Friday, February 14, 2014

FFB: My Late Wives - Carter Dickson

"If there's any flumdiddling of the police to be done, I'm the one to do it."

--Sir Henry Merrivale in My Late Wives

There is a lot of flumdiddling and farcical doings amid the criminal mischief and baffling murders in My Late Wives (1946), Carter Dickson's follow-up to the infamous The Curse of the Bronze Lamp.  I say infamous because in that book Dickson included a kind of twist that I consider something of a cheat in a murder mystery.  The rear panel on the DJ for My Late Wives hints that Dickson has surpassed the impossibilities of his previous book.  Did he really write a better mystery?

The story is pure fancy, one that could only take place in the pages of a detective novel. We learn that someone has written a play based on the life of a murderer and sent the script to a well known actor. His friend and colleague, Beryl West, would love to direct the play even though it may be libelous but it has a weak ending. The play is based on the life of Roger Bewlay, a known multiple murderer who killed and disposed of the bodies of his four wives. The requisite Dicksonian impossibility appears in the last murder. Bewlay managed to murder his wife in a house watched by two policemen and witnessed by another woman outside. But when the police broke into the house there was no sign of a murder and no body. What happened to the murder victim? And what happened to all the other bodies of his dead wives?

Bruce Ransom, the actor who receives the play, is challenged by Beryl to act out in real life the part and test the weak ending of the play. He is to pretend to be Roger Bewlay, court a young woman and all the while let slip that he is a wife killer and let that spread throughout the town. Then just as the girl is ready for Bruce to ask her to marry him he reveals that everything is a sham. He's really an actor and he's not a murderer at all, that it's all research for an upcoming play.  Crazily enough, Ransom accepts the challenge and the story takes off like gangbusters.

Enter Sir Henry Merrivale explosively. Literally. He makes his appearance in this novel accompanied by his Scottish golf instructor in an amusement arcade which he manages to destroy in one of Dickson's usual over-the-top low comedy sequences. As extreme as it was I burst out laughing. I guess I needed a dose of Three Stooges style nonsense that day. The book is filled with these usual blustery Merrivale escapades. A silly fight on a golf course and the following argument initially seem like filler, but will have greater significance in the final pages. However, it's one of the least clever bits of misdirection in the book, one that led me to the solution of how Roger Bewlay's victims were disposed of.

Merrivale is not really onstage all that much and that is part of the problem with the book. Though he gives a lot of advice to Dennis, Beryl's lawyer friend, and drops hints that he knows the real Roger Bewlay has shown up in the town where Bruce is doing his play-acting/research he does not really solve the case. Dickson allows the actor to have a melodramatic confrontation with the killer that might as well have taken place in a theater while Merrivale, Dennis and Beryl watch in an adjoining room. Bruce nearly is done in by the maniac and Merrivale steps in at the eleventh hour to stop one last murder.

The plot is difficult to summarize since the playscript, the story of Roger Bewlay's life of crime, and Bruce Ransom's "research" all intersect and overlap as the novel progresses. There are multiple mysteries to solve and it got a little dizzying for me as Merrivale tried to explain to Dennis and Beryl how he knew Bewlay committed all his wife murders, knew where the bodies were hidden and hinted at one more murder that might take place. Of course it does occur and both Denis and Beryl are devastated that they could have prevented it if only Merrivale hadn't been so damned ambiguous.

Such is the world of John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson. His plots are all fancy and contrivance.  Who would ever write a play based on a murderer's real crimes, divulging previously undisclosed evidence, and then send it to an actor? Wouldn't someone just call the police and tell them what they knew? Asking questions like this when reading a book by Carter Dickson or John Dickson Carr is futile. You must surrender to his fantastical plots and absurdities or the book can never be enjoyed for the baffling puzzle it ought to be.

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This counts as another book on my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge bingo card.  I've counted it as space G6 ("A Book Set in the Entertainment World").  I seem to be doing this haphazardly with no intention of trying to get a Bingo line, right?  But there is indeed a method to my reading selections. Solve that mystery if you can!

9 comments:

  1. Thanks very much for this John - I read this ages ago at my grandparents having found a library copy in the local library - which means it much have been the mid 80s! I don;t think I've read it since as I remember finding it disappointing though I can;t really remember why - I really want to re-read it now thank to your terrific write-up - cheers mate.

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  2. I enjoyed this review, John. I haven't read any John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson books yet and your take on his books was useful.

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  3. John, I don't know much about the world of John Dickson Carr or Carter Dickson. However, your review of this novel has put me wise to what I can expect from him. "Fantastical plots and absurdities" sounds good to me. That bingo scorecard is filling up fast.

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  4. I like this novel more than some of Carr/Dickson's more celebrated puzzles. There's one very good piece of misdirection, and Merrivale's deduction about what the real Bewlay would have done after going straight was well done. I wonder if the setting for the final confrontation was one that Carr had visited in real life. It's extensively described but doesn't really fit in with the rest of the story.

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    1. O hyes, that delapidated house used as a training ground for soldiers. All those strange wooden cut outs and what they found hanging from the rope. Very creepy! And it reminded me of something I had seen in a movie recently. Can't remember the title though. Or it could've been a TV show... I wonder if the writer had read this book.

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  5. I went through a phase in the 1970s when I binged on Carter Dickson and John Dickson Carr mysteries. I read a couple dozen of them. Great Stuff!

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  6. I'm another reader who found this one disappointing. (Possibly because I read it in a poorly-conceived paperback edition, Berkley X1467, that gives a strong hint to the solution on the cover.) I agree that you have to suspend your disbelief quite far in order to get the most out of JDC, but this one just felt like, as HM might put it, jiggery-pokery. I'm a big fan of almost everything JDC ever wrote, but this one is in the bottom ten for me.

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    1. I saw that cover (I thought it was Collier?) when I went to trolling the internet looking for cover images of this book. Very stupid choice and it does give away one of the surprises. As Graham had to remind me my favoirte part was the discovery of Mildred's body in that creepy house. So macabre and very well done. Carr's real forte there. I didn't take too many notes on this one because the plot was so convoluted. I enjoyed Merrivale when he was on stage. But so many elements were distracting like Dennis' weird dream sequence (illustrated on the cover of the Pocket Boks edition) and the inclusion of that wannabe playwright at the inn. The emphasis on everyone *but* Merrivale was disappointing to me. He seemed to be used mostly for comic relief in this one. Until the very last chapter, that is, when he becomes the Merrivale I grew to admire for his performances in books like THE JUDAS WINDOW, SHE DED A LADY and HE WOULDN'T KILL PATIENCE.

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  7. This one is still on my TBR stack...I keep thinking I'm going to fit it in with one of my zillion challenges, but each year I manage to put it off. Maybe this year...We'll see.

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