If you’ve read my reviews up to now, you know that I haven’t shied away from the supposedly weaker Carr titles. The Problem of the Wire Cage – loved it. Death Watch – I wish every Carr book was that good. Below Suspicion – I have no clue why people dislike it. Seeing is Believing – ridiculous ending but otherwise a strong title. Panic in Box C – mmm, it meandered here and there with Carr’s love for trivia, but overall it was decent. And then of course, The Hungry Goblin – not a book to enthusiastically recommend, but an enjoyable Carr historical.
Naturally, my enjoyment of these supposedly weaker titles has me second guessing myself. Am I an unabashed JDC fanboy, so blinded by the enjoyment of a few good reads that I’m willing to choke down any mediocre swill the author felt fit to put to page? Of course not – at least that’s what I tell myself.
Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve finally met my match. As much as I wanted to love her, there isn’t much to appreciate about the Mocking Widow. The comedy is bad, the characters are Carr’s shallowest, the plot feels disjointed, the mystery is meh, and the whole read feels like a phoned in facade.
It’s unfortunate because it sounds good on paper – John Dickson Carr does a small village poison pen mystery! The town of Stoke Druid seems idyllic enough on the surface, but paranoia runs throughout. Someone has been sending vicious letters to the inhabitants, threatening to spill secrets both true and fictitious. The notes are signed The Mocking Widow – a reference to the most prominent stone of a towering rock formation near the village. The Widow has taken her toll on the villagers, and not just through the spread of gossip and blackmail. A young woman appears to have committed suicide due to the nasty accusations flung at her. Fortunately, there is a visitor in town – Sir Henry Merrivale – called in by an acquaintance to solve the case.
Bleh. Well, maybe it sounds ok on the surface. The trouble is that Carr doesn’t make the story come to life. It jolts along even from the start, coming across as “hey guys, I’m doing a poison pen mystery!” The subject of poison pen letters is thrust out plainly and abruptly, rather than letting the scenario unfold naturally. We rarely encounter a character receiving, consuming, or even reacting to the letters. Rather, we’re simply told that the town is being blanketed with them and the occupants are too scandalized to say a word.
It doesn’t help that the characters are paper thin. The men are defined solely by their occupation, while the woman are recognizable merely by the men they are/aren’t romantically interested in.
The weakness might be that Carr attempts to let the story unfold in a dispersed village narrative and his writing style just doesn’t fit well. The typical Carr story, as you may have noticed, is experienced from the perspective of a single character. The mild gentry swept along in the excitement of the murder investigation, watching the detectives work their magic and marveling at the mystery. In extremely rare cases, the story might jump to follow another character, but these exceptions are extraordinary enough that they’re usually worth commenting on.
Few would claims that Carr writes deeply compelling characters – in fact, his few triumphs in that dimension (He Who Whispers, She Died a Lady, Till Death Do Us Part) are rarely reviewed without emphasis on the memorable cast. His standard lead character is slightly generic and thin, but over the course of a novel you find the soul and through it experience the depths of others.
In Night at the Mocking Widow, the narrative is constantly switching perspectives, following one character after another. With such brief encounters, the village inhabitants never have a chance to catch hold. You have the the colonel, the vicar, the woman interested in the vicar, the woman that the vicar is interested in, the 14 year old… In some cases, we get a personality trait beyond the occupation. The butcher is always angry. The shoemaker is an atheist. We never see much more than that. The result is that the poison pen plot lacks any real impact on the villager’s lives.
The mystery stews along at a mild simmer with HM grunting at seemingly innocent comments and remarking that he’s terribly worried. Things start to look promising about midway through the novel. The Widow leaves a threatening letter for one of the characters, promising “I shall call on you in your bedroom at a little before midnight on Sunday. It will not matter, of course, if you are guarded.” This provides the launching point for an interesting meta discussion on locked room mysteries – how would you prevent one if you knew that it was coming? This is the one bright spot for the book, with the characters, including HM, debating a strategy for catching the villain in the act. Despite their precautions and guards at every conceivable entrance, The Widow makes it in and out of the room – unseen by all but the targeted occupant.
This had all of the potential to play out as one of Carr’s better locked room mysteries. Again though, the distributed nature of the narrative causes the mind boggling impossibility to be swept aside. We experience the locked room from HM’s point of view, but then the book jumps away to follow other characters concerned with other plot lines, resulting in the impossibility getting watered down. The rest of the novel focuses either on the core poison pen mystery, or follows Merrivale through a series of slapstick antics.
And antics there are a-plenty. We get HM chasing a runaway suitcase through town, handing out cigars to children, stomping on a hat, and a particularly appalling scene in which he dresses up as a native American chief for a town festival. With 20 pages left in the book, when I should typically be sweatily flipping through an epic denouncement, I’m stuck reading about Merrivale engaged in a mud ball fight with a bishop.
The solution, when it comes, is rushed into twelve pages. All the better that it is short, because it features some of Carr’s thinest evidence. We get no forehead slapping moments, no multi-layered intricacies woven in throughout the plot. The “clues” that Merrivale uses to identify the culprit are mostly of the “it seemed kind of odd when you made this comment” variety. The solution to the locked room mystery is just plain silly.
And yet, days later, there is something to that locked room solution. If it had been embedded with care into a well written short story, it could verge on being excellent. I’m skeptical that it could really work, but there is a nice air-tightness to how the trick was performed. Unfortunately, Night at the Mocking Widow didn’t provide the habitat for that particular puzzle to really shine.
Perhaps this was an experiment in writing that just didn’t play out. Carr followed with The Devil in Velvet and The Nine Wrong Answers, both highly lauded books. He still obviously had the skill to craft a riveting tale, and quite a few more were yet to come.