SHE DIED A LADY (1943) by Carter Dickson

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.”

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

“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, so 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 siphoned 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 its 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:

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Carter Dickson, Five Star review, Friday's Forgotten Book, Henry Merrivale, John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

90 Responses to SHE DIED A LADY (1943) by Carter Dickson

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I’m not surprised, Sergio, that this is a top Carr for you. He was so good at the puzzle, wasn’t he? It’s a real pleasure to match wits with him in these novels, especially when he’s at his best.

  2. Brad says:

    Thanks, Sergio, for including me in such noble company and for proving that I am a man of discerning taste!

  3. ersgogreen says:

    John Dickson Carr mystery writer also hosted legendary 1940’s radio mystery series: “Murder by Experts.” Carr wrote for years as a radio script writer, especially on International Super Hit Radio Program “Suspense.” Carr of course won an Edgar twice: Lifetime Achievement and for a fantastic bio of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle…In 1954 Carr and A. Conan Doyle (son of Sir Arthur) wrote (some say mostly Carr) collection of Sherlock Holmes stories published together etc…mostly Holmes cases mentioned in the canon but never written etc…Carr had a most rather cool mysterious voice on his radio show: “Murder by Experts.”

  4. Colin says:

    I remember when I first came to the book I had no knowledge of how well or poorly regarded it might have been. And I enjoyed it all immensely, the cleverness is there in spades, not all that surprising with Carr I suppose. But it’s also a fine character piece with a lot of heart, and that really lifts it and makes that bit extra special.

    • My impression was the same – at the time I read it this was a title often ignored even by fans. But like HE WHO WHISPERS it has an unexpected poignancy that elevates ut even by his high standards.

      • Colin says:

        Yeah, it’s the combination of the devilishly clever plot and the very affecting human element. It’s that sensitivity which places the book right up among Carr’s very best.

        • Spot on mate. That it was published so close to The Emperor’s Snuffbox, another one of my favourites for exactly the same reason, is I think indicative of him really starting to peak around this time, with He Who Whispers as something of a summit I suspect.

          • Colin says:

            Indeed. He had a really strong patch just before the outbreak of war, which I think draws more critical acclaim, but this period in the early to mid 1940s is quite superb and there’s a run of books where you finish them with a slightly dazed feeling as he’s just delivered literary punches to both the head and the gut.

          • And on top of that he was also writing all his best radio plays – an extraordinary period of great creative invention. I did so enjoy re-reading this one, can you tell? 🙂

          • Colin says:

            I can’t tell lie, I did pick up a vague hint of that. I’m half-tempted to reread it myself now – I have that Zebra edition you featured at the top of the post – but I still have a reasonable number of Carr books I haven’t even read once so I really ought to get cracking on some of those.

          • I think you are right – I still have some of the ones you gave me to read in fact!

          • Colin says:

            Nice to have a few fresh ones around, that’s my excuse for putting off reading some for later anyway.

          • You what, though? Just got a good friend into them and have given her all the obvious ones but now want to lend her others. Trouble is, with some of these, while I remember loving them, I can no longer recall important bits, like the culprit, so that has put me in a bind – how can I lend without re-reading? What if she wants to talk about them after!! So I think I am just morally obliged to read more Carr, I just am … 😉

          • Colin says:

            Some obligations are hell, others are a little slice of heaven. I think we can safely place this obligation in the latter category. 🙂

  5. realthog says:

    without nary a spoiler in sight

    *koff* Double negative.

  6. realthog says:

    I remember reading this back in the, ahem, early 1970s or so, but I didn’t recall much about it except that it was definitely among his spiffiest. Thanks for the reminder of how good it was and the encouragement to dig it out for a reread!

  7. I really loved the puzzle in this one, particularly how the police ruled out every clever solution that I thought I had come up with. The solution to the impossibility isn’t Carr’s finest, but the identity of the killer may well be. Overall it is an excellent read, although I wouldn’t put it quite at the level of Till Death Do Us Part, The Problem of the Green Capsule, and several other Carr titles. The biggest element that dragged it down for me was the humor being a bit slapstick.

    • Well, with HM the broad humour was a given by then and we are really only talking about a couple of scenes with the wheelchair and toga, just a few pages after all. Till Death Do Us Part and The Black Spectacles (aka The Problem of the Green Capsule) are two classics, quite agree.

  8. JJ says:

    John DIckson Carr, you say? Sounds good, might have to check him out…

  9. TomCat says:

    You’re right, Sergio. This is one of Carr’s greatest detective novel and consider it to be his Death on the Nile. Yes, it’s that good.

    And to thegreencapsule: I disagree about this not being one of Carr’s finest impossible crimes. Impossibilities involving footprints are (IMO) the hardest to do and coming up with an original trick is even harder, but Carr pulled it off here. Just compare it to the few other books and short stories he wrote about impossible footprints to know how good this one really is.

    • Thanks TC, I thought the solution was superb and I loved how various other possibilities were regularly knocked out!

    • The solution to the footprints in She Died a Lady is definitely original. I personally prefer the solutions to The White Priory Murders and The Witch of the Low Tide, although those could be seen as more simple. I do love a good footprint mystery. In some ways they puzzle me more than a locked room.

      Any recommendations for good footprint mysteries from authors besides Carr? I believe I read that Suddenly At His Residence by Christianna Brand fits the bill.

    • TomCat says:

      Any recommendations for good footprint mysteries from authors besides Carr?

      My favorite impossible footprint story is actually a short story, “No Killer Has Wings” by Arthur Porges, which is an unsurpassed masterpiece. She Died a Lady is one of the few that came close to matching it.

      • Definitely have that one TC – thanks chum.

        • JJ says:

          Agree with the Porge, it’s freakin’ awesome. Also, John Pugmire of Locked Room International recently announced the forthcoming honkaku short story collection The Ginza Ghost by Keikichi Osaka, and one story in there — ‘The Cold Night’s Clearing’ — has a very clever variation on the “vanishing footprints” motif.

          Some novels that fulfil this crtiateria are Christianna Brand’s Suddenly at His Residence (someone stabbed in a dusty room in a cottage surrounded by soft ground )or an easily-marked path, I forget which) without footprints on either), Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil (a man stabbed in a room where both entrances were locked and observed, and the only means of entry would therfore be over a flowerbed which shows no marks), and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit (footprints disappearing in the middle of a snow drift).

        • Santosh Iyer says:

          For information of all, the short story No Killer Has Wings by Arthur Porges is available in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes & Impossible Mysteries by Mike Ashley.

  10. Gosh, high praise indeed. But having loves two of JDC’s books recently, I can see I’m going to have to explore his alter ego too!

  11. I prefer the “Carter Dickson” mysteries over the John Dickson Carr locked-room puzzles. Excellent review of one of my favorite mysteries!

    • Thanks George – well, they are certainly funnier! It was my reading of a classic Carter Dickson featuring Sir Henry Merrivale, THE READER IS WARNED, that got me hooked on Carr in fact.

  12. Just ordered a copy (with a great cover) from Abe Books! I know I’ve probably read this, but since I have no memory of it and your review intrigued me – what the heck. 🙂 Better than Rex Stout and Agatha Christie? Can’t agree, but we’ll keep on keeping on.

  13. Matt Paust says:

    Agreeing with Yvette on Stout, plus I’ve not read any Carr, altho I’ve been seeing his name for ages. Guess I’m gonna hafta finally dip a toe in the water…

  14. Yes – I am on board with this one, as you kindly show in your shoutout. It’s a weird and haunting story… there is one image from it that sticks in my mind, can’t say more without spoilering, but it is part of the footprint explanation.

  15. tracybham says:

    With such high praise, it looks like I will have to get a copy of this one. I will read a couple of the books that I have first. Yvette and I agree on Stout though, but you knew that.

    • Thanks Tracy, hope you get into Carr. His books are really the ones that turned me onto Golden Age detective fiction, but are much more about story and atmosphere and stunning the reader with an unexpected solution, and less focused on the series detectives per se. I love Stout but read his work with pretty much the opposite emphasis – I rarely remember his plots but love the interaction with the recurring characters.

  16. Anne H says:

    Re footprints, there’s The Footprint in the Sky, in The Department of Queer Complaints.

  17. Santosh Iyer says:

    “Any recommendations for good footprint mysteries from authors besides Carr?”
    I highly recommend The Footprints Of Satan by Norman Berrow.

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