Friday, 27 June 2014

Forgotten Book - Night at the Mocking Widow

John Dickson Carr used the name Carter Dickson for the books he wrote about Sir Henry Merrivale, a detective whom some fans prefer to Dr Gideon Fell. Today's Forgotten Book, Night at the Mocking Widow, was published at the start of the Fifties but is set in an English village - with the excellent name Stoke Druid - in 1938. It's an English village mystery, and has a touch of nostalgia about it, as well as displaying Carr's love of England very clearly.

Stoke Druid is plagued by poison pen letters, and when one of those accused by the letters dies in tragic circumstances, the letters stop,only to start up again. The Mocking Widow (another great name) is a dominant stone in an ancient circle, and there is an "impossible situation" which does not actually involve a murder, with murder only taking place towards the end of the book. Stone circles have often featured in crime novels, and no wonder -they are so often spookily atmospheric.

I can't better the summary of this book to be found in Douglas Greene's biography of Carr, a book I regard as one of the best biographies of a detective novelist ever written. He is largely positive, though he recognises that the novel does not have the power and grip of Carr's best pre-war work. I thought that the ingredients were impressive and appealing, although I find the comedy associated with Merrivale much less appealing than do his biggest fans - for me, the Fell stories are on the whole markedly better.

I didn't guess the culprit in this one, but I felt this was in part due to the fact that the motivation is very thin. Carr made strenuous attempts, especially in the comic scenes, to compensate for the lack of a murder investigation from the outset, but by this time his powers were just beginning to fade. Perhaps the classic example of a village poison pen letter campaign is Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger. Even though that too is not one of her masterpieces, which perhaps explains why I've not mentioned it on this blog before, it is a smoothly accomplished whodunit and, to my way of thinking, clearly superior to Carr's effort. Overall verdict on this one- not bad, but unfortunately anti-climactic.

7 comments:

John said...

I think this was the very first Carter Dickson book I ever read back in my teen years. I don't remember anything about it really which may signify that it's one of the lesser novels. I may have to re-read it again to see if it lives up to my standards. Unlike you, I have grown to prefer Sir Henry Merrivale over Dr. Gideon Fell. I love his irreverence, bluster, and his intolerance for pretense.

Yvette said...

I vaguely remember this title, Martin. Once upon a time I read all of Dickson Carr aka Carter Dickson. I was a devoted fan. This is a particularly memorable title though I don't remember any details of the story. Thanks for prodding my memory with this review. :)
I think it may be time for a reread.

Martin Edwards said...

John, Yvette, thanks as ever for your comments. Despite my reservations about this particular book, I am a huge JDC fan, and I look forward to devouring more of the titles that have eluded me in the past.

nigel.holmes said...

I can't remember if I've read this or not. It's interesting that it came out a couple of years before Edmund Crispin's poison pen letter mystery, "The Long Divorce".

Clothes In Books said...

I haven't read this one, but have read many others by JDC but can never remember whether any given book is Fell or HM. I might try to find this one - I like poison pen stories, and in fact the Christie is one of my favourites...

Martin Edwards said...

Hope you enjoy it, Moira!

Anonymous said...

I think I remember Night AT the Mocking Widow, but not this title.