She Died a Lady (Carter Dickson)

  • By John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson
  • First published: US: Morrow, 1943; UK: Heinemann, 1943

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2000

One of the best of the Merrivales. The plot is simple (compared to earlier Carr works) but effective, and produces a shocking surprise at the end. It is a good period piece, with references to blackouts, wireless and oil. The way in which the bereaved husband goes to pieces at the news of his wife’s death, and the entry of H.M. (with Churchillian cigar) are both well handled. The comedy (the wheelchair and Nero—Roman emperors seem to be one of Carr’s interests, with Caligula appearing in Poison in Jest) are well done—the H.M. stories are principally farce, while the Fell stories are serious. The multiple solutions are also effective—H.M. seems genuinely pathetic at the end. The true solution is shocking because the characters are real (c.f. Nicholas Blake‘s Head of a Traveller, 1949). In short, the book is an intelligent romance novel with an impossible crime worked in.

Oh, and I’ve seen a signed copy of this.


Blurb (US)

Another intriguing murder mystery wherein H.M. rides again!

Carter Dickson is unquestionably the master hand among contemporary mystery novelists at constructing the impossible situation and the insoluble problem that invariably turns out to have a logical explanation.  There’s only one person in the world who can be trusted to unravel a Carter Dickson mystery—wheezing, grumbling, old Sir Henry Merrivale.

Once more an iron-clad puzzle becomes so much papier-mâché in the hands of H.M.—now a tempestuous invalid*

*:         It’s only a broken great toe, but it calls for a motor wheel chair—so wildly propelled it menaces the lives and property of an otherwise peaceful village.

When a vital beautiful woman of thirty-eight is married to a man much older than herself, anything is likely to happen.

Rita Wainwright fell head over heels in love.  And with a man considerably younger than herself…

Barry Sullivan, an American actor newly come to Devon, was, to all appearances, as desperate as Rita…

What possible way out did they have with Alec Wainwright so old and ill and devoted…

It seemed a tragic impasse.  Then one bleak night the unexpected happens—and that’s where H.M. rolls in…

Blurb (UK)

She died a lady and though it looks as if she meant to do so, deeper investigation proves the case to be anything but the simple one it at first appears.  In fact, so tangled and curious is the evidence that only the fortuitous presence of “H.M.” – more entertainingly brusque than ever – makes its solution possible.


Contemporary reviews

New Yorker (30th January 1943, 70w): Fresh and invigorating.

Chicago Sunday Tribune (Drexel Drake, 31st January 1943): Suicide Pact Found to Be Dual Murder

Alec Wainwright, 60 year old retired professor of Devon, England, was aware that his young wife, Rita, was carrying on clandestinely with the even younger Barry Sullivan, American actor, often a guest in the Wainwright bungalow perched high on a seaside cliff in Lyncombe.

Alec, still deeply in love with his wife, chose to meet that discomfiting situation by drinking himself into a state of perpetual quiescence until ultimately he should succeed in drinking himself to death.  But that philosophic course of dealing with a regrettable circumstance was spectacularly interrupted.

*

On a night when Dr. Luke Croxley was visiting with Alec, Rita and Barry walked out of the bungalow through the kitchen door and followed a path to the edge of the sheer cliff.  Their footprints were clearly visible.

Their bodies were fished from the surf two days later.  Lyncombe accepted it as a lovers’ suicide pact, even when it was learned that both had been shot thru the heart.  But Dr. Croxley did not accept it so, nor did old Sir Henry Merrivale, whose job it became to solve the amazingly airtight puzzle.  The solution is tedious and talkative, but Carter Dickson’s fans are assured that this author is still in form when it comes to building a brain-twisting puzzle for Sir Henry.

Sat R of Lit (20th February 1943, 40w): Grade A.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 11th September 1943): From its first line She Died a Lady grips.  Rita, says Mr. Dickson, was attractive and “only thirty-eight”.  That subtle way of promising trouble adds to its effect page by page until the author’s hardy annual detective has to be brought in, not for drama but for comic relief.  “H.M.” may live up to his reputation for intellect and eccentricity, but he cannot take the centre of this stage.  He is robust and highly coloured, but the ordinary persons mixed up in the murder are more than that: they are uncannily real.  The lovers are in love (not just objects of an author’s sentimentality), and the family doctor who tries hard to look upon their misbehaviour with the calm gaze of medical practice proves that “penny plain” characterisation can beguile far more, when well done, than all the “two-pence coloured” tricks which Mr. Dickson employs upon “H.M.”  The mystery and its solution are both masterly; anyone who can foresee the explanation should give up the reading of detective stories as a pastime beneath his powers.  But no matter how great the fascination of its puzzle, She Died a Lady deserves still higher praise for its dramatis personae.  The solicitor and his daughter, the publican and the jobbing gardener with newly inspired feelings about Nero, are admirable.