A shadow is hanging over Stoke Druid a village in Somerset. A campaign of poison pen letters is setting the villagers on edge, driving one young girl to suicide. The letters are signed by The Mocking Widow, a figure from local legend, symbolised by the giant rock situated on the outskirts, allegedly a witch turned to stone. But one villager, a bookseller, has the intelligence to summon help before things get any worse. Help in the shape of the Old Man himself, Sir Henry Merrivale.
Making his usually rambunctious entrance, Merrivale finds himself deeply concerned by the campaign of terror and fears things are going to get worse – and, of course, he’s right. The Widow herself materialises and vanishes into and out of a locked room and soon… well, eventually, someone else lies dead. Can H.M. put an end to the troubles and unmask the Widow?
I first read this book over ten years ago and (I think) it was the final one of the Merrivale tales for me. I’d forgotten almost all about it though, apart from a rough memory of how the materialisation occurred. So how was the re-read, undertaken for Past Offences’ Crimes Of The Century #1950book?
The book starts really well. Despite this being a late Merrivale, it has a very strong start and set-up and for the first two-thirds of the book, I was gripped. Merrivale’s opening antics, despite the image of a vicar riding an out-of-control wheeled suitcase, weren’t too over the top. There are some very effective scenes, not least when H.M. deals with the issues concerning a child – no spoilers, obviously – and it shows what a character the Old Man can be when he – well, Carr – is on form. Some of his thoughts aren’t exactly politically correct and he does give a bunch of ten-year-olds some cigars, but that fits with his character.
And then he dresses up as a “Red Indian”, Big Chief Much-Wampum, and instigates a mud fight in the village hall. Which has bugger all to with the plot, so I presume that Carr thought he was being funny… He wasn’t, by the way.
The identity of the Widow is pretty well-hidden, and the clues are there, sort of. But the motive is vague at best and the impossibility relies on a lot of chance to work.
What does it tell us about 1950? Well, basically that at this point, Carr’s best work was behing him and he was already setting books in the past, as this is set for some reason in 1938, so chronologically before the war-set Merrivales. So all we know about post-war Britain is that Carr didn’t want to write about it.
Oh, and we hear a little about Clemmie, Merrivale’s wife. Is this her only mention?
So, nowhere near as bad as the last two Merrivales (Behind The Crimson Blind and The Cavalier’s Cup) and there are some very good bits here, but they don’t make up a perfect hole. Worth A Look.
Here’s the link to my bibliography of other Carr reviews.