OK, let’s get this out of the way: Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr, is my favourite Golden Age detective story writer. For me, he was better than Christie, Queen, Sayers and Stout, love them all though I do. And She Died A Lady is a superbly clever and brilliantly crafted example of his skill and ingenuity – and here’s why, with nary a spoiler in sight!
“Mrs Wainright and Mr Sullivan walked out to the edge of that cliff, and they didn’t come back.”
“If only Alec would die or something like that …”
The narrator is Dr Luke Croxley, the old GP in the sleepy little North Devon village of Lyncombe. He is a widower and more or less retired now that his son Tom has taken over the practice. His best friend is a retired professor, Alec Wainright, who is married to Rita, who is beautiful, romantic, kind-hearted and twenty years his junior. War has broken out, but in July 1940 the village folk are more concerned with a local scandal: Rita has fallen madly in love with Barry Sullivan, a young American actor, and even the good doctor can’t avoid tripping over the indiscreet pair. One night he and Barry are invited to spend an evening with the Wainrights to listen to a production of Romeo and Juliet on the radio. After, while Alec listens to the news, Rita and Barry leave the room and are never seen alive again. The remote Wainright house ends at a cliff with a seventy-foot drop known as ‘Lover’s Leap’ and Dr Croxley find their footprints leading to the edge, and none coming back. Enter Sir Henry Merrivale, who is in town to get his portrait painted …
“Oh, my eye!” muttered H.M. “Oh, lord love a duck!”
It would seem that the two lovers, inspired by Shakespeare, decided to commit suicide. But then the bodies are recovered and it turns out they were shot to death, and the gun is recovered on the main road, very far away from the cliff. So was it murder? And who cut off the telephone wires at the Wainrights that night? And who let out the petrol from their cars? Then Barry’s wife is discovered locked up in Rita’s trysting hideaway. (She was spying on Barry and barely escaped with her life when his car was pushed into quicksand.) The local inspector thinks it must have been suicide and that the doctor found the gun and removed it so save Rita’s reputation (which he admittedly wants to redeem). The truth turns out to be much more complex …
If it was murder, how could it have been done without leaving footprints in the soft sand? And apart from the impossibility of it all, who was it? The jealous husband or the jealous wife? Or maybe even the man painting Merrivale’s portrait, who seems to have had something of a passion for Rita. Or maybe the local girl, Molly, who has a passion for him? But why deliberately draw attention to the gun, which scuppers the suicide theory, by putting it in a place where it could be found far away from the scene of the deaths – does Dr Croxley in fact know more than he is telling?
“I don’t know!” roared H.M. “I haven’t the ghostiest trace of a notion. The old man’s completely stumped and flummoxed.”
Some readers will spot a couple of reference to a celebrated Christie novel in this book, but this is aimed squarely and deliberately at clever and attentive readers – Carr has something very clever up his sleeve. As various theories are expounded on how the murder might have been committed, eventually we reach a clever and satisfying conclusion, topped by an epilogue, crucially not written by Dr Croxley, which reveals a wholly unexpected culprit. With its clever story, thankfully avoiding the need to add a gratuitous extra murder to the proceedings, as even Dame Agatha was wont to do at times, and emphasis on character and the recreation of an idyllic little village disrupted by murder and Merrivale whizzing around in a motorised wheelchair after hurting his toe, this makes for a completely satisfying mystery.
You should go out and get a copy right now if you don’t have it already. And please don’t just take my word for it as connoisseurs of the genre have been rhapsodising about this novel for years. Here is what the Puzzle Doctor had to say about the book over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel; Martin Edwards also sang it praises at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?; Brad recently reviewed it in great detail over at his, Ah Sweet Mystery; TomCat also gave it a rave at Beneath the Stains of Time; and Moira Redmond called it one of Carr’s finest at her blog, Clothes in Books.
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘revolver’ category: