book: The Red Widow Murders (1935) by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson


Not so long ago the young Lord Mantling inherited his title and the family estate, and soon his townhouse in London is due to be pulled down. This means he can open a room that’s been boarded up for years, a room that the terms of inheritance insist must be kept sealed until such time as the house is demolished . . . a room in which over the past century and more a succession of people have inexplicably died within two hours of being left there alone. Mantling assembles a party of family and friends and they draw cards to choose who will be the one to spend two hours in that room. Also present are three disinterested observers, one of whom happens to be Sir Henry Merrivale, H.M.

The “winner” of the draw is a mild-mannered man called Bender, whom no one really knows. He enters the room at 10pm and the rest of the company, ensconced at the dining table nearby, sing out to him every quarter-hour thereafter to check he’s still alive. Not long before midnight and the expiration of the two hours, he’s discovered to be dead of curare poisoning. Yet it’s clear he died long enough ago that the last two or three of his responsive shouts must have been emitted after he died. Moreover, the room reveals no mechanism whereby he could have been poisoned.

What seems to be a locked-room mystery is partly modified by the almost immediate discovery that the room wasn’t as sealed up as it might have appeared. Even so, the murder appears to have been an impossible one. Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters produces what at first seems a fairly watertight explanation of how the killing could have been done but in his habitual fashion H.M. soon demolishes Masters’s reasoning. And it is of course H.M. who eventually solves both this murder and the ancillary one that follows it.

I wouldn’t say this is top-flight Carr — for one thing, H.M.’s explanation depends on an error of omission being committed in the post mortem — but it’s tremendously entertaining, and has some wonderfully atmospheric moments.

The Red Widow of the title refers to Madame Guillotine, and we find that the history of the room is entwined with that of the Sanson family, hereditary French executioners. Carr/Dickson gives us a fairly extensive flashback account of the adventures during the Terror of one of the room’s early victims, and clearly relishes the opportunity to explore this gory period of history. This section is one of the highlights of the book.

If you’re unfamiliar with Carr’s work, The Red Widow Murders, a page-turner that’s packed with Carr’s customary ingenuity and a good measure of humor, might be as good a place as any to start.

11 thoughts on “book: The Red Widow Murders (1935) by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson

    • He’s arguably the best of all the GAD writers and he was very prolific, so, assuming you find he’s your cuppa, you have a hell of a treat in store.

  1. Was this your first time reading this? If so, I’m jealous you recently got to experience it in full. Although I found the end to be a bit disappointing, I think that everything leading up to it is Carr at his best.

    • I’d read it before, almost certainly in the early 1970s (when I did most of my initial Carr reading), perhaps a few years later — long enough ago, at any rate, that I couldn’t remember the plot’s mechanism but found some of the more vivid imagery rang a bell — such as the business of yelling back and forth as a means of checking the sap was still alive.

    • It’s a great pity that his estate hasn’t been as diligent about keeping his books in print as the Christie estate has been for Christie, the Marsh estate for Marsh, etc. Of course, he’s never rivaled their popularity (I know you don’t like Marsh’s work, but you can’t deny her popularity), but it’s embittering that many modern readers have little or no idea of Carr’s existence.

      • He was very popular in his day of course both in books and on the radio (especially throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s), but yes, nothing like Christie. There seem to have been holdups with his estate apparently but looks like things have started to improve as three of his best books – ITS WALKS BY NIGHT (the first Bencolin), HAG’S NOOK (Gideon Fell’s debut) and a fabulous mid-series Merrivale, SHE DIED A LADY (as Carter Dickson) – are just being reissued in new editions by Polygon (part of Birlinn), after their reissue of CASE OF THE CONTANT SUICIDES:

        • That’s great nerws! Is Polygon related to International Polygonics?

          I lost an entire night’s sleep, back in the day, to It Walks by Night. I still love the Bencolins best of all the Carrs.

            • Interesting to hear about IPL still being extant; I’d assumed they’d gone to That Great Remainder Shop in the Sky. I’ll have to do some Binging . . .

              • Well, actually, not sure if they publish books anymore admittedly … Upu may need to ignore what I said before not hat score. I got the impression they were held by a company that did puzzles now and but I think this is all a bit out of date. Bet Todd Mason knows 🙂

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