On one hand, sexuality is not a prevalent element in detective fiction. It functions as a plot device — you need a love triangle to give the killer a motive, so you have Bill begin an affair with Kathy’s sister, and Bill (who was a totally innocent dude 5 minutes ago) is now a despicable cheater who will be used as a red herring. Thanks for playing, Bill. I don’t recall reading an actual sex scene in any detective fiction I’ve read, and I can’t imagine reading one unless it offered an actual (non-alibi) clue. Which would be…weird.
And yet, I could also say that the pages of murder mysteries are smeared with sexuality, and not the Jim Thompson ass-smacking kind either. If love is a motive, there’s at least going to be an undercurrent of fornication, Golden Age or no Golden Age.
Take She Died a Lady.
They made an attractive picture. Molly was taller than Belle, perhaps less well developed in what Tom would portentously call the mammary and gluteal regions.
Yeah, he called Belle’s ass phat. The narrator thinks Belle is thicc. Molly is a lady, but our sixty-something narrator knows Molly thinks about sex quite a bit. Her act is a ruse designed to hide her deepest desires. The wildest part? It’s true! She…well, you’ll see.
Sir Henry Merrivale is planted within the carnal hothouse of Lyncombe, on the North Devon coast. Naturally, his presence means there is impossible murder afoot. Rita (Don’t you see Rita Hayworth when you picture her?) and her young stud have made a suicide pact. That’s right–it pains them so much to cuckold Rita’s aging husband that they have decided to jump off a nearby cliff onto the rocks below.
The evidence confirms this. There are two sets of footprints sprinting to the edge. There’s also some funny business with the telephone lines and the gas tanks of the cars, but that’s nothing compared to what the discovery of the bodies reveals.
The narrative strategies employed are among the most playful and nimble of Carr’s work. There’s a final switch of narrators that I found quite touching in a strange way. We get a suitable number of end-of-chapter reveals which lead us confidently down Carr’s blind alleys. He’s particularly good at laying subtle false clues, making us feel smart before we see how stupid we’ve been all along. The war rages in the background, bringing even more uncertainty to the impossible mystery in the little coastal village.
SDaL feels more novelistic than Carr’s puzzle books of the 30s. I don’t think that’s necessarily good or bad, but it made for a nice change. There’s a real sense of history beyond the typical “He had a twin brother in the circus who was last seen entering a plastic surgeon’s office.” The threads feel more substantial, more tightly woven too.
There is a subtle play on an idea in a Chesterton story. I can’t spoil it, but I’ll say this: where Chesterton used it within the plot, Carr uses it to literary effect. I didn’t feel cheated this time out. You’ll see when you read it — it has to do with the killer and his/her presentation.
And then…there’s all the sex. The town is filled with rejects from The Scarlet Letter. They’re constantly talking about their image and how much embarrassment is being caused by the likes of Rita and (later) Belle. There’s a brilliant moment in the penultimate chapter when an alibi is rendered firm because it was during a make-out session. There’s an honest to goodness soap opera somewhere in this book.
SDaL is a grand time in Carr country. I read it in two days, and I’m sure you will too. Great problem, good solution, and fantastic finish.