My Late Wives

MyLateWivesRoger 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.

Spoilers

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.

End Spoilers

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18 thoughts on “My Late Wives”

  1. My enjoyment of this title was spoiled by reading it the first time in an edition (Berkley X1467) that pretty much gave away half the puzzle on the cover. I haven’t re-read it in a number of years, but I remember finding it very … disconnected. There’s a lot of dissonance between the characterization and the characters’ actions.

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    1. I know exactly what you’re talking about with all of your points. That book cover had me suspicious already, and then add in the evidence at the crime scene and I was positive I knew that half of the puzzle.

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  2. It’s funny! I’m the same way with Christie. The titles whose solutions I sussed out from the start – Dumb Witness, They Do It With Mirrors, a mere few others – all sank in my estimation after that happened. On the one hand, in the titles I’ve mentioned, I think the revelatory clue is clumsily presented and not worthy of Christie’s usual subtlety. On the other, I think that, like most mystery readers, I ENJOY being fooled! That slap across the face that I felt at the end of She Died a Lady or The Crooked Hinge (or Christie’s After the Funeral) is one of the most enjoyable aspects to reading mysteries. I loved He Who Whispers in spite of knowing the killer because that was a pure guess (and because the last line of that novel threw me completely without having anything to do with the mystery!)

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    1. I think you captured it perfectly. As much as I think I want to figure out a puzzle, it’s actually that moment of revelation that I savor the most. I would be horrified if I had figured out the solution to The White Priory Murders, and it definitely would have sunk my opinion of the book.

      Despite all that, I still wrack my brain trying to figure out the solution with each book I read.

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      1. As you should! It’s all part of the game — a game we would prefer to lose!

        I have a battered first edition of WPM sitting on my shelf that I picked up for a few bucks almost a year ago. I’m in a quandary! Everyone tells me two things: 1) the ending is one of Carr’s best; and 2) the middle is booooooorrrriinnnngggg! It’s hard to summon up the excitement to read this one! (I also found an old pb copy of The Emperor’s Snuffbox, which I’ve never read, and Green Capsule, which I read as a teenager and have completely forgotten. Both are among the best, I know. I’m like you, Ben: I don’t want to blow my entire wad on great reads all at once, but mix up the good, the bad and the “maybe not his best, but anyone else should be so lucky to write this” titles.

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      2. Wow, those are three excellent books that you need to read and I’m looking forward to your thoughts. Out of my own greedy interest in seeing your reviews, I suggest you pick up WPM immediately (treating it as a medium read) and follow up soon after with ESB (as a classic read).

        Save TPotGC for further down the road. I hold it to be Carr’s best work. Plus, there is little change of it being spoiled by an errant comment, whereas the other two are a bit more vulnerable – similar to how one might accidentally throw out a casual remark about the end of The Burning Court.

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  3. Interesting that you make comparisons between this novel and “She Died a Lady”, because to me they’re also linked somehow. Both were somewhat disappointing to me, and I never remember the solutions or anything else about them. That’s obviously quite handy when I return to re-read them 😉 but it also indicates that they aren’t all that memorable. (Except for the killer in “Lady”, of course. That’s impossible to get out of your head.)

    I’ve seen a lot of praise for SDaL lately, primarily here in the blogosphere, but I’ve never bought into it. To me it has too much silliness that lets it down. “My Late Wives” is unmemorable more because there really isn’t that much in the novel that points out the murderer. He kinda just is the last person available for the position.

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    1. We must be the only people to find SDaL to be over-rated. It’s perfectly enjoyable, but the comedy is bad, the plot is a little “normal”, and the solution to the impossible crime was a minor let down. The killer – that was good, and I’ll always remember it.

      It’s funny how popular opinion can sway your own though. If I were to put together a list of top Carr books, I think I’d be inclined to put SDaL higher than I would have independently without reading all of these blogs. Well, I’m still a long way off from producing such a list, so we’ll see.

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      1. I think I would belong to the same camp: I liked ‘She Died a Lady’, but I thought it was a good novel, with a very good choice of culprit, but not quite excellent. As a novel, I don’t think it outstrips ‘Nine – and Death Makes Ten’, and as a mystery it falls short of ‘Unicorn Murders’. I read ‘She Died a Lady’ just before ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, and I thought the discrepancy showed: the former was good, while the latter was great.

        PS Is there a spoiler in your penultimate paragraph, when you drew a parallel with ‘Below Suspicion’??

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      2. Shoot, I don’t think there is a spoiler… I purposely tried to word that sentence generally to imply that a comment similar to that was made, rather than that specific quote, although perhaps that doesn’t come through. I keep rereading the paragraph without understanding what the spoiler could be, other than perhaps my wording being interpreted as there being a single culprit, or even a culprit at all (as opposed to accidental death). Let me know if you see something else, and I can modify my post appropriately.

        Your comments about She Died a Lady are spot on. Unicorn Murders may not be quite as good of a book overall (although maybe it is. It is a bit too caper-ey for me in the beginning, but really tightens up at the castle.), but the puzzle and solution are miles beyond SDaL.

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      3. Ok, I’m presuming you mean that the culprit says something ridiculous, comparable to saying that ‘I’m the killer!’ Rather than that the culprit actually said those words?

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      4. I have a similar issue with He WHo Whispers, especially having recently reread it — I just don’t think it’s that brilliant any more, and the impossibility is clever but not without flaws that are never really addressed (which is weird for Carr, he’s the Crofts of looking at impossibilities in every-which-way).

        I should reread SDaL, too. Especially as I recently got another eidtion of it. But, maaaaan, what if I don’t like that as much as I remember, too? Maybe it’ll turn out this whole Carr-devotion thing is based on faulty memories and inexperience? Mind you, isn’t first love always? ;P

        I’ve not read My Late Wives, which is I think how this post passed me by. Turns out I don’t own it, either, so I may be while before I get a chance to enjoy your thoughts.

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      5. Hmm, I’m going to have to wait until I’ve read Death on the Nile before I get a chance to read your full updated thoughts on He Who Whispers. I recall the tower impossibility as being pretty brilliant. The whispering mystery – meh, but it’s the secondary crime anyways.

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      6. The tower impossibility is…well misdirected, but makes not a jot of sense in many other ways. But, yeah, my comments are now a matter of public record and will wait for you to read DotN. Genuinely no rush.

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      7. “It’s funny how popular opinion can sway your own though.”

        Interesting observation. The constant downplaying of Ngaio Marsh’s talents that I see most everywhere on the net these days has led to me not enjoying her books as much any more. Whether that is due to the fact that she is indeed not the writer that she has always been judged as, or simply that I go into her books with a negative mindset is perhaps a discussion that’s worth having elsewhere.

        However, concerning Carr, I wouldn’t put any of these two novels higher than just around mid-range, no matter what the whole world and his uncle thinks about them. There are so many other novels that I enjoy much more – including “Wire Cage” which was mentioned elsewhere on your blog.

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  4. I know what you mean, Christian. I think I was always aware that Marsh had saggy middle sections in her books, jammed with too many interviews. But I still gobbled up all her mysteries and didn’t complain. Recently, I started to re-read An Overture to Death. I got distracted and didn’t finish, but the style of her prose was absolutely delightful: funny, insightful, well-drawn characters and dialogue. Sometimes she got too precious (that insufferable Lamprey family), but her village mysteries and the theatre/art world stories were really well written. It’s just that, as I get older, I want more movement in my plots. So Christie, who certainly did not write prose as well as Marsh or many others, is always a favorite because her books MOVE. Carr’s do, too, but sometimes his writing style is, well, too thick. I also realize that, as a child, I read and enjoyed these authors pretty much in a vacuum. There was virtually no one else around to share my feelings with, no other fans to discuss these books. It has taken a while for me to find that forum, for which I’m so grateful that I’m actually feeling a little verklempt as I write this, but since opinions ARE now flying around me, it makes sense for me to be affected by them.

    Still, I will defend to my dying day my opinion that Gone Girl (and its ilk) and the “thrillers” of Dan Brown are waaaaay overrated!

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