She Died a Lady: Carter Dickson (1943)

 

The date, 1943. The author, Carter Dickson. The story, a classically macabre and unique mystery from the master of the impossible crime.

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The singular Rita Wainwright has found herself tangled in an love affair with young american actor Barry Sullivan. Not being able to take the secrecy of hiding it from her husband, and knowing that they could never be together, the pair decide to make a suicide pact, and throw themselves from the top of the 70 foot cliff at the end of her garden, fitting called Lover’s Leap. The scene is thoroughly examined and only two sets of footprints are left in the damp earth that leads to the edge. But when their bodied wash up it turns out they did not die from falling 70 feet onto a bed of rocks, but were both shot in the chest at close range. The gun that they were shot with is found, and it is impossible that either of them fired it themselves.

Golden Age writer John Dickson Carr, and under his pseudonym Carter Dickson, wrote over 70 novels, almost all of which are impossible crimes or have impossible elements. She Died A Lady was his 17th novel under the Carter Dickson banner, featuring his Dickson series detective, the hilarious Sir Henry Merrivale.

Carr was on top form with his scene descriptions and use of prose here. Lines like: ‘The sky was lead-coloured; the water dark blue; the headlands, at bare patches in their green, like the colours of a child’s modelling-clay run together’, set atmospheres that linger long after the page they appear on. Equally, the characters were quickly and powerfully established, described as to be implanted in your head. All unique without feeling parodied or unnatural, with a sharp dose of humour thrown in.

The real strength of this book though, is the plotting. It’s an absolute roller coaster when it comes to directions and threads being weaved together. For example, about half the way in, just when you think you know what is happening a secret is revealed which is so absurd and shocking it knocks you sideways. After Carr let’s the shock settle in, he shows you how it seamlessly links to everything you have seen so far. To finish, he drops the killer and the solution in a high paced denouement, which leaves you needing a to take a day off.

The solution to the impossibility as with all Carr’s best works, is devilishly simple. Though, for me, there were a few too many theoretical mechanics involved, and it was related to specific things from the time period that you may not be totally familiar with. However there was one simple idea, clued so well in a throw away line (which was so obvious on reflection), that left me smacking my forehead for weeks.  I can see why this book is as well respected as it is.

I had heard about Carr’s poor handling of women characters on occasion, but was yet to experience it. Having recently read the amazing ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, and reflecting on other classics like ‘The Judas Window’, where his women are some of the strongest, plot moving and developed characters, it was difficult to find this less well handled. There are only so many times I can hear the narrator describe the body, face or lip shape of every woman. Although on reflection I am starting to wonder if it was the narrator’s view of these females that we are being thrust into, as his descriptions are consistent with his character as a kind of bumbling, slightly out of touch older male? I was almost coping with that, but then this line dropped as if from nowhere: ‘Though it is dangerous to make generalities, this was far from being the first time in my life when I have observed the absolute incapacity of any woman for telling the truth when truth becomes unsuitable. There is no intent to do wrong in this. To the female sex, it simply does not matter. Truth is relative; truth is fluid; truth is something to be measured according to emotional needs, like Adolf Hitler’s.’

Unless I have deeply misunderstood this line (I have read it over and over) this was simply too much for me, and left a sour taste, even accounting for the time of writing. It seemed to be totally incongruous, and written without enough irony, even if it was a character attribute or parody of the narrator himself. I’m not sure, and would like to hear some thoughts from readers on this. It is (although weirdly shocking) a small moment, and as the brilliant feminist, media critic Anita Sarkeesian always says, it is possible to still enjoy a cultural work while being critical of certain elements of it.

A final thought about this, there was also some interesting gender reflections when Rita Wainwright is maliciously called a ‘theatrical’ woman by certain characters and therefore not taken seriously, her name being dragged through the mud. This idea becomes subverted as the narrative goes on, and people are shown up for judging a book by its cover. Speaking of which the title is really brilliant, and when revealed in the book it’s a real shocker, relating to these ‘theatrical’ reflections and subversions.

My conclusion, grab and read this book. For the plotting, for the feeling of the mystery rippling throughout, the clues that niggle at the back of your head and the tensions coming left right and centre. But as for the difficulties, the reader is warned.

I am submitting this review as part of the Crimes of The Century series by Rich over at Past Offences, this month in celebration of classic detective fiction published in 1943 . 

13 thoughts on “She Died a Lady: Carter Dickson (1943)”

  1. The Hitler line never really bothered me; I always read it sort of like this: “Truth is relative, truth is fluid, in the same way Hitler uses fluid and relative truths depending on what he wants to communicate”. I don’t think Carr was comparing women to Hitler, I think he was simply reaching for the most appreciable example of the day of someone who has demonstrated a clear intent to be less than consistent with the truth, in exactly the same way that “alternative facts” has become the mockery of recent weeks. There are perhaps enough clauses and subclauses in that sentence to allow for any interpretation you wish to put on it, but — given the patiently mocking tone of most of Carr’s work I;d read to that point — I didn’t and don’t see anything sinister in this. Curious as to your interpretation of it, though…

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    1. Thanks JJ, I’m glad to hear that you hadn’t taken it in a negative way, and your points about Carr’s mocking tone and the comparison to ‘alt-facts’ is really helpful. Particularly as I have just finished Nine – and Death Makes Ten for the first time (brilliant!) and he makes similar statements about Hitler twisting and manipulating truth, and the climate of those claims getting under peoples skin after a murder. I’m also realising that this would have been while Hitler was alive that this book was published, so Hitler would be making his speeches and we may not know the full atrocities of his rule at this point? I think for me it was such a shock reading this paragraph in retrospect of all we know about Hitler’s atrocities now, and the seeming link with women was too much for me.

      To view it in the way you have, puts the female aspect of the quote back in the realm of showing up/parodying the narrator’s cynical and slightly ridiculous tone through the book. And if we view it in that way, it’s interesting that Carr wouldn’t be afraid to have acerbic narrators to take you through a story, even if their point of view is a painful read.

      On further reflection of your comment today, I also came to the point that if Carr really did think those things about women himself, we would probably see it all over his novels, and I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t see any female characters with any decent roles at all! And probably he wouldn’t have got very far with his publishing!

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      1. While it’s difficult to disagree with that assertaion “it is possible to still enjoy a cultural work while being critical of certain elements of it”, I’d say — especially in the realms of classic detective fiction — one must first think “context is everything”!

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  2. The ending of this book sticks with me more so than other Carr books – even The Burning Court. There’s something haunting about the ending, the way it makes you reflect back on how the story unfolded. If I were to re-read a Carr novel, this would be the one – just to study the way that perspective shaped things.

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  3. Thanks for the review, which made me want to re-read the novel. From memory, I thought it was ok to good, but not great. Perhaps it’s time for a re-assessment… 🙂

    I read ‘She Died a Lady’ after ‘Judas Window’ and before ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, and came out of the experience thinking that it was better than ‘Judas Window’, but also that ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ was the superior novel by a clear mile. I thought the romantic/ sexual tensions in both ‘She Died a Lady’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ were integral to the design of the puzzle, but things played out more compellingly in ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. Having said that, the culprits in both novels were hidden in the same fashion – and in a fashion that I feel ambivalent about…

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    1. Thanks JFW, its definitely worth a re-read. Particularly if you read Till Death Do Us Part so close by, as that just seems to overshadow everything! I was more convinced by the hiding of the killer in in TDDUP than SDAL, and I like your comment about the romantic tension which drives the narrative, I think thats a huge success with both books. In TDDUP it literally seethes from the first page, and the madness it creates in SDAL is wonderful.

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      1. *spoilers*

        In both “Till Death Do Us Part” and “She Died a Lady” I found the choice of culprits surprising insofar as they barely appeared and therefore were not exposed to much scrutiny. Which made things slightly dissatisfying for me. Having said that, from memory, the narratological reason as to why the culprit in “She Died” was not subject to much scrutiny I found to be quite clever and reasonable. After all, the narrator wouldn’t have suspected the culprit and wouldn’t have received key bits of information about the culprit from others.

        Will try to dig “She Died” from the bottom of my cupboard… 🙂

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      2. Yes it was a particular murderer in She Died which was at least consistent with the narrative structure. I wasn’t as bothered by the killer in TDDUP, I felt that they were there at the most key points.

        Cannot believe you have a Carr book in a cupboard!

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  4. Dan, I waited to read your review until I had read the novel and posted my own views. I think we concur on most levels – I certainly enjoyed this one – and I also found that Hitler reference jumping out at me for a couple of reasons, both of them disturbing and worthy of my own mention. It would be interesting to ultimately compare Rita Wainwright to Fay Seton of He Who Whispers, as only a few years later, Carr seems more open-minded in his take on the fairer sex. It would make for a great discussion amongst us all!

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    1. Thanks Brad! I would be very interested to move the discussion further on this. The Hitler reference is an interesting one, and with more of the comments that have come through on it (above), my opinion has changed slightly, but it definitely didn’t stop it being a surprise. And I think I am still unsure as to wether it is the ‘narrator’ as a character speaking, or Carr and his own views (at least at that point in his work). JJ mentioned about reaching for the person of the day, and thinking that at this point all of the untold horrific acts of Hitler may not have been revealed (?). I have been thinking about it as if someone were to reach for Trump now, and make a similar statement, would it show something more of the ‘narrator’s’ character and would it be the same? Obviously Trump and Hitler are different (so far) but the idea of fluid truth is the sentiment of the paragraph. Ugh, I’m not sure? Either way, it still doesn’t change the many women’s body references (although I am more convinced that is the narrators character, who is also called out for being outdated). It’s a tough one, and a good one, and worthy of discussion, as JJ’s post (in response to this review) on the subject of authorship has show, on which your observances were powerful and important, as with everyone else in this community.

      The comparison with Fay Seton would be very interesting, and also I would be interested in seeing a comparison with Christie’s handling of women as well.

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