Juliet died a lady
I don’t know why, but I love the name of this novel. I’ve seen it placed high on top 10 Carr lists and was curious to see if it would live up to its reputation. Short answer – mmm, I don’t know. The puzzle is fascinating, yet the solution wasn’t quite fulfilling (more on that later). The story lacks the atmosphere and urgency of other works, but is still an enjoyable read. The reveal of the killer is uniquely done and I really liked how the novel closed out.
Published in 1943, this Merrivale tale takes place in 1940, as the threat of German air raids on England looms large. A woman schemes to leave her older husband and escape to America with a younger man. During a small gathering, the lovers slip out the back door and vanish – into thin air. Their footprints are found in a dirt path leading to Lovers Leap – the edge of a 70 foot cliff, with rocks and crashing waves below. Suicide is the original verdict, until the bodies are recovered from the sea. Both victims were shot at close range, and yet the murder weapon is found 1/2 a mile inland.
The puzzle if fairly interesting. The couple couldn’t have shot themselves – we know that because of the gun has a unique back-fire that would have left marks on the victim’s hands, and of course, how would the weapon have gotten so far from the cliff. This all suggests that the lovers had been killed elsewhere, but then how do you explain the footprints? The footprints clearly go out to the edge of the cliff and then vanish. The ground is soft enough that it would be easy to spot any trickery.
To a degree, you have a variation of the puzzle from The White Priory Murders – a story that has my favorite solution. In the case of She Died a Lady, I had an epiphany and thought I had worked out a pretty clever explanation. No such luck – Carr pointed out my exact hypothesis several pages later and immediately tears it apart.
Although lacking the tension of, say, The Red Widow Murders, there are some nice tense scenes in the later half of the book. Where the novel suffers is Carr’s morphing of Merrivale into a buffoon. Sure, Fell and Merrivale have always had amusing personality quirks, grunting and waddling through pages of crime. In this case, Merrivale’s antics approach slapstick, with him driving out of control in a motorized wheelchair dressed as Emperor Nero and leaving destruction in his wake. Fortunately, this is a fairly minor section of the story, but it did drag down my overall impression of the book.
To go any deeper, I have to delve into spoilers. No, I’m not going to explain how it was all done or who did it, but I will be making some statements that could potentially ruin aspects of the story if you haven’t read it yet. You are warned.
The solution to the disappearing footprints was somewhat unsatisfying. The actual trick that was used to achieve what is seen was clever. Even when the “device” was first mentioned, I knew it had to be involved, but I couldn’t think of how. The part that I don’t like is the factor that made the actual disappearance possible. How is the reader supposed to know that was possible? Carr builds up in your mind that what was done couldn’t have possibly been done, and then it turns out it really is possible.
I really liked the last chapter. The way that the story shifts perspectives is unique to the Carr books that I’ve read. Carr does a great job of keeping the killer hidden, and the narration of the conclusion does a good job of explaining it all.