Roger Bewlay has made his fortune by marrying women who have a habit of disappearing without a trace. His use of aliases has allowed his first two crimes to pass by unnoticed, but a slight slip up with his third wife has drawn the attention of the police. Under the close observation of the law, Bewlay goes on holiday with a fourth lover. She vanishes from a guarded house, and the next day, Bewlay is gone, never to be seen again.
That was 11 years ago. The police were never able to track down the killer, nor did they ever figure out what happened to any of the bodies. Now, a script for a play shows up at a theatre company in London. The author is unknown, but the play tells the tale of the infamous wife-killer’s life, both before and after the murders. The script reveals too much – facts that would only be known by the police…or the killer.
How My Late Wives hasn’t been made into a movie is beyond me. It almost seems to have been written for it. From its intriguing premise of a play manuscript exposing secrets of past murders, up to its tense action packed finale, the story feels destined for the screen. Published in 1946, this latter year Merrivale tale flouts many conventions of Carr’s typical impossible crime plotting, instead providing a story more at home in a Hollywood thriller.
The plot follows Dennis Foster and his potential romantic interest, Beryl West, on somewhat of an escapade. Beryl works at the theatre company that receives the mysterious script, and the pair soon gets swept up with Merrivale and Chief Inspector Masters on a hunt to get to the bottom of the cold case. After a brief opening in London, the story shifts to a desolate seaside resort where the killer may be hiding.
As far as mystery, the story primarily questions what happened to Bewlay and how the four women’s bodies could have disappeared without a trace. Neither question really fits the mold of a typical Carr puzzle. In this case, we know who the killer is from the start, although we don’t know what disguise he’s adopted. Perhaps this puts us in the territory of the author’s first mystery, It Walks By Night.
Carr typically leads with a strong question of how a crime could have been accomplished. In this case, we know nothing about the crimes – the women simply vanished. Instead, we have a question of why the victims were never found. Well… we’ve all got good imaginations for that. Carr plays up the “what could have happened to the bodies?” angle as if it stands in for the requisite impossible crime, but I just saw it as too open ended of a question.
Only in the case of the fourth wife do we have a real puzzle. A witness saw Bewlay with the body just after the crime occurred, but despite police being posted around the house, the villain somehow disposed of the victim without a trace.
Despite the lack of a traditional impossibility, Carr sucked me right into the story. The account of Bewlay’s first four crimes spans only a handful of pages, but it is riveting and set a nice tone and pace for the story to follow. From there, the book doesn’t take a conventional investigation direction, instead swerving and bumping through a sequence of light adventures and comical interludes. Murder does follow, although not of the impossible kind.
If you’re a fan of She Died a Lady, I think there might be a lot that you like here. It’s hard to describe, but there is a very similar feeling between the two books – cottage-style mysteries playing out in barren seaside villages.
Overall I enjoyed the book and was drawn into the premise. It was a quick read and fairly gripping, but it was dragged down by two elements – comedy and the strength of the puzzle.
This is a post-1940 Merrivale, so the humor is unnecessarily slapstick in nature. I haven’t read enough Carter Dickson books from the era to understand exactly when this trend emerged, but it seems to have been somewhere after Seeing is Believing from what I’ve observed. Previously, Merrivale books had been fairly dark, and the detective’s cantankerous ways provided a lighter touch. Seeing is Believing contains some great comedy in my opinion, but you can also see Merrivale being more heavily positioned as a comedic fool. My Late Wives hosts the Merrivale of She Died a Lady, inevitably getting swept up in some sort of physical ruckus. The physical humor to me is just tiresome and unnecessary. Give me the awkward comedy of manners from The Case of the Constant Suicides, or baying Lord Rayle of The Bowstring Murders any day.
The strength of the mystery is weak as well – at least in my opinion. As much as Carr is known for his puzzles, I’ve always found him to be even stronger at hiding the killer. Only in a few cases have I had my eyes set on the true villain, and even then I was dealing with intuition alone. In My Late Wives, I zeroed in on the killer immediately, and the subtle clues that the reader is supposed to smack their head at after finishing the book stood out blatantly.
The question of what happened to the bodies…was kind of lackluster. Plenty of things can happen to a body, and in this case I was fairly confident I guessed it as soon as relevant clues were provided. You’re mileage may vary – my post-book blog skimming suggests that many people find this to be one of Carr’s tightest puzzles with a well hidden killer.
One interesting point of trivial that I noted while reading was a reference to Captain Cut Throat. One of the actors in the theatre is involved in a play with that name and it is mentioned twice during the book. Carr wouldn’t publish a book under this title for another nine years, in 1955.
If you’ve read this far, you may have gotten the impression that I disliked My Late Wives. I didn’t – I actually appreciate it in a number of ways. For one, I love the idea of the book – the serial wife murderer and the play script that reveals too much. The characters are well developed and the pace never sags. The ending in particular is thrilling and one of Carr’s most tense from an action point of view. It would be well at home in modern Hollywood (take that for what you will).
And yet that same ending didn’t completely draw me in. For one, it is the second Carr book I’ve read (besides Below Suspicion) that features the killer actually saying something as ridiculous as “It is me! I am the killer!”
As for now, I think I’m sinking this towards the bottom of my Carr reads, just above The Lost Gallows. Not because it is a bad book – I really enjoyed it – but because it is up against such strong competition. It’s probably also that I figured out all of the key mysteries fairly early on and the subsequent cluing only strengthened my confidence that I was right. At that point, the veil is lifted, the mystery fades, and the story just becomes…a story.
One disappointment for me was that we didn’t find out more about the actual play. This was the angle that really sucked me into the story and kept my interest as the book progressed. The script supposedly contained several key giveaways that it was written by the killer, but we only receive a single example (and it is a weak one, since, in fact, it shouldn’t have been known by the killer).
Later in the book, we learn that several of the pages had actually been swapped out, and that the original pages were even more revealing. Well… let us read the actual pages! That’s what I was hoping for, and part of what I think drew me in to the book in the first place. The thought that at some point, we might be treated to a chapter (a la The Red Widow Murders or The Plague Court Murders) where we actually read an excerpt of the script and learn some horrifying secret.