SPEAK OF THE DEVIL (1941) by John Dickson Carr

Carr_Speak-of-the-Devil_crippenlandruThis historical mystery, set around the battle of Waterloo and involving a locked room murder, a phantom woman who only our hero believes exists, a mysterious ‘man in black’ and a duel in a hot air balloon, was for decades a ‘lost’ radio serial by the great John Dickson Carr. The story began on the eve of Napoleon’s defeat, when Captain Auden claims he fell in love with a young mysterious woman who subsequently vanished. One year later he is still looking for her, even though she was reported dead …

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

Tring: “I’ve still got my pistol. I’ll put a ball through the gas bag and we’ll go to glory like gentlemen. Be ready when I count three. One … (more faintly) … two ... (the voice weakens. We hear the loud hissing of gas.)

In 1815 Captain Hugh Austen of the Grenadier Guards was wounded at the Battle of Waterloo, leaving him with a scar on his forehead. A year afterwards he still claims that in Brussels, three days before he was injured, he met a mysterious woman who stole his heart and then promptly vanished. He was warned off by a gruff, mysterious ‘man in black’ but he clings to the cameo of herself she left behind. But surely he is being set up – who walks around with a cameo of themselves? Still trying to find her, he is challenged by that all-round bounder Tommy Tring to go up a hot air balloon as part of a sinister wager from which only one of them will return. Is Tring connected to the mystery of the missing woman? Why is he so antagonistic? It eventually emerges that all is related to the death of the miserly Mrs Carver and the person hanged for her murder – yes, that’s right, the very woman who Austen has fallen for had been already executed well before their apparent meeting in Brussels, she has already been executed …

Mary: “Mrs Carver had her throat cut on the night of the eight of March. A thousand gold sovereigns were stolen out of her bandbox under her bed. Mrs Carver and I were alone in the house, except for two maids who were locked up in the attic. So they said that I did it, you see, because nobody else could have done it.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical romp, with its cliffhangers at the end of every episode (my favourite come at the end of episode three, with Tring and Austen in a balloon that is expelling its toxic gas into their faces, their only option to shoot into it and probably blow themselves up).


It was originally broadcast in 1941 on BBC radio as an 8-part serial from 10 February to 31 March on Monday evenings between 6.40 and 7 o’clock and introduced Valentine Dyall as ‘The Man in Black’, albeit a very different character from the narrator of Carr’s iconic anthology, Appointment with Fear, which he would only start to play some years later. Long thought lost (Carr rarely kept copies of his radio scripts), it was rescued from obscurity by intrepid researcher Tony Medawar and published by Doug Greene’s Crippen & Landru imprint in 1994. It reads extremely well, with the narrator navigating us through the story and Carr’s lively dialogue and stage directions painting vivid pictures with words. As was his wont, he also provides us with plenty of examples of arcane detail and ancient lore (we learn that to ‘try your hand at a wafer’ meant practising at a shooting range)

The runner“Well, my bucko, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re for you. (Snarling) Stand fast or I’ll let daylight in you!”

The story ultimately explains all its many mysteries and is a delight, as are the various characters, most especially the lawyer Godfrey who, when offered a drink, always claims to ‘seldom touch strong waters’ but invariably succumbs to temptation and gets fairly squiffy. In fairness, one has to concede that Speak of the Devil does have at its centre a gigantic, hard-to-swallow coincidence, with Tring and Austen’s balloon just happening to land near the house where the phantom woman and the ‘man in black’ are to be found. Even in 1816 the odds against that were astronomical! Despite being patently absurd this doesn’t actually hurt the story that much because Austen could have found it in another more pedestrian way eventually – this is just much livelier!

I have provided an index to Carr’s radio plays here. This edition, with a long intro by Medawar on the history of Carr’s historical fiction, and an amusing Carrian set of ‘Notes for the Curious’ at the end, is well worth finding and hanging on to.

Availability: Sadly this broadcast appears to be lost …

Speak of the Devil (BBC Home Service from  10 February to 31 March 1941)
Director: Val Gielgud
Producer: Val Gielgud
Scriptwriter: John Dickson Carr
Cast: Carleton Hobbs (narrator), James McKechnie (Hugh Austen), Betty Hardy (Lady Cynthia Mercer), Fredenck Lloyd (The Prince Regent), Austin Trevor (Tommy Tring)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘historical mystery’ category:


***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Audio Review, England, John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery, London. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to SPEAK OF THE DEVIL (1941) by John Dickson Carr

  1. realthog says:

    Oh, boy, this sounds absolutely wonderful (and the broadcast serial was produced by Val Gielgud, no less!). I really must try to lay hands on a copy.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Oh, those old cliffhanger serials! They can be great, I think. Thanks for sharing this one, Sergio. Carr did so many kinds of crime writing well, so I’m not surprised you thought this one worked. And it does sound ideal for a series of radio broadcasts.

  3. Bev Hankins says:

    This sounds like great fun! I haven’t (in the past) been a fan of Carr’s historical mysteries, but I could be persuaded to give this one a try.

  4. Colin says:

    One of the very few Carr books I don’t own – I’m not sure why. I think it just got overlooked in the mix. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be too readily available.

    • I got mine pretty much when it came out circa 1994 – I don’t think it’s been reprinted by Crippen & Landu. Indispensable if you are a fan of Carr’s radio work I might add 🙂

      • Colin says:

        I like his historicals a bit less than his other stuff, but it does sound pretty good – not such a surprise I guess. I’ll definitely lay my hands on a copy at some point.

        • I used to like the historicals less as a youngtser too – not sure why exactly (probably not that interested in royalty …). I really like Fire, Burn and Devil in Velvet certainly made an impression, though I wonder if the fantastical trimmings appealed to my younger self! Having said that, I don’t read a lot in that genre in general though I hear Patrick O’Brien CJ Sansom are first rate …

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    The book is out of print and the limited number of new copies available are being sold at exorbitant prices. For example, at amazon.in, the only available copy of the book is being sold at ₹ 6738 (roughly 108 dollars) !

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Such a shame the recording is lost. The BBC need shooting sometimes.

    • I know what you mean Karen, though I think for the most part the BBC have done an amazing job under really difficult conditions (they did keep the scripts, which is mroe that Carr ever did). A lot of this stuff would have gone out live anyway and it wasn’t until the late 1940s that the introduction of magnetic tape made it viable to pre-record drama at a quality that would have been acceptable for playback. A massive shame though, I quite agree.At least in the case of lost Paul Tmeple adventures these are being re-recorded. Would love it if they did that for Carr and other radio authors from that era.

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    THought I had read all of his books but I don’t remember this title at all. May have skipped over it because historical fiction is not my favorite.

    • I know what you mean about the historical – it has only been published by Crippen & Landru. The fact that it is a radio serial may limit its appeal but I think it reads very well.

  8. I’ve found John Dickson Carr to be an uneven writer. Sometimes he writes classics and sometimes he writes clunkers. Unless the historical setting is compelling, it can detract from the actual mystery.

    • Thanks George – I’m fairly biased when it comes to his work – basically, pretty much everything pre 1965 usually gets a thumbs up from me 🙂 But I agree, I have read several books where the writer got lost in the details and lost me as a reader!

      • Brian says:

        Interesting to hear that. I am primarily a big fan of his Dr Fell mysteries – just finished the Sleeping Sphinx last week – and to a slightly lesser extent his Merrivale novels (under Dickson Carr) but I have found reading his Dr Fell novels post-1950 to be somewhat laborious. I notice that there was a large gap between Below Suspicion in 1949 and his next Fell novel The Dead Man’s Knock in 1958 so perhaps Carr had grown weary of his character.

        • Thank you Brian – I think you are probably right – in the 50s he quickly phased out the Merrivale books (and the ‘Carter Dickson’ pseudonym) to concentrate on historical mysteries – it really does seem that he had less and less time for the modern world by all accounts – the Fell books are not as good from Dead Man’s Knock in 1958 onwards, but I really enjoy all of them just the same. it is only by comparison that they truly suffer in my view – and frankly, you can say the same for Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple etc etc from that era, right?

  9. Like your commenters above, I’m less keen on the historical fiction (though I did like the Devil in Velvet) and have not come across this one at all. It sounds extremely interesting – but keeps making me think of Georgette Heyer! Now there’s a collaboration that I think we all would have enjoyed….

  10. Yvette says:

    Now this is something I’d like to listen to, Sergio. What a romp. My local library as NO John Dickson Carr books on its shelves – can you believe it? At any rate, thank goodness for online second hand book dealers. Wonderful review, as always, my friend.

  11. Sergio, while I haven’t read John Dickson Carr yet, I can see why this might be an unusual, albeit a wonderful, tale coming from his prolific pen. Are historical settings, certainly one from the Napoleonic era, really uncommon? Or was Carr, as George notes, an “uneven writer” who dabbled in this sort of thing?

    • Sergio, pardon my ignorance, but I’m assuming the novel came after the radio broadcast.

      • Hi Prashant – Speak of the Devil is not a a novel, apologies for any confusion caused. The book reprints the eight scripts for the radio serial, with an introduction and afterword by Tony Medawar. I really wish Carr had reused the material for a novel, though he did use part of the plot for a short stage play

    • I don’t necessarily agree with George on this (though Julian Symons sure did) 🙂 From 1950 onward Carr started writing a lot of historical mysteries, mainly set in the Regency and Victorian eras and was probably the first mystery author to generate a sizeable body of work in the genre before it really took off. Some of his best historical books, like Fire, Burn (1957), Fear is the Same (1956) (as by ‘Carter Dickson’) and The Devil in Velvet (1950) include fantastical elements like time travel that not everybody likes. Douglas Greene, Carr’s biographer, has written that Carr felt, after the war, increasingly disenchanted with the new world and retreated increasingly into the past. It is true that most of Carr’s books after the mid 1960s are historicals and there is a serious, undeniable drop in quality as the increasingly ill Carr found it harder and harder to write.

  12. Sergio, no confusion from your side; it’s just my lack of understanding. I’m often slow at grasping the obvious. Thanks for the detailed insight into Carr’s historical mysteries. Fascinating really. As I said earlier, I’ll be reading and reviewing one of his novels in April.

  13. tracybham says:

    I haven’t read any of Carr’s books yet… I am going to have to do that just so I can quit saying that. But… it means I will start with some of his more standard fare…But I might enjoy a radio play reprint eventually. The format itself should be interesting.

  14. Pingback: #895: “There are some jokes, young man, that are not permitted here.” – Speak of the Devil [rp] (1994) by John Dickson Carr [ed. Tony Medawar] | The Invisible Event

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