She Died a Lady (1943) by Carter Dickson

Apologies for the silence over the past few days. Not been a great week and an incredibly dud read on Wednesday, (since it was a review copy one I decided to not review it on the blog), didn’t really add to it. Consequently I decided to go for a re-read of a book I remember enjoying a lot and I am sure Carr fans will approve of my choice.

In the main the story is narrated by the mostly retired Dr Luke Croxley, who lives in Lyncombe, a North Devon village on the coast. The first paragraph sets up a younger wife called Rita Wainright, married to an older man named Alec, with the introduction of a new younger male love interest, Barry Sullivan. For even the most novice of mystery reader, this setup may seem familiar, but for the seasoned Carr/Dickson fan, the following question arises: What is the author trying to pull? Events culminate towards one fatal night at the Wainright home, which just so happens to be four miles away from any other property and has a ‘romantic promontory called Lovers’ Leap,’ the leap being a 70ft drop into the sea. The reader is waiting for death, but whose will it be? And how? Yet the answers to those questions are only the beginning of a very puzzling and dark mystery…

Overall Thoughts

Looking at the points I would like to mention in my discussion of this book, I have decided to have two sections. The first is suitable for all, but the latter I would recommend reading only if you’ve read the book. Hate to spoil such a good read after all. It is also why I have tried to be even more reticent than is usual for me when it comes to my synopsis.

One of the reasons this book has appealed to me, even on a re-read, is the choice of narrator. The doctor is an interesting combination of being astute and blind, (intellectually speaking), the latter failing flagged up on page one, when he upends the notion of the all-knowing village doctor. Yet of course the reader never really considers how far reaching his blind spots might actually be… The introduction of the idea that the narrator might have even tampered with the evidence in the case was an unusual note and one which I liked, as it certainly adds more food for thought for the reader. Although Dickson spends a lot of time making you think you know what will happen next, only to then subvert your expectations, more of which I will discuss in the spoilers section. I can say now, though, that this subversion of expectations is particularly present in the setup of the case. There is a sense of staging, shall we say, of someone being prepared to do a deed, but Dickson holds out until the last moment to reveal what the deed is and equally the reader cannot be entirely sure who is the mastermind behind it all is. Conversation is also an important feature in this story and I liked how it is used effectively to reveal further oddities about the incident the characters are investigating.

Something which I don’t think I really took in, first time round, was the use of WW2 in the story. It begins with the announcement of the war and the shock that produced on the characters, in particular those from an older generation who suffered in the First World War. We get to feel their distress when they learn of the German advancement in 1940 across Europe:

‘Nazi tanks were loose like black beetles across a map […] It was as though you found that the very schoolbooks of your youth had been telling you lies.’

And Alec in particular begins to unravel mentally as the war unfolds, becoming addicted to the radio news bulletins. Yet the involvement of the war goes further than that, as initially it seems to cause a distraction from the developing affair between Rita and Barry. Furthermore, the eruption and progression of the war is paralleled in Rita’s relationship with Barry and I think this is something Dickson explicitly hints at in the text at times:

‘Matters were straining towards a breaking-point in more respects than one. France had capitulated; the Fuhrer was in Paris; a disorganised weapon-less British army had crawled back, exhausted, to dry its wounds on the beaches where it might presently have to fight.’

I don’t think we can get as nitty gritty as assigning a character to a place or person in this quote, but the emotions and turmoil expressed, transfer very easily onto Rita and Barry’s troubles.

Dickson’s depiction of women can be a little ropey at times, (though not in Anthony Berkeley’s league), but I think the author is more even handed than I would have expected, when it comes to the disintegration of the marriage between Rita and Alec. Both play their part in its demise. I can’t say I felt particularly sorry for Rita’s plight, it being of her own making after all, though unfortunately she does cop more of the blame than Barry does for their affair, from the local inhabitants. However the scales are evened up a smidge when Luke disagrees with the idea that Alec should have hit Rita more to keep her in line: ‘I failed to see the logic of this. Besides, too much talk of walloping wives is done by those who would never have the nerve to utter a large-sized boo to their own particular spouses.’

As my final rating shows this was a good read for me, yet one thing which definitely lost it a modicum of pointage, (new word I have decided to coin), is the inclusion of Henry Merrivale into the tale. When he is interviewing characters and generally discussing the case, all is reasonably well, though personally like Christie’s The Moving Finger, I don’t feel this story needed a serial character to lead it. However, what is less forgivable, is Dickson’s decision to inject inappropriate comedy and levity into the text and always at an important and poignant moment. Merrivale in a nutshell is mostly confined to a wheelchair due to a broken big toe and of course he is given a motorised one. Oh and don’t get me started on the toga. The chaos he creates with all of this is designed for humour, but unfortunately it doesn’t strike the right note and consequently sticks out like a sore thumb or toe for that matter.

So to conclude the non-spoiler section, this novel is an entertaining mystery and one of Dickson’s best. The setup may initially seem simple, but the puzzle underneath is intricately complex. There is a good amount of rug pulling from underneath the reader and despite the jarring notes of comedy earlier in the book, the author does achieve an emotionally meaningful ending. Even better for me I forgot who the culprit was, so I had that additional surprise.

Beyond this point I don’t recommend reading if you haven’t already read the book…

 

So back to the setup of the double murder… there is a lot of staging here, in terms of the physical events such as the telephone wires being cut and Romeo and Juliet being played on the radio, but also with the character psychology. Rita and Barry are guilty and nervous, are we to see this as anxiety before committing a murder? Or preparing for a suicide? Equally there is Alec, who seems to get calmer and calmer as the other two get more and more frazzled, is he a killer waiting to strike? Of course we know these questions to be false once the book has ended, but they are the ones the reader starts out with. Impossible crime fans may quickly begin to wonder if Alec who never left the room could have somehow still committed the crime and I think this is maybe a very slight red herring Dickson throws at us. A bigger one perhaps is having a doctor as a narrator, as it is perhaps likely that a seasoned mystery reader will recall Agatha Christe’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Are we to assume that Luke is fulfilling a similar role? This is partially complicated by the idea of the doctor being accused of having tampered with the evidence, but then again I wondered whether maybe it was evidence of his original crime having gone wrong in some way. Yet this is deliberate I think, as of course it is his son who is the killer and the things which seem to implicate Luke are in fact done by Tom. Nevertheless there other narrative strands which obfuscate the truth, particularly the surprising emergence of Barry’s wife and the solicitor who is determined it shall be recognised as a double suicide. All in all I think Dickson presents the reader with a simple yet tricky and slippery mystery, whose solution is not overly convoluted, yet still packs a punch and I feel this book would definitely feature in my Top 10 list of Carr/Dickson novels.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): In the medical field

Calendar of Crime: November (2) Author’s Birth Month

A final mystery… when looking to see who else has reviewed this novel already, it turned out a lot of folk had, yet the mystery is, that most of these reviews all occurred during 2017. Once or twice would seem like a coincidence, but 6 times!

Puzzle DoctorIn Search of the Classic Mystery (2011)

BenThe Green Capsule (2016)

DanThe Reader is Warned (Feb 2017)

Bradahsweetmysteryblog (Feb 2017)

JoseA Crime is Afoot (Feb 2017)

SergioBloody Murder (May 2017)

YvetteIn So Many Words (May 2017)

NickGrandest Game (Dec 2017)

28 comments

    • Merrivale was never really positioned as a funny character in the 1930’s books, with the exception of him being a bit low class around the upper crust. Rather, the comedy happened around him – the embarrassing situations Masters would get into, the repeated setbacks of The Punch and Judy Murders, or characters poking fun of The Old Man.

      It’s with Seeing is Believing in 1941 where Carr introduced this idea that in every book Merrivale had to have some “humorous” hobby. It’s here where Merrivale himself transitions to being the source of the supposed humor. I actually thought it worked in Seeing is Believing – I’ll admit I laughed pretty hard at one point. The second effort in The Gilded Man was acceptable – starting to get a bit slapstick, but nothing that annoyed me. From that point on though it just got plain bad. Fortunately the stories held up for a while, but the attempted comedy always dragged them down a notch in my eye.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Is this the first spoiler section in one of your posts? I was pretty surprised to see it.

    I’m somewhat conflicted in terms of where this ends up in my Carr rankings. I can’t help but feel that popular opinion leads me to rate it a bit higher than I would have if I had never been exposed to statements that it’s one of his best. There’s a lot to enjoy, but it suffers from some weaknesses and never reaches the heights that better titles achieve.

    She Died a Lady has a nicely set up impossibility and a haunting ending. I subtract points mostly for the dreadful attempt at comedy, although I was also a bit let down by the solution to the impossibility. I did enjoy the WW2 touches – blackout windows and all, if I recall correctly.

    Spoilers
    My issue with the solution is that there is something that the reader thinks isn’t possible that then casually turns out to be possible. I probably phrase that poorly (since I still try to be vague), as I suppose that applies to most any impossible crime solution. In this case though, the particular change in understanding felt a bit cheap to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No I have included spoiler warnings before, but I admit I haven’t had need of one for a while, nor for such a sustained paragraph. Hopefully you were surprised in a good way!
      I think this one will always rank highly with me because it is one of those Carr/Dickson books, like The Case of the Constant Suicides and The Emperor’s Snuffbox, where the narrative style quickly and consistently works with me, as with some of his other books I can find the style too dry at times.
      Still trying to fathom out your spoiler section, which is bad considering I just read the book, but hopefully it will dawn on me soon, probably at 3am or some other unsuitable hour!

      Like

    • If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, I have to agree. Rather than talk elliptically around the point, I’m going to put this in rot-13. Those who have not read the books shouldn’t decipher it!

      Zreevinyr gryyf Qe. Yhxr gung gurer vf ab ebyyre ng gur sbbg bs gur pyvss, fb uvf erpbafgehpgvba bs gur vzcbffvovyvgl unf gb or jebat. Gura, va gur svany puncgre, ur gryyf Sreenef naq Zbyyl gung vg unq npghnyyl orra evtug, naq gung ur’q cnvq fbzr svfurezra gb erzbir gur ebyyre. V’q orra cercnevat zlfrys sbe n “urer’f na rira zber vatravbhf pbeerpg rkcynangvba” xvaq bs raqvat, naq V qvqa’g trg vg. Vg npghnyyl obgurerq zr zber jura V erernq gur obbx guna jura V svavfurq vg sbe gur svefg gvzr, cebonoyl orpnhfr gurer vf fb zhpu ryfr va gur fbyhgvba gung vf nqzvenoyr.

      Ba erernqvat, V nyfb ortna gb nfx zlfrys vs Pnee unq orra cynlvat ragveryl snve jvgu gur ohfvarff bs ubj Qe. Yhxr gerngf gur zheqrere va uvf aneengvir zber nf n snzvyvne cvrpr bs gur sheavgher guna nf n fhfcrpg naq cnegvpvcnag va gur pnfr, orpnhfr hagvy jr uvg gur rcvybthr, jr qba’g xabj gung ur qvrq jvgubhg rire yrneavat jub xvyyrq Evgn naq Oneel, naq gura fhqqrayl, ONZ, gurer’f gur anzr bs gur thvygl cnegl. V guvax vg zvtug unir orra orggre vs Sreenef unq raqrq uvf rcvybthr jvgu fbzrguvat yvxr “Gur ernqre znl abj jvfu gb chg gur obbx nfvqr naq frr vs ur pna svther bhg gur fbyhgvba” naq gura bayl erirnyrq gur anzr va Puncgre 20.

      Like

      • Not quite what I was objecting to.

        Vs V erpnyy pbeerpgyl, jr’er gbyq gung ab bar pbhyq cbffvoyl fheivir whzcvat bss gur pyvss, nf gur snyy vf fbzrguvat yvxr 70 srrg naq gurer ner ebpxf va gur funyybj jngre orybj. Va gur fbyhgvba, jr’er fhqqrayl vasbezrq gung gur gvqr pbzrf hc rkgerzryl uvtu, znxvat gur whzc cbffvoyr. Creuncf gung jnf pyhrq ng fbzr cbvag, ohg V qba’g erpnyy vg.

        Like

      • SPOILER ALERT !

        SPOILER ALERT !

        Yes, it is mentioned that no one can survive the fall, but it is believed that the jump took place when the tide had fully gone out. But , later it is concluded that the fall actually took place later at high tide., The fact that at high tide, water rises up to 30 feet and one can easily fall in the water then is clearly mentioned much, much before the solution. Thus it is well clued and there is no cheat here.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I distinctly remember that I bought a bundle of Dickson titles very cheaply on eBay around this time. I read a couple of reviews of SDaL and decided to start with this one. I don’t know: H.M. racing around in a wheelchair and posing in a toga for his portrait isn’t my type of humor, but I’ve seen much worse. It jarred a bit, but it didn’t spoil the best parts of the book for me, such as that ending! One of Carr/Dickson’s best “who”s if not top tier Carr in its entirety.

    Like

  3. I also reviewed this one (back in 2015). While I agree that H.M. could become rather annoying in the humorous bits, I thought they did provide some relief here in a book that needed some relief – it’s pretty grim and, I think, tragic overall in a lot of the plot developments. If I were using a numbering system, I suspect I’d wind up with the same 4.5/5 rating you give it.

    Like

    • Glad you enjoyed this one too! I find it interesting that you felt the book needed comic relief though, as it didn’t feel excessively grim for me when I read it, which is odd for me, as normally I am quite sensitive to grimness.

      Like

  4. I reviewed this one in 2015, and I say there that it’s because of Sergio’s polling…

    It has a memorable solution, but one I didn’t like, for similar reasons to those mentioned above. I disliked the item that Santosh liked, but the image of them using it has always stayed with me. Unbelievable.

    But… I think I enjoyed reading it very much, and I was surprised to see from my review that I would now put it in my top 5 by JDC! (which is definitely a very changeable list.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that Merrivale should have been left out – he’s as out of place as Poirot in The Hollow and for the same reasons: he doesn’t fit in the kind of “mature” crime fiction Carr was writing there. I’d rather have seen Dermot Kinross returning – but then I’m one of this character’s one or two fans in the world.

    Mention of Kinross is not entirely gratuitous, though, as I think this one and The Emperor’s Snuff Box are one of Carr’s few attempts to write his own Calamity Town – a detective novel that would treat characters and plot equally and would appeal to the reader’s heart as well as to his mind. Both books revolve around female characters that are better and more fairly delineated than usual with him, and take a strong stance against hypocrisy, especially of the sexual nature. Why Carr didn’t follow up on these experiments is something I’ve been wondering for decades now, and I could never find a satisfying answer. That’s a pity as it would probably have bettered his critical standing considerably (I’m not talking about us fans, but cretins a la Joshi who keep pretending that he couldn’t write or do character)

    Liked by 1 person

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