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:
“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: