I’m surprised that I don’t read more about this book. It doesn’t show up on many Top Carr lists and I haven’t seen it reviewed on many of my favorite sites. It seems to occupy a strange limbo alongside The Ten Teacups, The Unicorn Murders, The Reader is Warned, and The Mad Hatter mystery – I find very little mention of these books, and yet they seem to be held in fairly high regard.
My verdict? This could have easily been Carr’s masterpiece. Could have… The atmosphere is gripping – possibly his best. The puzzle is mind bending – possibly his best. The pace is riveting – again, possibly his best. Similar to The Judas Window, each successive chapter seems to include its own shattering revelations. There is even a long fascinating passage set in the time of the French Revolution, dripping with Carr’s usual historical details.
The story involves a room with a long history of death, nicknamed The Red Widow’s Chamber. Throughout the 19th century, four people have been found dead inside – the only common thread is that the victims were alone in the room. Boarded up for decades to prevent further tragedy, the Red Widow is put to a final test. With the house scheduled to be torn down, the owner intends to see if the legend is true. A dinner party, with Merrivale in attendance, transitions to a potentially deadly game. The participants draw cards to see who will spend two hours locked alone in the room. Other members of the party, situated down the hall, monitor the only door in. They call out every 15 minutes to receive confirmation that the occupant is alive. At the end of the two hours, they open the door, only to find a corpse, seemingly poisoned. Most baffling, the victim has been dead for over an hour.
Obvious questions present themselves:
- How was the victim murdered?
- How could the victim have been dead for an hour if he was still responding to each call?
- How were the 19th century murders commited and how are they connected?
I felt that the mystery was Carr at his finest. Not only to have such a strong locked room scenario, but to have it woven in with a series of historical murders. Carr devotes an entire chapter to a flashback taking place during the French Revolution to reveal the history of the The Red Widow’s Chamber. The passage is gripping and stands out as one of Carr’s best.
So, why isn’t this the best? Why does this story evade the ranks of The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Judas Window, and He Who Whispers? Well, it could have easily joined their ranks. To explain it fully will require spoilers. No, I won’t be revealing who did it, or how it was done, but I will be discussing aspects of the plot that could ruin the experience for someone who hasn’t read the story.
I struggled for a long time on how to review this story. Carr presents one of his most intriguing puzzles, but the solution was disappointing to me. Given how strong the first 90% of the book is, I feel that even stating that the resolution is disappointing is a spoiler. Recalling how drawn I was into the story, I can’t imagine how it would have affected my enjoyment of the puzzle if I had known that it would end in a dud.
I know that statement alone is controversial from what I’ve read on various blogs and forums. The main complaint that I’ve seen about the book is that the entire premise behind the killer’s plot is ludicrous. So many things have to work out perfectly that the killer couldn’t have purposely premeditated the crime and expected it to succeed. Me – I personally don’t take issue with the improbability. I’m fine with having some unlikely series of events transpire, and I don’t see this as being that different than other books by Carr, such as The Ten Teacups.
Instead, my issue is that the trick to the puzzle is so boring. Carr’s big twist seems to be “you didn’t think method X could have been used, but it was, and here is how.” That just wasn’t satisfying. With all of the potential for hidden traps or a clever way to gain access to the room, the solution just didn’t cut it. I can find issue with my own argument though. You could just as easily apply my logic to The Mystery of the Yellow Room and argue that a reader should be disappointed, whereas I find that ending clever.
In the end, it wasn’t all disappointment. Carr offers up some great twists. The realization midway through the book of how the calls were answered is simply horrifying and my mind was reeling with what the witness could have seen. One part that I wish had received more focus in the end was looping back to the 19th century story line. Yes, once you understand how the deaths would have occurred, you can come to your own conclusions, but it would have been much more satisfying to have Merrivale describe what must have happened.