The Red Widow Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson

I have not reviewed a Carr title since April, so thought it was about time I did before I got my GAD membership revoked! It is also a good excuse to read the book which has been sitting on my TBR pile the longest.

Today’s read concerns a room that kills. Right at the very beginning Dr Michael Tairlane, (who was also involved in an earlier mystery by Carr, The Bowstring Murders), is asked by his friend, George Anstruther:

‘To be more definite, do you believe in a room of such deadly qualities that anybody who goes into that room alone, and stays there alone, for more than two hours will die?’

Such a room, Anstruther says, exists in Lord Mantling’s house in Cruzon street, a room which claimed its last victim 80 years ago. Ultimately, an experiment is planned, which Tairlane is invited to, as well as Sir Henry Merrivale. Using a pack of cards, a volunteer is selected to stay within the infamous room, and this volunteer will be called out to every 15 minutes. They have to respond so everyone else outside the room knows they are alive. Everything seems to be going well, with the volunteer replying to every check in – that is until the very end when they are called to come out, and they do not. Like the room’s previous four victims, the volunteer is discovered dead inside the room, his face swollen and blackened. What is more, medical opinion suggests that the man had been dead for an hour, so how could he have responded to the check up calls after his death?

Overall Thoughts

Despite a bit of a slow start, and an avalanche of characters to get my head around, I got into the book once the first death occurred, as Carr offers his readers a very intriguing and tantalising puzzle. I also found Sir Henry Merrivale, as a character, more appealing in this book, as he is not comically overbearing and in fact I would say he is a little more subdued in this case, compared to some of his others. I think this helped with the tone of the narrative, as in the past, I have sometimes found Merrivale’s comic ways jarring. The decision to place the room that kills within an urban setting is quite an interesting one and it felt quite refreshing. Usually such cases occur within country houses. For some bizarre reason I had been expecting this book to be rather gothic in atmosphere and tone; maybe because it is one of Carr’s earlier mysteries, and several of those are written with that style. However, I did not find that to be the case here and again I think I preferred that.

Nevertheless, the room that kills, has a suitably grim and deadly backstory which we find out more about once the investigation is underway. Whilst I found the backstory interesting in its details, I did feel it had a rather padding/delaying affect on the investigation, as it takes some while to explain. Even though quite a chunk of the detective work is completed on the night of the murder, this structural choice did not bring with it the anticipated well-kept pace of a shorter time frame. I have to be honest, 50% of the way through the book my attention was somewhat wandering. I found it hard to maintain the enthusiasm I had for the book when the first death is discovered.  One possible reason for this is the characterisation in this book. The central characters did not really come alive for me and our distance from them, prevented me from getting more engaged with them and their situation.

Given that a mass of clues the police have to deal with all conclude in dead ends, the book whilst not overly long, did feel like it was dragging towards the two-thirds mark. When the solution eventually arrived, I have to admit to feeling disappointed, a feeling other readers have shared, such as Ben who blogs at The Green Capsule. I don’t want to go into details as such, but whilst the method used is perfectly possible, it just isn’t very satisfying, and the murderer’s whole plan was wacky to say the least. The Puzzle Doctor, who blogs at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, when he reviewed this title a while back, commented that:

‘Seriously, if the murderer was to write down their plan, it would require a flip-chart to explain it, with an accompanying PowerPoint. And it’s another book where the over-complicated plan also requires another innocent person to play along absolutely perfectly, despite not knowing what the plan was. Oh, and one of those plot mechanisms that really shouldn’t be used is used for one aspect – clue – it begins with an h.’

My thoughts definitely chimed in with his and I was glad I was not the only one who was less than impressed with the ending. Unsurprisingly I figured out none of the mechanics of the crime, yet bizarrely latched on to the identity of the killer at the start of the case. Not due to any intelligent brain work on my part, just one of those “Hmm, I bet it’s _____”. It’s the type of thought which is usually right only once in every ten instances and it just so happens this was that one time. So, not the best Carr read, but not the worst either.

Rating: 3.75/5

See also: JJ at The Invisible Event, Nick at The Grandest Game and Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery Blog have also reviewed this title. Brad’s review comes in the format of a two part read along, which you can access here: Part 1 and Part 2.

9 comments

  1. Kate, you’re killing me! That marvelous historical chapter was padding? The book was dragging? A 3.75 for this, one of the best reads of the Golden Age?

    Yeah, I do agree that the solution didn’t do justice to all that came before it, but that’s because what came before was so marvelous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is not my intention to kill you with my reviews lol Now that would be an unusual murder method…
      I did want to enjoy this one, honestly! I got quite keen when the puzzle is unfolded in the first quarter, but the rest of book just couldn’t quite sustain my interest.

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      • I’ve to reread this one to give an opinion it, because I can remember very little, but it’s Carr we’re talking about. So I’m shaking my head as well. Very disappointed in you, Kate. Very disappointed.

        Liked by 1 person

      • haha are there no Carrs you would rate under 4/5? I wonder whether I might enjoy trying more books from the 40s, as the majority of the ones I love by him are from that time period.

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  2. Thanks for the review. I recall not being overly fond of “Red Widow Murders”. It might have been the pagination and spacing – but the story dragged as I trawled through page after page. 😅

    I spotted Victoria Dowd’s second mystery novel on your montage of book covers awaiting trial – and proceeded to pre-order it via my local Kindle store. 🤩 I had a feeling you’d be reviewing it soon – looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t feel so bad now that someone else thought this book dragged too!
      I am just over half way through Victoria’s book so far and I am enjoying it. Hopefully get a review up over the weekend.

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  3. I know what you mean about some of the cast not really coming to life in this one — it’s quite a big cast for Carr, and doesn’t have quite the same level of game-playing that, say, The Unicorn Murders with its similarly big groups employs.

    I remember the highlights — the solution to the Room That Kills, the voice calling out after the person must have died — and had a good time with it, but the details are vague and I don’t think I loved this one. Would have to read it again to be more precise however,

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I barely remember this one. I might move it down a place or two in the (twelve foot high) reread pile. I read so many Carrs in a short time that it’s sometimes hard to pick them apart later!

    Liked by 1 person

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