The Red Widow Murders (Carter Dickson)

  • By John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson
  • First published: US, Morrow, 1935; UK, Heinemann, 1935

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Masterly treatment of the stock situation of the man found poisoned in “a room that kills”, this one dating from the Revolution. H.M., at his most serious and intelligent, recognises the significance of the clue of the chicken soup, murdered animals, hypnotism and ventriloquism. The murder method is ingenious in its simplicity and utterly surprising, although clues, properly interpreted, abound (although the reader, like Chief Insp. Masters, may be led astray by mist and a Japanese dressing-gown). The identity of the murderer is a surprise; the motive, hinging on the lunacy law, unusual.

Blurb (US)

Here is Sir Henry Merrivale again, whom you’ve met before, in The Plague Court Murders, etc.

TIME: The present.  PLACE: In Lord Mantling’s ancestral mansion in Curzon Street, a room called the Red Widow’s Chamber.  In 1802, a man had died there; in 1823, a girl; in 1870 and 1876, two gentlemen had been mysteriously found dead.  Then the room had been sealed up.

Now, in 1934, eight men and a woman gathered round a table for a sinister experiment.  Beside H. M., there were, among others, Lord Mantling of the flaming hair and booming voice; Guy Brixham, his brother, sardonic and uneasy behind his dark glasses; Ravelle, the blond Frenchman, smiling and debonair.  But it was little, inoffensive Bender who drew the Ace of Spades and was escorted solemnly into the Red Widow’s Chamber.

The door closed.  Eight people waited tensely, calling out to Bender every quarter of an hour, hearing his muffled answer from within.  And then…

Death trap? … Poison? … or WHAT?

A modern mystery backed by a shuddering historic background; the impossible situation which is Carter Dickson’s speciality, solved without hocus-pocus.  But, above all, old H. M., the rumbling, grumbling, grand old man who has become one of our best-loved detectives.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (16th November 1935): A female member of the French Sanson family of headsmen brought as dowry a roomful of costly furniture.  But the Sanson grandmother, angry at the young English husband’s dislike of the Sanson profession, arranged that anyone who looked for jewels in secret drawers would probably meet a poisoned pin.  Four people so died between 1802 and 1876.

In 1935 Lord Mantling, in whose house in Curzon Street the room of furniture was a kind of Bluebeard chamber, tried to test the legend.  The first man who passed two hours alone in the room died of curare with no visible wound, though they heard his voice every fifteen minutes.  Later, Lord Mantling’s brother Guy was killed in the same room.  Was it the Sanson poison, or some new criminal hiding behind the legend?  There are five or six suspects, to be sifted by fat, wheezy “H.M.” from the F.O. (and from earlier novels), and by Chief Inspector Masters.  Most of them had something to hide, so the reader is well puzzled, but all the parts fall neatly into place at the end.

Observer (Torquemada, 1st December 1935): CRIMINAL HUMOURS

The Red Widow Murders produce a more muddled effect than did The White Priory ones, but this is the fault of the criminal, who has chosen a smaller circle in which to commit Mr. Dickson’s latest Hermetic crimes.  The author is to be congratulated on his deft handling of a branch of science which led Buchan woefully astray in The Three Hostages.  The picture he gives us of the circumstances of the guillotine during The Terror is detective writing at its most grim, and surely the reconstruction of a blowpipe murder in H.M.’s office is detective writing at its funniest.  Mr. Dickson has so successfully worked H.M. into a living figure of Falstaffian humour that we are badly jolted when, twice in the course of this excellent psychological melodrama, he allows a typical H.M. locution to slip from the mouth of Humphrey Masters.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Patridge, 25th January 1936): Mr. Carter Dickson revels in situations which border on the supernatural.  In The Red Widow Murders a man is murdered in the usual locked room with his friends within call, a repetition of the theme of his Plague Court Mystery.  The crime is, of course, elucidated by Sir Henry Merrivale as just another instance of devilish human ingenuity.  But I do wish Mr. Dickson would keep the Indian arrow poison out of his deaths and our lives.

Sat R of Lit (11th May 1935, 40w): Mr. Dickson’s grand eye for the eerie and the ’orrible glosses over some rather loose and lummocky detectiving.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 12th May 1935, 270w): The construction is, perhaps, a bit too intricate for some tastes, but it will please those who like hard nuts to crack.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 18th December 1935, 160w): One is inclined to think that a little less resolute an accumulation of marvels might in the end have proved a little more effective.  It is, however, a coherent and possible, if highly artificial, pattern into which, with extreme ingenuity, these different strands of horror and of mystery are woven for the fat detective ‘H.M.’ to unravel again.

Punch: Mr. Carter Dickson’s fertile imagination shows no sign of exhaustion in The Red Widow Murders, and once again he gives a remarkable exhibition of ingenuity.

Sunday Times: Mr. Dickson handles his material, especially the historical with skill, and he conveys atmosphere as well as character.

Morning Post: Mr. Carter Dickson is extremely ingenious; he possesses a sinister sense of character and atmosphere, a startling technical knowledge of new and nasty homicidal devices.