#157: The Tuesday Night Bloggers — A Background of History in The Red Widow Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

tnbs-history

“The story of the Widow’s Room…begins in the month of August, and in the city of Paris, and in the year 1792.  It begins with the Terror, but it has not ended yet.”

Upon reflection, it’s fairly astounding that John Dickson Carr published novels for 20 years before finally writing his first ‘true’ historical tale with The Bride of Newgate in 1950.  Throughout so much of his early work there is a miasma of the past pushing through, and a revelling in the detail of such times that threatens to overload the present story as Carr seems far more interested in dumping as much detail as possible from, say, the French Revolution upon you so that the Weight of History can be added to the press of his peculiarly heady tales of mystery and imagination.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers’ topic for November is ‘History and Mystery’ and, before going Full Historical upon you, I want to look at the use of history as a backdrop to inform the present story, and there’s nowhere better to start than the early works of Carr.  I’ve picked The Red Widow Murders based on a couple of things, but mainly on account of a stray comment made by Puzzle Doctor and the fact that the newly-established and Carr-themed Green Capsule Blog had a run at this one recently and I was keen to look it over myself for a second time in light of these events.

The Red Widow Murders is the third of Carr’s novels under his Carter Dickson byline to feature Sir Henry Merrivale, commonly known as H.M. (to everyone else) or The Old Man (to himself), and it uses a bloody history in a manner not unlike H.M.’s first appearance The Plague Court Murders (1934) in that there is a location with an undesirable past which has an entire chapter given over to it to appropriately fill in the pertinent details.  It’s true that in both cases these chapters can largely be skipped (Carr doesn’t quite have the confident grip on backstory that he would later develop, and these forays into the past are, if I’m honest, a slog to get through and work far too hard to add a Sinister Atmosphere), but Carr has at least learned from Plague Court by also adding a sprinkling of history to lighten the load throughout the narrative.

It all revolves around the Widow’s Room, found in a house built by the Mantling family in 1751 — conveniently far back enough to both be beyond living memory and so subject to interpretation of the ‘house archives’, while also intersecting with another slice of bloody history to overlay significance on the events that follow:

“For forty-odd years there was no trouble whatsoever with that room … Then in 1793, his son Charles returned from France with a French wife.  She was followed by a wagon-load of fancy furniture.  Bed-hangings, carved gilt stuff, cabinets, mirrors, enough to smother you.  It was her room.  But he died there, the first of them.  They found him in the morning with his face black.  I think that was in 1803.”

Carr is deliberately placing these events out of reach.  There is a horror of history and the massacres of French Revolution that form the backdrop which enable him to add significance to the arrival of these French Things and the dawning of the problems in that venomous room.  I love that final line above — “I think that was in 1803” — and how the absolute conviction of the events preceding it suddenly fade into vague obscurity when it comes to the finer and more pertinent details.  This puzzle requires a certain element of the unknown, the intangible, to imbue the novel with a sense of the horrific and the ungraspable.  If you’re told “This is exactly what happened, and he died on August 5th 1804 at 7:04 pm” it suddenly clarifies the picture and gives you a firmer belief that, because what came before is so well documented and understood, the problem itself must have a similar outcome.

It is this blurring through the lens of history that adds to the malice of the impossible death that follows.  Now, of course, the past of all the characters involved in this kind of fiction has a bearing on the events that unfold — put simply, people are always murdered because of things that happened in their past — but the extra distance here adds that atmosphere of terror.  As a comparison, take the backstory of Charles Grimaud from The Hollow Man, published the same year as The Red Widow Murders: undoubtedly those events (no spoilers, don’t worry) have as significant an effect on the plot of that book, but they’re given a much gaudier hue, almost as a sort of horror subplot, and remain firmly focussed front-and-centre as the cause of what unfolds.

red-widow-murders-2The significance of the extra distance here is not just to allow a sort of ab initio sense of violence and death to permeate the creation of that room (though, in truth, it’s harmless for “forty-odd years”) but also for the precise cause to remain both in sight and also out of view.  If you’ve read this book you’ll know the level of misdirection Carr is employing here (and — hey — it could be high or it could be low, I don’t consider that observation to spoil anything) and the fact that the weight of real historical death lies at the back of all this is as effective a way to grasp your readers’ attention as anything else yet tried.  The moment where real history osculates Carr’s fictional characters is deliberately blurred, as I’ve already said, and the bleeding through of the first into the second — guillotines, the aristocracy, the street of Paris running slick with blood — added to the absence of a reliable witness to supply fixed testimony in either case commends the use of such a conceit.

It’s also worth reinforcing how nerdy about his history Carr was even at this early stage of his career.  A footnote in the chapter giving the background of the Mantling family and their links to that horrible time reinforces how historically correct Carr’s surmise is, the “account agrees with the records of the time in almost every particular”.  It may simply be pedantry on his part, but equally the fact that he goes to such detail makes his representation of these events more trustworthy: he’s not claiming anything ridiculous, but an additional step such as this — and the fact that he even cites a book for readers to check the details in (which, for all we know, might not even exist…) — adds weight to his own fictional appropriation and therefore in turn to the events that unfold herein.

It’s enough to make you wonder why people have such a difficult time writing decent historical mysteries these days…I mean, Carr virtually supplied the blueprint right here!  But, well, that’s a lament for another time…

~

I submit the cover of The Red Widow Murders for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Playing Cards.

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18 thoughts on “#157: The Tuesday Night Bloggers — A Background of History in The Red Widow Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

  1. Do you think The Burning Court could count as another example of Carr using history as a backdrop, which pushes into the present tense of the story? It was the story which came to mind when I was reading this post.

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    • Full disclosure — I’ve not read The Burning Court. Had the impossibilities spoiled for me even before I’d read a word of Carr, and am hoping to forget or at least blur them with time. I mean, I’ve also not found a copy to buy at a sensible price, too, but the ‘spioiled and hoping to forget some of it’ thing would hold even if I did own it. So I’m afraid I can’t help you on this one. Anyone else…?

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      • You have not had a lot of luck with people spoiling books for you! Was it the same person who spoilt Curtain? And you can get a copy from amazon atm for £2.38, but I appreciate your point of wanting to forget the spoiler first.

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        • Haha, no, thankfully — two such spoiler episodes would be friendship-ending!

          And if I allowed myself to buy secondhand books online, my absence of off switch would see me bankrupted in about three hours…gotta regulate this obsession somehow 🙂

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        • Did you have EVERYTHING spoiled for you, JJ, or just one thing? Because TBC contains multiple surprises! And it’s definitely a book that should be reprinted – classic Carr, if not for surprise #1 then for surprise #2.

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        • I have no idea how much was spoiled, but the “someone walking through a door that’s not been opened for aaaaages” was and…something else, I think, too. Wooo! This ‘give it some time’ approach seems to be working! 🙂

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        • There are three core mysteries to The Burning Court. Were all three spoiled for you? I’m guessing that at the very least, the “controversy” was revealed to you. I personally don’t view that as a spoiler. You can still enjoy the core two mysteries even if you know how it all ends.

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        • I know about the boarded-up door impossibility. I also know that Jean-Paul Torok’s The Riddle of Monte Verita (which I have read) was written with the intention of having the same final line as TBC…but then it turns out the French edition didn’t have the same final line as the English-language one…frankly, I’m all in a spin as to what I do and don’t know!

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    • The Burning Court definitely counts, although The Red Widow Murders is much heavier on history. History certainly plays a role in the later, but I don’t see it as being presented as central to the mysteries. It does lend itself to the atmosphere nicely.
      In The Red Widow Murders, Carr dives full in. Every aspect of the plot is heavily weighted by the history of the murder room. Having read it before The Burning Court, I was a bit disappointed that the later didn’t have an equivalent to the “French Revolution chapter.”

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  2. The strength of this one is the murder from the past – indeed even the present murder works well enough too. It’s just that Carr finds the need to overcomplicate matters with a completely unnecessary and unbelievable… thing… that harks back to an earlier era of moustache twirling villains. If he’d reined himself in, then this would be a classic.

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    • Yeah — as you prediected, I liked this less second time around. It’s very good, and I love some of the little touches (the ‘voice’ thing is superbly explained, I think…)but the final solution is…fine, but not really adequately prepared for. Just a stray line somewhere earlier would have helped…more than the indication used to solve it, anyway.

      Incidentaly, I saw the exact same emthod in another story that hugely over-clewed it and so gave the whole game away. Somewhere between these two is a happy medium! And, yeesh, the heavy-handed ‘historical’ chapter is a phase I’m thoroughly glad Carr ddn’t inger in for too long…!

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  3. I’ve said elsewhere that I love this book because I read it when I was about 12, and at that point in my life it was the most exciting book ever written. 😉 It had as much action and adventure as any of the other books I was reading at the time, but it also had a clever and deliberate mystery. That being said, yes, my older self sees flaws. I think one of the interesting things about this novel is the contrast between the very scientific method of murder — I trust it’s un-spoiler-y to say that the murderer has to have a good deal of either medical or chemical knowledge — and the great lashings of “France under the Terror” historical atmosphere that dominate most of the background. I think this is where JDC began to be really effective at manipulating the tensions between creepy, quasi-supernatural background and cold-blooded murder traps/plots. And as always with what I think is his best work, the supernatural background is all so much kerfuffle and the cold-blooded murderer is behind it all.

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    • It’s doubtless a deliberate step onwards from Plague Court with the addtional sprinkling of historical asides throughout, but I for one am delighted that he mastered the use of adjectives as he did to summon up mood far more effectively just a few short years later (Green Capsule (1939), for one, which doesn’t need to resort to ‘wooo, the past is eeeevil!’ schemes). And, yeah, my younger self was more swept away with this than my current (or, technically, more-recently-younger) self, but, well, it was one of the ones that got me started down Carr Street, so it’ll retain an aura of fondness for a while yet.

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  4. Excellent post. I enjoy the angle that you took with this, rather than doing a straight forward review.

    I gather that you weren’t as enamored with the historical chapter as I was. Perhaps for me it isn’t so much the content of the chapter, but how it’s worked into the story. I was fully wrapped up in the atmosphere and impossibility of the crime, and then Carr suddenly yanked me back several centuries into a completely different narrative. He then returned me to the present, just in time for some of the most interesting twists. In that sense, the chapter was almost dream-like. The placement of the chapter in the book does a good job of breaking things up. It prevents the post-crime investigation from becoming plodding, and reinforces the perception of the role that the history of the room and its contents plays.

    I’m really looking forward to reading The Plague Court Murders, although I haven’t been able to track down a reasonable copy yet. The basic plot sounds compelling enough, but I’m even more intrigued to learn that a full chapter will be devoted to the history of the crime scene.

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    • I suppose I was just remembering how much bearing it had on the story overall and was impatient to get on with it — the two books I read prior to this were a touch disappointing, and I was really hoping I’d like this as much as I had first time around and it was slowly dawning on me that I wasn’t going to.

      The atmosphere of thre French Revolution is amazing, and he develops here the beginnings of that effortless sense of unease, that carefully uncareful selection of words that stir the back of your neck and start you edging closer the to the front of your chair…but, second time around, it just kind of bored me a bit (!). The Plague Court ‘historical’ chapter has the added hurdle of being written in an interminably false and dense Olde Worlde Voice, and I’m at least grateful he didn’t repeat that herein. Goddammit, I’m so glad he didn’t repeat that conceit at all 🙂

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  5. Here I am, JJ, going through your old posts and lamenting that I didn’t read them as you published them here. Mea culpa.

    Just to add another early Carrian piece of history–Hag’s Nook has the journal, of course, which is very effective.

    On the subject of Red Widow (still one of my favorite Carrs–I guessed the murderer, albeit not the method [my thoughts on the latter were like Masters’], but the atmosphere is sublime)… I always thought the historical tale here could stand on its own as JDC’s first piece of sustained historical fiction; it’s a wildly exciting “short story” in its own right and shows how good JDC was as a writer, not just as a detective-story writer. Sometimes, I actually wish it were published on its own (as the Locked-Room Lecture is sometimes published on its own) just so that general readers have access to this great little tale…

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    • Some people see it asabit of a cheat, but I think this would be a great place to start reissuing Carr as it has so many brilliant moments and little ideas that show just how awesome the man was as a manipulator of puzzles. Alas, no-one seems interested, so we’ll get 3 Jack Reacher books a year and lots of “psychological suspense” and “woman in danger” novels instead. I’m trying my best, but no-one’s biting…

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