John Dickson Carr — arguably the finest detective novelist of all time, famed for the intricacy of his mystery schemes, and especially his impossible crimes, right? So, like, what if he were to write a novel with virtually no mystery, no detection, no impossibility, and a large number of men wearing silly wigs? That’d be weird, right? Welcome, one and all, to The Devil in Velvet!
Following a Faustian deal with Lucifer, 56 year-old dusty historian Nicholas Fenton is sent back in time from 1925 to 1675 to occupy the body of 26 year-old gadabout, rake, womaniser, and general arse-pocket Sir Nicholas Fenton (no relation). Ostensibly this is to solve a murder in Fenton’s household but, honestly, this thread is somewhat minor and not really worth troubling your head over — the solution is…well, it’s bloody stupid, and if you’re reading this for the mystery then don’t. There’s some nice minor deduction over the first three chapters, spun from the elder Fenton having knowledge that his past household lacks, but once that’s done there’s virtually no mystery and no detection at all. The final solution to the poisoning is surprising in all the worst ways, and shows that Carr really wasn’t that bothered about this part of the plot.
In fact, the plot as a whole is something of a mess. Every time Carr tries to turn it into something resembling a mystery, or to steer the intrigue around Old Nick and his machinations, the background of history seems to resist and simply override him…which is oddly fitting given Lucifer’s assertion that history cannot be changed, and would qualify as a sort of meta-consideration were it not abundantly clear that Carr simply wants to write about the time of Charles II and wishes everyone would stop harping on about his detective novel prowess. This is the deeply personal acoustic album that all hard rock frontmen wish they could record, and you need to know that going in or you’re in for a disappointment.
Like his first historical novel, The Bride of Newgate (1950), Carr’s real interest here is the milieu, the customs, the language, the sturm und drang of Restoration London. From the down-at-heel murderers harboured in the “foul district called Alsatia” to card games played for obscene sums in the King’s court where “they did not trouble to count the money. They judged by size and weight and sheer glitter, as children would” you get the gamut of late seventeenth-century London, with deposed landowners too proud to ask the King for the return of their titles following the toppling of Oliver Cromwell’s regime, and men wiping their hands on the backs of the waistcoats under their jackets after completing a meal so that the stains are not visible. It is as immersive an experience as one could imagine short of Westworld-style shenanigans, and rendered in authentic prose and speech patterns that, at times, make it difficult to determine the meaning of some sentences even in context.
It is undeniably fascinating, if rather dense in political intrigue over actual mystery plot, and veers into outright thrilling for episodes such as the Battle of Pall Mall where Fenton’s small band of loyal subjects take on a mob of 60 men. The very deliberate manner of the speech and customs does mean at times that whole swathes of the book will rely on something communicated only briefly and once before coming rapidly and violently into play, so you must retain a lambent awareness of all the new information surging at you, but given that I’ve of late tired of hoary We All Have A Secret And One Of Us Killed Him mystery plots this was a breath of quite bracing, muck-filled, pestilent air, and it is difficult not to share in the beatific thrill of Fenton’s adventures. His Frank Awesomeness At Everything doesn’t gall as much as did Dick Derwent’s in The Bride of Newgate (but then, as is frequently pointed out, Fenton has a few centuries of knowledge over many of the people he encounters) and for sheer romp it’s hard to beat.
Not all of it works, though. As with …Newgate, we have a hero who must choose between two perfect women, and here Carr sticks his elbow in to stir a plot that is not for stirring. There’s a revelation in this branch of events that should change everything, but it really just happens, throws in yet another aspect out of nowhere, and then really pretty much sits there until the end of the book requires some sort of action. Indeed, the two women here provide as much distraction from the plot for the reader as they do for Fenton — he spends most of his time often literally chasing after one or the other (including a kinky masked sex maze interlude…yeah, no, you didn’t misread that) and then when they’re done with the chasing they tend to retire to bed for a lie down. I mean, I assume they’re having a lie down. What else could they be doing?
It’s also a little disappointing how suddenly the Devil thread fizzes out; you expect Carr to have a scheme worthy of that other John who took on the Devil and won — I refer of course to Mr. Ted Theodore Logan John Constantine — with some brilliant and complex scheme up his sleeve to foil Old Nick when the two come face-to-face and demands are made. I mean, I don’t wish to spoil this and I mention it only to manage your expectations: he doesn’t. In fact, Old Nick seems to forget about Dr. Nick altogether once he’s back in the past, and one can’t help but feel that Carr’s uncertainty over how to deal with this lead to the superb decision in Fire, Burn! two years later to just send someone back in time and to hell with explaining it.
For me, however, this is the biggest failure of this book. I can take the decision not to impose a classical detective moulding to a milieu that does not admit it — see Fire, Burn! for that, an excellent book in virtually every respect — but the put the most devious mind ever to commit itself to paper on page one of your plot, and therefore set up the anticipated clash of wits and cunning between it and a man who had spent some 20 years making the impossible possible, only for it not to manisfest…well, what a loss, especially as that seemed to be the entire purpose of this in the first place. Indeed, on the grounds laid out for this blog, the book fails to fulfil any of them — there’s no detection, no impossibility, no cunning reversal…but go in with your expectations altered and see Carr having the most fun he’s had for a while, even if it’s not the book we would have liked him to write.