THE BURNING COURT (1937) by John Dickson Carr

There are oddly obscure mysteries from the Golden Age that are in fact still entertaining and clever and deserve to be rediscovered. Then there are novels that once were considered classics but now seem very tame indeed. And then there are those that were game changers, genuinely thrilling works that brought something brand new and which ensured that nothing could ever truly be the same ever again. John Dickson’s Carr’s The Burning Court, first published in 1937, is truly one of those. And, without spoilers, here’s why:

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

“The idea was that the woman’s neck might not have been completely fastened on.”

Built around the story of real-life 17th century poisoner Madame de Brinvilliers, this is one of Carr’s best-loved novels and it is easy to see why. Not only does it have a pair of impossible disappearances at its core, but it also dabbles in the supernatural to startling effect, with an ending that still divides even devotees of the great mystery writer. Set in the (then) recent past of 1929 in a small town in Pennsylvania, our protagonist is Edward Stevens, a book editor who, with his wife Marie, has a weekend home near the mansion of the Despard family, the head of which, Miles, recently died after a long illness. But there are rumours that it was murder. On his way home a week after the death, Edward picks up a true-crime manuscript he has been given and reads of a 19th century case involving a woman executed for witchcraft – and is startled when a photo of the woman seems to be of his wife!

When Edward arrived home he is not able to discuss this with Marie because Mark Despard turns up to ask for help. He believes that Miles was poisoned and they must dig the body out of the family crypt to see if this is true as he fears his wife, Lucy, may be implicated. This is because a trusted family servant claims that she saw a woman, wearing an outfit like the one Lucy had on for a masquerade ball that evening, standing by Miles’ bed just before he died – and who then vanished from the locked room by walking through a door that was bricked up years before. Edward and Mark, together with an old family friend recently returned from exile in England for performing an illegal termination, spend hours digging their way into the crypt at night, and discover that the body has vanished. Has the murderer hidden it to cover up their crime – or is Miles now one of the ‘undead’ controlled by the witch whose outfit Lucy copied for the ball and who placed a curse on the family generations ago?

“You’re going to open a grave tonight … and my guess, it’s only a guess … is that you’ll find nothing.”

The story is brilliant and exciting, and told with staggering skill. There are twenty chapters and at the end of each one Carr delivers a major plot revelation – this never feels mechanical because he has created such a densely packed story so that being spoiled with so rich a narrative just keeps building to the sense of excitement. And then we reach a brilliantly clever resolution that not only introduces a truly unforgettable deus ex machina in the shape of author Gaudan Cross (a self-confessed killer) but then goes on to reveal a wholly unexpected murderer and a satisfying explanation for the two miracle disappearances. And then comes an epilogue that I cannot talk about, but which is all anybody will want to talk about once they have read it …

“The wind has changed,” she said; “there’s going to be another storm tonight.”

Brad over at his Ah Sweet Mystery Blog has called this Carr’s Roger Ackroyd, and I think it is a terrific description. It is a book that offers all the great virtues of the Golden Age mystery – murders, a houseful of upper-class suspects, seemingly impossible elements – but then delivers not only a complex and genuinely clever solution. But then tops that with a gigantic left turn at the end. The effect is both disarming and destabilising, both showing up the artificial constructs of the traditional detective story for what they are and lifting a veil to show what might lie beneath the traditional form – and suddenly offers a bold and exciting new panorama for the genre. Doug Greene in his biography of Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles,  provides an interpretation of the ending that was suggested by his brother David and I have to say, I really like it. It would make for a great afterward to any new edition of the book because it just adds to one’s enjoyment of an already rich and marvellous text where the sense of ambiguity and horror is truly chilling and yet quite properly prepared for.

The book was adapted for TV and for radio in 1942 as part of the Suspense series to which Carr would so brilliantly start to contribute directly in just a few months. Considering that it has to pack an entire novel into a thirty minute running time, it does a remarkably good job of compression – even to the extent of retaining the novel’s amazing finale. You can find it easily, including the YouTube link posted above.

When it was performed again in 1945 with Clifton Webb as its star, the story was largely re-written, though again the finale was retained. You can listen to to this version here.

Incidentally, this is one of only two Carr novels to have been adapted for the cinema thus far (the other is That Woman Opposite, taken from The Emperor’s Snuffbox), I have yet to see La Chambre Ardente, directed by Julien Duvivier and released in France in 1962. It is available on DVD but not in an English-language friendly version sadly.

The Burning Court is classic Carr – if you haven’t read it, go out and get it now.

For details of all the author’s novels (and radio plays), check out my dedicated Carr microsite here.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘candle/chandelier’ category:

 

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Five Star review, Gothic, John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery, Pennsylvania. Bookmark the permalink.

72 Responses to THE BURNING COURT (1937) by John Dickson Carr

  1. This does have a really find blend of mystery, suspense, and chilling atmosphere, doesn’t it, Sergio? Delighted you highlighted here, and I can see why you rated it as you did.

  2. Colin says:

    Delighted to see you feature this. It’s a phenomenally good book, one of a number of barnstorming efforts by Carr, and it ought to be widely known and widely read. I love how it still retains its power and is able to stimulate controversy and debate.
    You’ve got me in the mood to revisit this one as soon as I can manage.

    • Cheers mate. Must admit, i was genuinely thrilled that it held up – I still found the twists surprising, the oppressive sense of the past impinging on the present so well caught – and then that breath-taking finale and the superb epilogue that follows – what a ride!

      • Colin says:

        I’ve gone back to revisit a few Carr titles in recent years and, for the most part, I found they all held up fine, some turning out better than I remembered. I do recall that feeling of an inescapable past from this book and thought at the time it was so well done.

        • It is a book that I think reads well the second time partly for that reason – realising just what kind of game Carr is really playing makes a re-read full of a different kind of excitement. I always remain a bit in awe of how fecund his imagination was in those first two decades especially.

          • Colin says:

            Oh yes, he was certainly in his pomp at that time and it’s a great ride to go along on. Good point about rereads of complex plots.

          • I have saved about half a dozen Carrs for a really rainy day but am really enjoying going to those that I only read in translation the first time round – but yeah, any excuse to read Carr is good! 😉

          • Colin says:

            I’m in the middle of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box just now, another reread, and again probably enjoying it as much or more than the first time. It’s more a character piece than an out and out puzzler but I do so enjoy the world Carr created all the same.

          • Yes, I agree – I particularly like his books for their strong female characters and in many ways the working of the central plot trick in this one is all about the woman in question’s psychological make-up.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, and there’s a compassion, an acknowledgment of human foibles and frailty, that you don’t always find with other mystery writers. It’s quite refreshing.

          • I agree completely, that part of his writing is too often overlooked. I do really enjoy Fell and Merrivale as larger than life detectives, which is often a great contrast to the “supporting” players, though that very lateness may be what has held some readers back of course.

          • Colin says:

            Yet those supporting players are frequently so well drawn, so human. And, as you mentioned above, it’s especially noticeable in his depiction of females. I find that especially admirable given the era and the genre. One of the great paradoxes concerning Carr is how his innate conservatism can be, if not quite displaced, at least overshadowed by some genuinely progressive attitudes.

          • And I think it is even more impressive when you compare that aspect with most of his peers . Of course, this unexpected side to him does go hand in hand with some sometimes peculiar ideas about justice – I bet he also let off more murderers than most!

  3. Brad says:

    I was just listening to the Suspense radio play in my car, Sergio! I did not know there was a TV version! Bless you, my friend, for providing the link! I can’t wait to watch it.

    If there’s one thing that gets hammered into our heads again and again, it’s that classic mystery fiction helped people deal with the horrors of the warring world around them by reducing death to a logic problem and restoring peace and order at the end. Carr doesn’t let us off like that here in any way, shape or form. Christie did the same thing only once – in And Then There Were None, and brilliant though that novel was, it doesn’t come close to the production of terror that Carr manages here!

    • Thanks Brad, really kind of you, and I agree completely. I should point out, that embedded link is to the first radio production as it appears on YouTube. I have no idea if the TV version still exists anywhere I’m afraid …

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have already given detailed comments at crossexaminingcrime. I repeat them here.

    MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT !

    I regard The Burning Court as a brilliant novel provided the epilogue is removed. The epilogue spoils it for me.
    When one reads a locked room/impossible crime novel of Carr, one expects rational explanations for all the strange events. Hence I regard the epilogue as a cheat.
    Of course, Carr has the right to write a novel of any genre including supernatural, but there must be some indication of this to the reader. In The Burning Court, there is no such indication from the beginning to the penultimate chapter.
    Take for example the Sherlock Holmes story The Sussex Vampire (incidentally, one of the most ingenious Sherlock Holmes story). If, after Holmes has given the rational explanation, the author says that the rational explanation is wrong and that there is actually vampirism, what would be the reaction of the reader? The reader will certainly not tolerate this, though Doyle has written several supernatural stories.
    If supernatural explanations are allowed for a locked room/impossible crime, then there is absolutely no ingenuity in the solution. One can easily explain any strange event whatsoever.
    Though many people are enthusiastic about the epilogue, I frankly admit that I could not make head or tail of the epilogue. Who or what are the non-dead ?
    Not content with entities like vampire, ghost, evil spirit etc, Carr creates a new entity called the non-dead !
    It seems that the non-dead are so called because they are reincarnated to “construct a whole cycle of the non-dead, and a return for ever of the slayers and the slain” (Chapter 9) (Actually, according to Hindu philosophy, everyone gets reincarnated and one need not be a non-dead to get reincarnated ! )
    An excerpt from the epilogue: “But I did not wish my husband to guess, not yet. I love him, I love him; he will be one of us presently, if I can transform him without pain. Or too much pain.”
    It seems that to join the non-dead, one has to be killed by poisoning or violent means. However, Edward Stevens,the person referred to in the previous paragraph is alive and well after 8 years ! The events of the book take place in 1929 and it is mentioned on the first page that “Stevens himself now admits that it is a relief to state facts”. ‘Now’ clearly refers to 1937, the year of publication of the book.
    Again Edward Stevens is alive and well even after 36 years ! He is referred to briefly in Panic In Box C (1966) whose events take place in 1965.
    I quote 2 more excerpts from the epilogue:
    “Yes, I knew Gaudin. He had been seeking me, too, it seems. Nor have I denied his cleverness. It was clever of him to pluck a physical explanation, a thing of sizes and dimensions and stone walls, out of all those things which had no explanation I was prepared to give them. I wondered that he could do it so cunningly, for I am not clever. “
    “If I am not clever, as they say, still I think I had the better of Gaudin after all. Gaudin asked Gaudin‘s price for what he did, and it was unfortunate that he wished to return to me. He would have been impossible as a lover. And Gaudin was flesh and bone, until the ointment was used. He will return to flesh and bone presently, but I have the better of him now”
    The above 2 excerpts are utter nonsense to me. ( Ravings of a mad woman !) Why was he so intent on saving her ? She, being non-dead would have reincarnated anyway even if executed. In fact, in her previous reincarnation also, she was a poisoner, and was guillotined but has reincarnated in her present life.
    Of course, it may be my personal taste. Vampires, ghosts, evil spirits, non-dead etc. are simply not my cup of tea. I prefer to read novels with more realistic characters !
    A third solution to the Burning Court is suggested in Douglas Greene’s book John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. According to the third solution, her musings in the epilogue show not that she is a witch but that she is mad. She may have thought herself a witch, but there is no strong evidence to prove that she was one, and some indirect evidence to the contrary. The indirect evidence is that she plans to ‘transform’ (i.e. kill) her husband soon, but the husband is alive after 8 years and even after 36 years, as stated earlier by me.
    Thus the third solution is more or less the first (rational) solution, but in the end, it is she (mad woman) who kills her helper (because he wanted to seduce her and she wanted to escape his unwelcome attentions) and then goes mad.
    I can accept the first and third solutions. But I can’t accept the supernatural solution. Non-dead, indeed !

    • I don’t agree with you Santosh, but I understand where you are coming from here 🙂

      MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT !

      I would disagree that it has not been adequately prepared for as there are several elements, right from the photo at the beginning, that point to the possibility of the supernatural. And there is no reason not to accept the supernatural, per se. And also what i like about that finale is that it changes what we feel about the motives of the author / detective Gaudin but I think it was about him wanting to win her back as a lover by protecting her and blaming someone else for the crimes, not directly part of the cycle of reincarnation. And yes, that reference to Stevens from the 1960s does confuse things but maybe Marie couldn’t find a way to make it happen without making him suffer! But what I admire is just how much it upturns the apple cart and changes what we feel is possible in the genre. But of course that can;t be to everybody’s tastes. Thanks so much for giving it so much thought and sharing it 🙂

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Actually, all evil and wicked things are done by living human beings, not by ghosts ! In the French film La Chambre Ardente (of which I have the English dubbed version), a character remarks,”The dead are much kinder than the living. They’ve never hurt anybody.”

  5. Paula Carr says:

    Not reading that spoiler! Off to get the book. Then, I shall return!

  6. What an amazing 24 hours it has been to be a Carr fan. We’ve been treated to a sudden avalanche of reviews of top titles by the author.
    1. This review of the Burning Court, definitely one of Carr’s better works.
    2. Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery provided us a review of the classic The Emperor’s Snuff Box, although I can’t say that I agree with his assessment.
    3. Dan at The Reader is Warned gave a Poe-lensed view of It Walks By Night.
    4. JJ at The Invisible Event reviewed The Unicorn Murders, which features one of Carr’s best puzzles.

    Top that off with Puzzle Doctor’s review of The Gilded Man earlier this week, and I’ll throw in a plug for my review of Fear is the Same. I can’t think of a similar Carr-fest since JJ organized the whole 110th birthday blitz. Is there some party that I wasn’t invited to?

    As for The Burning Court – the end is an absolute firecracker. Pretty much all Carr books feature an engaging ending as the secrets are revealed, but this one takes it over the top. The only other Carr book that I think contends for the sheer number of revelations is The Ten Teacups, and as much as a wild ride that was, it wasn’t nearly as satisfying.

    • JJ says:

      Is there some party that I wasn’t invited to?

      He knows! Quick, everyone hide!!

      I remain that odd beast: the dedicated, defend-him-to-the-death Carr fanatic who still hasn’t read this book. Part of me, in light of Brad’s thoroughly lukewarm responce to The Emperor’s Snuff Box, wonders precisely how I’ll get on with this having spent quite some time now being told what an unparalleled masterpiece it is…but, well, that’s a problem for another time.

      • I think you’ll love this. Snuffbox is wonderful, but much less of a ox of tricks. Indeed, to me Snuffbox has always seemed like the closest thing Carr did that truly resembled a Christie. Burning Court could belong to no other author and is sublime – you’ll adore it, honest!

        • JJ says:

          I’ve already had the impossibilities spoiled by a now-mysteriously-missing person, so while I wait to acquire a copy I’m hoping the memory of that will fade a little (it won’t). But if it’s that quintessentially Carr then hopefully I can’t miss!

        • Brad says:

          I get the point: in the absence of any sort of locked room paraphernalia, Carr is relying on misdirection, as Christie did. As I wrote in my post, the clue surrounding the snuffbox itself is magnificent. But the main lie here is exactly the same trick Carr pulled in It Walks by Night – and that didn’t fool me either!! Christie pulled it, too, but in a more minor way (as in Death on the Nile.) I’m being purposely vague here in order to avoid spoilers, but I’m happy to talk privately with anyone.

          In light of my reaction to Snuffbox, this is the first time I see the Christie comparison as a mild insult! (Not mad at you, Sergio, just sayin’ . . .)

    • Yes, it has been rather a good time to be a Carr fan, you’re right. my theory is that a) it is always a good time to read Carr and b), especially when the world feels like ti is going to hell in a handbasket. I love Ten Teacups, but this is another sort of beast, I agree …

      • TomCat says:

        I was as pleased as Green Capsule to find myself beneath this sudden and unexpected avalanche of Carr reviews, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite Carr titles sometime next week.

        On The Burning Court, I only read the Dutch translation, many years ago, but it failed to impress me to the same extent as many of my fellow Carrians. I did not dislike the book, but neither thought of it as a five-star detective story. Maybe it was the translation. Maybe it was the final twist in the tail of the story. Maybe it just wasn’t my kind of mystery. In any case, sometime in the future, I’ll give the original English edition a shot.

        • Thanks for that TC – I do think that the classic status needs to be cumulative – the main narrative, before the two endings is very very good, but not automatically his best. then you get the first ending, which is a terrific surprise in terms of villain and detective. And then you get that finale that to me does work, does fit in with the book and just blew my mind all over again, a great feeling after all these years. i read it first in Italian,. this was my first time in English.

        • JJ says:

          If past trends are anything to go by, this indicates that I’ll love it, then…

  7. Anne H says:

    So many books to read – and now I’ll have to re-read this one, which I last re-read about thirty years ago. However, I have actually seen the film. It was shown on Australian television in 1966 I think it was. That’s so long ago I remember very little about it, but think it was one of a series of European films. It starred among others Nadja Tiller, who was in other films shown about that time. Wikipedia has a short description that barely jogs my memory. But I have seen it, also the other one, That Woman Opposite, shown around the same time. Both interesting but not the genuine Carr, if I recall correctly my reaction.

    • Thanks Anne – certainly updating BURNING COURT to the 1960s, while in keeping with the many pseudo-Gothic films being released in Europe at the time, sounds like ti would rob it of much of the mystique 🙂

  8. It’s been an age since I’ve read this one but completely agree with this being a masterpiece – I may disagree on some “classics” such as the ultra-contrived Ten bloody Teacups and the frankly ridiculous Crooked Hinge but this is his best non-series book, alongside The Nine Wrong Answers (and Snuffbox close behind)

    • I am not going to disagree with you about the non-series books – these are the ones that I would lend when trying to hook them on carr (as I am doing right now with a couple fo mates of mine in fact). Though, funnily enough (I kid you now), next to my desk I have the next three I plan to lend to my friend Linda – and they are (drum roll please): BURNING COURSE, CROOKED HINGE and … THE TEN TEACUPS – honest 🙂

  9. Why not go the whole hog and lend her Behind The Crimson Blind and The Hungry Goblin? There are more direct ways of ending friendships… 😄

    If people want to take a look at Sergio’s and my differences on The Crooked Hinge, then take a look here https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/the-crooked-hinge-by-john-dickson-carr-a-joint-review/ and JJ and me taking a spoiler filled run at The Ten Teacups is here https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/the-ten-teacups-by-carter-dickson-time-for-some-spoilers/

    • Well, I should add that she has already read most of the obvious Carr titles, such as HOLLOW MAN, JUDAS WINDOW, SHE DIED A LADY, SNUFFBOX, BLACK SPECTACLES ….

      • That’s the problem with Carr. Read all the good ones first and then there’s an inevitable crash in quality eventually. I spent a while trying it dissuade JJ at the weekend from reading Carr in order and get some of the dross out of the way earlier…

        • There are very few that I really don’t like though – up to 1950 there are none that I wouldn’t re-read, though clearly there are weaker one. The final couple of Merrivales I have never re-read, same goes for the final few historicals from the late 60s and early 70s. But otherwise, I find most of them still highly entertaining at the worst and drop down fabulous classics at their best. I know we don’t entirely chime on this … 🙂

          • I know. I have difficulty with some of the early books – The Blind Barber for example – but even Dorothy L Sayers liked that one, so I know I’m in a bit of a minority on how lesser Carr’s lesser works actually are…

          • Not criticising though, because it’s important to have high standards though, especially in crime fiction. Some of his are good without being remarkable – it is because he is so good at his best that we might be disappointed. Luckily he wrote so many that were so damn good!

        • JJ says:

          And I listened, I promise!

    • Brad says:

      I thoroughly enjoyed your dual (or should it be duel?) review on The Crooked Hinge with Sergio, PD. I must side with Sergio here, although my memories of the book are veiled in the mists of time! I thought it was extremely clever, and I loved the culmination of the witchcraft plot line. Personally, I think it’s oodles (yes, I said oodles) better than The Ten Teacups, but varied opinions are the spice of our lives!

      • Well, thanks Brad – but I love Ten Teacups. Though, as I keep having to admit, it has been decades since I read it – but I remember the enormous pleasure I had in realising how the impossible crime was achieved (though it is very, very, very improbable). And that scene with the body under the sheet is just fantastic!

      • With the Teacups, JJ and I tended to agree on the many problems with it – it’s more of a question if the cleverness of the method outweighs the stupidness of it. But yes, Sergio and I had more of a disagreement on Crooked Hinge…

        • Well, we disagreed about the automaton, but otherwise agreed on the alibi cheat and the rest was a question of degree. Shades of grey, never black and white. Hell, us Carr fans got to stick together 🙂

  10. THE BURNING COURT is one of John Dickson Carr’s best novels. I’m very fond of the Jeff Jones cover you present above. Excellent review of a classic!

    • Thanks George – I wish I had that edition. Instead I have one from Tandem that published it as a horror novel so that the blurb pretty much goes out of its way to annoy readers who have not read it before by focusing on the wrong elements.
      Tandem

  11. I am one of those who liked the ending and reviewed it favourably a few years ago. The audacity of it! I think he pulls it off.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    Glad it held up for you…I’ve been meaning to get to this one for decades. And this Has to be the least obscure set of “Forgotten” books we’ve ever come up with…(mine even kinda sorta ain’t…it’s an obscure attempt at a periodical book, featuring excerpts from several modern classics or nearly so).

  13. Well, I will definitely be reading this one, Sergio. Well done, my friend. This is a wonderful review. As you know it is all due to your enthusiasm that I’ve recently begun re-reading Carr (I’ve got THE EMPEROR’S SNUFF BOX and AND SO TO MURDER lined up.) So, thanks for that. Oh and thanks for introducing me to ahsweetmysteryblog.

  14. tracybham says:

    Sounds very good and I will definitely be looking for a copy, Sergio.

  15. Matt Paust says:

    Speaking of staggering skill, Sergio, this review sold me even tho I’m not a Golden Age fan and I will probly have to skip an FFB Friday to read this. I would never dare try to review it now!

  16. A very fine review, Sergio. While the story sounds “brilliant and exciting,” as you mention, the supernatural element appears to take this mystery to a completely different — and almost improbable — level. A personal reading of the novel is necessary to see what I make of this Dickson Carr classic.

    • The supernatural is actually a part of several Carr novels (three from the 1950s involve time travel in fact) – here it really relates to content from he past … but of course, you really need to read it 🙂

  17. Denny Lien says:

    I love this one, and only in part because I first read it in ideal circumstances — working as an overnight desk clerk at a dormitory at my college for a special event. Which meant it was dark, it was quiet, there was nobody else around for hours at a time, and I was alone with the book. . .

    Still loved it when I reread many years later, though in less idea circumstances. And I agree the radio version did a very good job of adapting it within the strict thirty-minutes format.

    Barzun and/or Taylor’s distaste for the book, or at least for its final reveal, pretty much for me put the capper on the “if they like a book I won’t and if they don’t I probably will” reverse rule I later followed in tracking down books based on their anti-recommendations, by the way.

  18. When I read it I think I had heard too much about it, and was expecting greater things than I got – and I did not much like the second ending. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good read, entertaining and very clever indeed. Just not in my top 5. I did get hold of the film a while back, in a dubbed version: I got a copy sent over from America on what was virtually a record-on-demand deal – legit, but not very professional. And the copy I got did it no favours, between the dubbing and some jerkiness and other problems – I don’t think I could really form a judgement on the film based on my watching of it, and I actually threw the disc away when i’d got as much as I could from it.

  19. Ela says:

    The more I read by Carr, the more he impresses me as a writer and plotter – though I’ve read only a tiny fraction of his immense output. This isn’t one that I know or have read, but sounds fascinating.

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