Carter Dickson: Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)

The village of Stoke Druid is being plagued by poison-pen letters written by someone using the name The Widow. Sir Henry Merrivale investigates…

This book was published in 1950, but it’s set in 1938. I’m not sure why Carr decided to backdate it. There is one subplot that (as written) would have to take place before the war, but it’s not central to the mystery, and it could have been made to fit a postwar setting with some changes.

On the other hand, Carr’s putting NatMW in the then-recent past means we’re not subjected to any lectures about the awfulness of the Labour government.

Carr at his best does some things wrong but more right, and Carr at his worst does some things right but more wrong. The last few H.M. books are among those where the balance unfortunately falls toward the latter, and this is one such.

What I liked:

  • Carr displays one of his greatest strengths even in this second-rater. Not the impossible crime, but concealing who the murderer is. The person’s identity was a surprise, at least to me. Carr’s usually good at pointing me in the wrong direction when it comes to who’s guilty.

And now, the somewhat longer list of what I didn’t like:

  • The impossible crime is intriguing, but the solution isn’t just a letdown, I don’t believe for a minute that it could work.
  • The slapstick in H.M. books is rarely funny, but it’s acceptable in small doses – as in, say, She Died a Lady or My Late Wives. Here, there is just too much of it, and it’s even less funny than usual.
  • While H.M. is staying in the village, he gets into loud arguments with his landlady, Virtue Conklin. That’s fine. Sometimes he crosses the line into hitting her (offscreen). That’s not fine. Carr reassures us that she likes it. That’s really not fine. As with Agatha Christie’s occasional anti-Semitism, though, you just have to agree to disagree with the author, and move forward, if you want to read the book. It left a bad enough taste that for me, I’m not sure it was worth it.
  • The writer-versus-pastor subplot is just silly, something put in to pad the story out to novel length.

So while it’s not a total stinker, I’m afraid Night at the Mocking Widow is for Carr completists only.

2 thoughts on “Carter Dickson: Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)

  1. Out of 40+ Carr books that I’ve read, this is the only one that I truly didn’t like. For me, it’s the fact that the author completely whiffed on writing a compelling village mystery. The characters were mostly just occupations and the whole thing just felt very flimsy. I suppose Carr had never really tried a multi-perspective mystery of this scope and it just didn’t work at this stage in his career. Of course, he was writing plenty of other good stuff at the time, so it’s a bit of an odd miss.

    I actually kind of like the solution to the locked room, although it’s more appropriate for a short story where you can kind of laugh off that sort of trick. Then again, the actual impossibility really takes a back seat in this story, and it’s only really window dressing on top of the weak poison pen plot.

    Liked by 1 person

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