book review

She Died a Lady

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.

8 thoughts on “She Died a Lady”

  1. …feels more novelistic than Carr’s puzzle books of the 30s

    I really like this book, and I feel that here you hit upon why it stands out in the minds of so many: there’s less a sense of pieces moving around like in, say, The Unicorn Murders or even early 40s works like Seeing is Believing and Seat of the Scornful. In many ways, I guess that’s what made it such a prime candidate for recent reprinting…and I wonder how well it sold and what a modern audience made of it.

    And, of course, I also wonder if any others will follow it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hate to say it, but I think a television show (something reverential to the source material) might be the best tool to spread the gospel of Carr. I know more than a few people who began reading Christie because they watched Poirot. It’s ass-backward, but that’s how it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, you could be right. Netflix and the like have a lot of freedom that the TV of my childhood didn’t. All we need to do now is cat Fell and Merrivale…

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  2. I love the opening of this one, and the ending is among Carr’s best. I don’t recall the middle being that great, but I suppose that I mostly just remember the unnecessary comedy bits involving Merrivale (this is the first book with the tiresome slapstick).

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    1. You might be making the comedy bits bigger in retrospect. I was on the lookout for the slapstick (maybe I had read it from one of your posts). As it turned out, the funny business was much less painful than the stuff in, say, The Skeleton in the Clock. The dog scene was only about 1 page and the wheelchair getting stuck about a-page-and-a-half. During the scene when Belle is first interrogated, the wheelchair allows Merrivale to stay outside and listen to the conversation. It helped with the story dynamic while still involving the sleuth.

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      1. That’s good to know that I may remember it for more than it is.

        Although there is humor in early Merrivale books, I see Seeing is Believing to be the first to position Merrivale himself as a comedic character. Focusing purely on the humor element, here are my recollections of the “comedic Merrivale” books:
        Seeing is Believing – genuinely funny
        The Gilded Man – minor and didn’t really stand out
        She Died A Lady – bad slapstick
        The Curse of the Bronze Lamp – bad slapstick
        My Late Wives – bad slapstick, although I don’t remember it that much
        The Skeleton in the Clock – not particularly funny, but didn’t detract from my reading
        A Graveyard To Let – acceptable
        Night at the Mocking Widow – bad slapstick
        Behind the Crimson Blind – horrible racial humor and bad slapstick
        The Cavalier’s Cup – an entire book of so called comedy, all of it dreadful

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  3. Funnily enough, I’m actually rereading this one right now! This was my first JDC book, and it remains my personal favorite. One of his best impossible situations and solutions, and one of his best and most effective culprits. The usage of Dr. Croxley as a narrator is also one of Carr’s more unique creative decisions, but his narration blends perfectly into the type of story Carr is trying to tell her, and it lends to the emotional impact that the story has.

    It really reads like one of Christie’s 1940s efforts, and I don’t even fault it for its admittedly unfunny attempts at comedy. The fun and impact of everything else just outweighs something as minor as that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the most indelible images it left in my head was that of a scowling Merrivale walking out on a confused Luke (and the reader) in the penultimate chapter. Finding out the truth gives the image a welcome tragic dimension. It’s beautifully done.

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