934 to 1949 I think the Old Man (meaning HM but why not, JDC too) was pretty much unbeatable!

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    1. Thanks Sergio - you will see above that I am recommending you as the expert.

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    2. Thanks for that Moira - expert? Well, I'd hate to give up my amateur status and forego my place in the Olympics, but devoted fan, certainly!

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    3. The gentleman amateur experts are ALWAYS the best in GA detective stories Sergio....

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  6. And for the important observation here: I love the dress, hat and shoes in the photo. Wish we had 1940s and 1950s wardrobes, as existed in the movies of those years.

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    1. Absolutely. We'd all look good in that outfit, wouldn't we?

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    2. Speak for yourself - not too sure I could carry it off...

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    3. Don't rule it out without trying it, Col. You never know....

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  7. Hmmm. I could have pulled it off in my 20s, maybe 30s. But strange things happen to us at middle-age, over which we have no control, and our wardrobes change out of necessity, not choice.

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  8. Nice post, Moira. Now for The Moving Finger...

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  9. Can anyone recommend a book by JD Carr without any "isms" in it? Is The Hollow Man OK? The Judas Window? The Case of the Nine Suicides?

    I really want to read a few of his books, but trying to avoid this element.

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    1. I'll have to think, and hope someone else can come up with the ideal one for you....

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  10. I have not read this author, ever, either. Ok, maybe a long time ago, but if I don't remember it doesn't count. I have two, and I will check to see if they make Sergio's list of good ones. I would rather start with a good one, or it might put me off the author completely. Well, that hardly ever happens. I usually try at least two before I give up.

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    1. Sergio's list would make a good starting-point Tracy. And the books are usually nice and short.

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