Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Twist of Time

When Detective-Superintendent John Cheviot got into the twentieth-century taxi, nothing was amiss. “Scotland Yard,” he told the driver – meaning, of course, New Scotland Yard. He had no frisson of premonition, no encounter with a mysterious stranger… in short there was absolutely nothing to indicate anything unusual was about to occur. But when Cheviot got out of the taxi, he found himself at Old Scotland Yard… in the year 1829.

Cheviot finds himself part of Scotland Yard at its inception. The police are not seen as society’s protectors, but rather as a group of thugs with which high society needn’t bother. Apparently, everyone accepts Cheviot’s presence in 1829—perhaps he is re-enacting the historical role of an ancestor of his?—and it turns out that the original Cheviot was trying to join the newly-formed Scotland Yard.


Cheviot can bring his modern-day know-how and investigative techniques to the 19th century, which works to his favour when a woman dies in apparently impossible circumstances: in full view of three witnesses, a woman is shot dead. Yet the witnesses can vouch for each other, and apparently nobody else could have fired the fatal shot. How was it done?

This is the plot of John Dickson Carr’s Fire, Burn! (1957). I like to occasionally treat myself to a Carr novel, and before reading this one, I counted 14 Carr titles left for me to read (not counting the ultra-rare-and-I-will-probably-never-lay-my-eyes-on Devil Kinsmere). After asking the Golden Age Facebook group for opinions, I settled on Fire, Burn! as my next read. I was not disappointed.

Fire, Burn! is an excellent historical mystery. The atmosphere is wonderful, one of adventure and mystery. Carr does a marvellous job recreating the London of 1829, and his endnotes (“Notes for the Curious”) inform readers about his sources, and how his story is based on fact wherever possible. There are one or two rather surprising facts that come out of these notes, and which ground some of the story’s more exotic elements (such as the solution to the impossible crime).

As a mystery, this book is good… I guess. Yet I cannot really praise it, because I was left with a feeling of anti-climax. Though I did not correctly guess the identity of the murderer (in my defense I wasn’t really trying), I was let down when his identity was revealed. The way the impossible crime was concocted simultaneously manages to be ingenious and disappointing. It’s not so much a shocking revelation as it is a moment of “Oh… wait, that’s it?” In some ways, it relies on the historical setting to mask the solution, which otherwise might be too obvious.

Why, then, did I refer to the book as an “excellent historical mystery” a couple of paragraphs ago? What saves this book from being a mediocre read is the historical atmosphere. By 1957, Carr’s age was beginning to catch up to him. Becoming disillusioned with the modern world and what passed as “progress” in it, Carr began to turn to historical fiction more and more often. In some ways, this book is an escape for Carr as well as for his reader. On that level, Carr succeeds wonderfully. The most common failing of historical mysteries is when the writer spends 130 pages showing off all the research that went into writing the book, adding nothing to the story in that time. (It is crucial, after all, to learn about the complexities of the tea trade in the Victorian Era!) Carr manages to be both succinct and evocative.

Furthermore, though not particularly impressive as a “fair-play” mystery, Fire, Burn! is a wonderful adventure, bringing in everything from romance to duelling. The plot merrily zips along, and I personally enjoyed the ride considerably. Fire, Burn! is not on the same level as The Bride of Newgate, The Devil in Velvet, or Fear is the Same (published under the Carter Dickson pseudonym), but it was entertaining reading, and quite frankly, that’s all I asked for.

Notes for the curious: By my count, I only have the following thirteen Carr books left to read:
13 at the Gallows
Captain Cut-Throat
Dark of the Moon
Deadly Hall
The Demoniacs
The Hungry Goblin
Most Secret
Papa La-Bas
Patrick Butler for the Defence
Scandal at High Chimneys
The Sleeping Sphinx
Speak of the Devil
The Witch of the Low-Tide

9 comments:

  1. Glad you liked this one Patrick - I remember being thrilled when I first read it as a teen (I would have been about 4 years younger than you, so that makes it nearly 30 years ago!) but it is undeniable that Carr's work by this point was not as strong from his previous decades. I know what you mean about the murder method, it is very simple, and yet I have never forgotten it (and indeed, have always wanted to have one)

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    1. Yeah, even though I like a couple of the late Carrs (especially THE HOUSE AT SATAN'S ELBOW), I must admit that one of the reasons I've been so reluctant to read Carr often of late is that a lot of these books have bad reputations, especially "Patrick Butler for the Defence", "Dark of the Moon", "Deadly Hall", and "The Hungry Goblin". To my mind his last truly great novel (of the ones I've read) is FEAR IS THE SAME (1956), which I read a couple of weeks before starting the blog, and thus never got to review.

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  2. Why do even John Dickson Carr fans keep neglecting Captain Cut-Throat? Toss that one (immediately) on the top of the heap, Patrick!

    There was definitely a drop in qualify, as age took its toll, but the historical settings always seems to have revitalize Carr’s writing and plotting. I mean, compare The Bride of Newgate and The Devil in Velvet with Night at the Mocking Widow and Behind the Crimson Blinds, which were all published during the same time. The historical standalones are far superior to the later H.M. ones.

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    1. I can give you a very bad reason for why I've ignored CAPTAIN CUT-THROAT. The image at the link below is my edition:
      http://img1.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/n5/n27032.jpg

      I have a love/hate relationship with Carroll & Graf. Many of the used paperbacks I've gotten are their stuff, and so I've gotten to read books by Carr, Brand, and others which I might not otherwise have read. But their editing is consistently atrocious, and some of their covers are downright hideous. It's not nearly as bad as the Four Square edition of Crispin's SWAN SONG, but it's led me to approach books published by them with caution.

      Hey, I really liked NIGHT AT THE MOCKING WIDOW. Especially the scene with the runaway suitcase, in which Carr predicts the suitcase-with-wheels. BEHIND THE CRIMSON BLIND I also kind-of liked, in some ways. The only H.M. novel I really can't stand was THE CAVALIER'S CUP, which is very bitter, with humour that fails miserably and a plot which might be called paper-thin if it wasn't so insulting to paper.

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  3. Some of the Carrs you have yet to read are among his best work, but I kindly suggest you skip both PAPA LA BAS and SCANDAL AT HIGH CHIMNEYS as they might seriously temper your enthusiasm for the man (I was five years without reading anything by Carr after reading the former)
    Back to FIRE, BURN! It was Carr's biggest "hit" in France in his lifetime, winning the much coveted Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1968, tied with Tey's THE DAUGHTER OF TIME (yes I know, the French can be very slow at times) Carr oddly seems not to have been told about that as Douglas Greene doesn't mention it in his biography. I haven't read this one (there are quite a few of his books that I have yet to read, despite him being my all-time favorite crime writer) but your review makes me move it up my TBR pile.

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    1. If I remember Doug's Carr bio correctly, Boucher said some nice things about PAPA LA BAS, but according to Doug, it's more of an indication of how much Carr had slipped in quality by that point!

      I enjoyed this book enough to recommend it, but not necessarily enough to put it at #1 on your TBR pile, depending on what other Carrs you've got lying around. If FEAR IS THE SAME or THE DEVIL IN VELVET is among the unread, I'd recommend digging them out and putting them on top of Mount TBR.

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  4. Carr fascinates me. After making a number of posts regarding the books on the Mystery Writers of America and Crime Writers' Association top 100 Mystery Novel lists, I found Carr's The Three Coffins and Hillary Waugh's Last Seen Wearing were the two top mysteries which were not on Kindle. (Almost all of the list are on Kindle). Furthermore, I could find no unabridged audio recording, just radio dramatizations. So I bought both novels and I've just started reading Carr.

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    1. Martin, I read Carr for the first time because when I was kid, I read books in the "Wishbone Mysteries" series. In one of them, Carr's THE THREE COFFINS/THE HOLLOW MAN was mentioned, and it absolutely fascinated me. Years later, after I'd read all of Agatha Christie's stuff, Carr's name was mentioned to me, and I instantly remembered where I'd heard of him before. That weekend I went to the library, borrowed out THE THREE COFFINS and HAG'S NOOK, and I've been hooked ever since. I hope you enjoy the book -- please, come back and let us know how you liked it!

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    2. I enjoyed The Three Coffins and posted a "review" of it on DorothyL list, May 25th. I put "review" in quotes because I merely took excerpts from the book and linked them: I let the book review itself.

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