#317: The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr

7323892In a career that does not exactly lack for belauded titles, The Burning Court might just be the most belauded of John Dickson Carr’s oeuvre.  Opinions diverge sharply on what I would consider all-time classics like The Plague Court Murders (1934) or The Hollow Man (1935), but arguably only this and perhaps She Died a Lady (1943) seem to enjoy universal adoration.  So for the Carr acolyte like myself, approaching every book fully intent on getting the most possible out of it, there’s now the extra twinge of almost needing to love this so as to be taken seriously when discussing the man and his work.  Five years from now, you don’t want “Yeah, but you didn’t enjoy The Burning Court” being thrown in your face like the castigation it is.

So, did I love it?  Well, allow me to keep you in suspense…assuming, that is, you don’t just scroll down to the star rating below.  But imagine that’s not an option, and pretend there’s some real peril here, hey?  It’s not much to ask.  Oh, fine: I give it four stars.  Now, on with the review…

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is another The Howling Beast (1934), in that the less you know about it the better you are.  In part on account of the insinuation and innuendo employed when people mention this, and in part through reading The Riddle of Monte Verita (2007) by Jean-Paul Torok, I had a sense of where this ended up…andI’ll be honest, I’d have preferred not to.  There’s also the complication of me knowing the solution to the two impossibilities herein — someone walking through a door that doesn’t exist, and the vanishing of a body from a sealed crypt — after reading about them online following my first stirrings of interest in impossible crimes.  So, well, there’s a lot of context for me around this that I’d recommend you go in without.

Because, see, it is simply marvellously written.  The first chapter — jumping from train carriage to recent death to undertakers to train carriage to manuscript to mysterious author and all around all over again — is a wifty beginning if ever I read one, but get through that and it becomes somewhat amazing.  Carr had in the years previous to this played around a lot with narrative and structure (I need to do a post on this at some point) but this feels like the point where he finally works out how he wants to tell his stories: a small focus, and smaller threats given an accrued significance in the face of staggering events.  You can draw a straight line from here all the way to He Who Whispers (1946)…and possibly beyond, but my reading of Carr breaks down there.

I’m going to shy away from details, but you’re given a tapestry narrative that fills in as many past events as it does current ones, and remains never less than utterly spellbinding — the horrible sense of realisation dawning on our protagonist Ted Stevens is wrung beautifully from the fervid events that surround him, and Carr is near-perfect in his piling on of tone, implications, and awesome subtle clewing.  The only false note for me is the long digression into yet another Olde Time Documente, but this is another brick in his narrative wall set upon you with all the certainty of a master at the peak of his game.  Every moment counts, every event and action contributes something that grows the unease — even a place name in Canada, for pity’s sake — and the proximity of inevitability is all the more brilliant for how increasingly unlikely it is without ever seeming so.

The scheme here is so superbly constructed that it’s difficult to do it justice.  In the best GAD plots, certain actions are like two-headed arrows and you’re misdirected into following the wrong one hopefully most of the time.  Here, even tiny events positively bristle with arrows and significance — a small bottle is possibly the single-most devastating prop yet deployed in such a plot — and come the summing up on the sun porch of the stately home you’ve got clue-finders a-go-go and things that happened 150 pages back and had three possible interpretations are suddenly given a new significance as they nail down another poor unfortunate’s coffin lid.  It is in many ways the closest any of us will come to witnessing pure genius on the page, and I was actually pretty damn emotional come the reveal of the killer, scheme, and everything besides.

And then the epilogue came.

At this point, no doubt, I shall diverge from probably everyone else on the planet, but what the hell, here goes: holy crap, the epilogue spoils everything.  I can completely see what Carr was trying to do, as he does it as successfully as everything else in the book…the question remains, however, precisely why he wanted to do that.  I’m not going to get into it here, I have a feeling this may provoke a lot of conversation in the comments and I wish to preserve as much as possible for anyone who hasn’t read it (hence no links below to the many other reviews online), but, dude, if this book was three pages shorter it would be a masterpiece for all time.  As it is, it’s simply the start of the most exciting period of writing from the best, finest, greatest, and most wonderful author ever to pick up the pen and contibute to the dark arts of detective fiction.

Okay, here are the four stars I promised you; let castigation commence…

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Word is Murder as both prominently feature an undertaker’s.

 

86 thoughts on “#317: The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr

    • I finished it late last night and had to write the review quickly because I had an early start this morning, and following Sergio’s comment I can see scope for interpretation. But taken as a literal truth, it seems to destroy everything, infernally clever though it still makes all the preceding explanations.

      Gah! It’s been a long time since a book got inside my head this much — which I guess is no bad thing!

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  1. You’re soooooooo dramatic, JJ!

    I guess I have to say SPOILER here, although I won’t give away the ending. You’re either going to like it or not, but the issue I assume you’re having is that this terrific solution that you lauded so much is completely blasted to hell by an epilogue that turns it into another kind of book entirely. As a mystery, it’s a cheat, pure and simple, and each person has to choose whether or not they can forgive Carr for that. END SPOILER

    Personally speaking, when I read the ending, I had one of those “drop the book and cry, ‘what the f-‘” moments . . . like I had with Orient Express and The Greek Coffin Mystery. Being the middling impossible crime fan that I am, I assure you that, sans epilogue, this would not have happened to me, although I might have liked the book just fine.

    I would venture to say that if Carr had NOT included the epilogue, the book would have been enjoyed by many . . . and now forgotten. The way it is now, it can be both lauded AND castigated till the end of time, and it is deservedly – whether you like the epilogue or not – one of Carr’s most famous novels.

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    • It plays brilliantly against type for what Carr had written to this point in his career, no doubt, but it also massively undercuts everything that he then also went on to write. I just…the subversion of genre types is not something I have a problem with, but it seems too far out there to be sensible.

      He does such and amazing job — I meant to say in my review that it reminds me of Five Little Pigs — in building up a situation where there is only one answer and then sweeping that answer away with flourish after flourish of clear misdirection and revered interpretations. The mundanity of it all after the seeming water-tight explanation that there’s no other way around is utterly wonderful. I suppose my difficulty is in seeing that then unpicked, because it’s such brilliant brinksmanship.

      Hmmm, I have a feeling this may run and run for me; I can absolutely see what the fuss is about, but I still would have liked this one to creep up on me unawares,

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      • I read the rest of the thread and THEN came back to your response to my comment. (Sometimes WordPress makes this all so confusing!) I love the idea of comparing this title to He Who Whispers, which I know you don’t love as much as I do. We can compare the mechanics of the solutions as much as you want; you know that stuff doesn’t matter quite as much to me. In every other sense, Court feels like the work of a young writer who has a little maturing to do in terms of sexual matters, while Whispers is a book for grown-ups. As you say, it’s worthy of comparison and discussion.

        SPOILER PART: I won’t belabor this, but imagine if Fay Seton had turned out to be a vampire!! END SPOILER.

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        • Whispers actually makes a lot more sense now I’ve read this, weirdly. I’m still not a fan of the impossibility, but mood, structure, and intent all take on a slightly different hue given that anyone reading Carr in order would have this at the back of their brain. And yeah, had Carr “done an Endless Night” there it would have been actually extremely fitting…ah, what might have been…

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  2. Right JJ, time to show you why you are wrong in 23 parts, then get you rehabilitated in this creaky old country pile we keep for such chaps … 😀 I do think that there is enough ambiguity in the epilogue to cater to genre preferences but you had that robbed from you by spoilers, which is a crying shame. The shock is part of the plan after all. I do think that the third option offered by Douglas Greene, suggested by his brother, is a very useful third way for the unconvinced … But I love the book from start to finish!

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      • What I think is really fascinating is here we have a GAD title that still genuinely divides enthusiasts. I mean, nobody gets upset about who killed Ackroyd anymore, not really, as you rightly pointed to as the Christie equivalent a while ago. But int his case … and that alone if worth fighting for. When was the last time that a genuine GAD title really got readers hot and bothered. It’s a litmus test – there is no right or wrong answer. But you should feel stunned by the ending. That, first and foremost, is the important bit. And I am a bit sorry for anyone who has that surprise denied them by spoilers

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        • Agreed; anyone who hasn’t read this needs to avoid all discussion on it…though the only way to get this message out is for them to be reading this discussion on it. Hmmm.

          I shall avidly avoid all mentions of Carr novels I’ve not read now, methinks. Just a blanket ban in case there’s something else likely to creep up on me.

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    • Okay, yes, there’s a thread of thought here. SEMI-HUGE SPOILERS FOLLOW:

      If there’s the prospect of that epilogue being the fracturing of Marie’s mind after exposure once again to the horrors that ruined her childhood — in short, she now actually cracks and believes she possesses these powers given the strength of the case that was being made against her — then the epilogue is amazing and enriches everything. The difficulty there is that Marie was not present for most of the case that was made, and it’s not clear whether Ted explicitly tells her (he arguably wouldn’t).

      I guess it’s just this notion of the witchyness left so unresolved — it’s like a lazy supernatural horror story where the explanation is *shrug* “Uhh, witches?”. It feels so desultory if taken as a literal truth, and that’s a let down that is still taking some getting used to (and, indeed, deciding on!)

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      • I take your point JJ and to a degree feel your pain. I think it derives from what we now see as a generic trope – and which tends to be the “problem” I have with horror fiction in general is that I tend to find it basically depressing. I love lost of horror films (NIGHT OF THE DEMON, the original versions of CARRIE and CAT PEOPLE, ROSEMARY’S BABY, Hammer and Amicus horrors, much of Cronenberg and Carpenter, the amazing AUDITION, and up to about 1982 Dario Argento) but usually, nowadays, you always have to have that snap at the end (all the default of CARRIE) to give you a final jolt when you think everything is finally OK. I don’t think that is what Carr is doing here – what he does is completely pull the rug from under us and truly destabilises what we think a detective story can be. And I love him dearly for this. I think you can take it as Marie having snapped, or she really is a witch – both are equally upsetting, but the crucial point is that it is meant to be. I don’t think Carr is just having a jolly laugh at our expense because that part of the narrative has been too closely prepared for (as you point out). The problem with such unique performances is that they are hard to quantify – the whole point is that you can;t really compare them. I think Brad was very right in looking for an equivalent in Christie and finding one, but the greatness of Carr as this is that is totally typical of him for his love of the supernatural and his depiction of the difference between the sexes (his women are so often strong and unreadable by men), which deep down is what i think the ending is truly about. After all, we don’t have anything in the book that is in any way supernatural – it’s just that people believe it to be so. That, to me, is plausible and truly frightening.

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        • It has, as I acknowledge elsewhere, been a long ol’ time since a book got this much inside my head, and that’s a wonderful thing. I think part of my difficulty is that sense of knowing where it was approximately ending up and waiting to see how it tallied with the actual plot I was reading. There’s definitely nothing quite like this in my GAD reading thus far, and maybe in time I’ll be able to unpack my feelings a bit more, but conversation like this definitely helps — so thanks!

          There’s a lot to be said about Carr’s depiction of women here, and indeed we’re in a sexually frank part of his career with this and The Judas Window coming out in the same year — imagine giving your female characters actual sex lives, not just being “made love to” passively by whoever the nearest roué happens to be! This and He Who Whispers would equally make a fabulous comparison for the depiction of the Woman Who’s In It and how Carr plays around with that trope and expectation (indeed, that book now almost seems like a response to this one — dammit, I knew there was an advantage to reading these things in order).

          Okay, a spoiler-heavy unpacking of this might have to happen at some point…

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  3. If this wasn’t a full-on success for you, then it wasn’t far off either. While I don’t share your ambivalence about the epilogue, I wouldn’t particularly take issue with it either. I reckon that aspect really elevates the book but enjoying and appreciating everything up to that point means your still came away with plenty of positives.

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    • Oh, sure — I don’t abominate it, quite the opposite. I don’t mention specifics above because I really want to preserve this for anyone else lucky enough to read the book unencumbered, but there’s a huge amount here to love, not least the recognition of Carr working at full tilt within the rules of the genre.

      It’s the incompleteness of having it all taken away from me that bothers me, I think. As I say in response to Brad above, there’s wonderful, wonderful work done in reversing a seemingly-irreversible situation…and then that gets taken away from you and I just felt a bit “Oh, right, then”. Possibly having a sense of where this ended up in advance robbed me of how that element would be used, but I was hoping for something more…I dunno.

      I imagine I’ll return to this before too long (actually, who am I kidding — it’ll be ages, I have so little free time theses days. But I shall return!)

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  4. You’re not alone on the planet about the epilogue, JJ. The original French translator agreed and changed the order of certain paragraph. I can’t remember the exact details, but I believe even Carr himself admitted that the change in the French translation worked better than the original.

    I need to re-read this one to give my opinion. Not only re-read it, but read it in English. Because, at the time, the Dutch translation was the easiest one available and remember not being overly impressed with the book. Particularly the atmosphere. However, that can probably be put down to the translation.

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    • The final couple of paragraphs were, I seem to remember, removed entirely: Torok says he wanted the last line of The Riddle of Monte Verita to be the same as the last line of The Burning Court, so if you’ve read them both you know where the latter stops in the French translation. There may have been other alterations, I can’t remember. I seem to think John Pugmire wrote an afterword about it in TRoMV. I shall check.

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      • I just skimmed through the comments that have accumulated here since my previous visit and all this talk about detective stories with a supernatural twist reminded me of something.

        As said before, I read the Dutch translation of The Burning Court and remember thinking at the time how similar, in nature, the epilogue was to the final lines from A.C. Baantjer’s De dertien katten (The Thirteen Cats), but thought at the time Baantjer’s ending was better handled, because it was very ambiguous in nature. Baantjer left it up to the reader to decide whether there was supernatural twist in the tail of the plot or simply an eerie coincident. You could make a case either way based on what you personally believed or preferred to belief.

        Sadly, the book has never been translated, but he pulled another ghostly twist with his series-character in De Cock en de moord in seance, which has been translated as DeKok and Murder in Seance and John Norris has a review of the book on his Pretty Sinister Books blog. Not as good as The Thirteen Cats, but not bad as the cherry on top and does not ruin the plot at all. Funnily enough, the book is one of Baantjer’s purest, plot-driven detective/police novels.

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        • “….the final lines from A.C. Baantjer’s De dertien katten (The Thirteen Cats), but thought at the time Baantjer’s ending was better handled, because it was very ambiguous in nature. Baantjer left it up to the reader to decide whether there was supernatural twist in the tail of the plot or simply an eerie coincident.”
          Exactly the same thing happens in the Tamil masterpiece mystery novel Kolaiyuthir Kaalam (meaning The Autumn Of Murders) by Sujatha.
          https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10471082-kolaiyuthir-kaalam
          There is no English translation.

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      • Here are John Pugmire’s notes from the afterword of The Riddle of Monte Verita (fair-to-middling TBC spoilers ahead):

        “In the original English version, Marie’s musings and her rush to greet her husband precede the quotes from the newspaper, so the epilogue closes on a prosaic and decidedly nromantic note.

        “In the French version, the newspaper stores come first and the last thing we read is Marie’s thoughts as she prepares to run out to meet her husband, with the result that the French version leans more towards the supernatural.

        “When Carr learned of [the translator’s] changes, he liked them so much he contemplated modifying his own work to incorporate them.

        “For the record, the last sentence of The Burning Court is: ‘At this point there was some commotion and Judge David R. Anderson said that, if any more laughter were heard in a court of justice, he would order the court to be cleared.’

        “Readers can decide for themselves which is the more memorable ending.”

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    • See, this is also a slight difficulty for me: that shock of the epilogue will draw attention away from just how utterly astonishing the answers Carr gives in the narrative are. The situation gets more and more certain, and more and more unlikely, and more and more inevitable…and then he sweeps it away with such completeness and such panache that I was staggered enough before the epilogue came in.

      I wonder how unappreciated that work is on account of the Big Thing that finishes the book — people won’t remember it for how perfectly constructed the unpicking is, they’ll just fix on those last three pages and obliterate possibly the finest plotting done by Carr up to this point of his career.

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      • The book is just that good – the ending is all you want to talk about, inevitably, but you are right – the preceding 20 chapters are absolutely terrific. and in my view, you cannot enjoy one without the other, which is a really extraordinary trick.

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        • The preceding twenty chapters are devastatingly good. More focus needs to be on that, definitely. Alas, “that book with a staggeringly complex and genius scheme that plays out perfectly over 200 pages” is less memorable than “That book where X happens at the end”.

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      • Exactly. The rational explanations are really brilliant. To draw attention away from their brilliance by an epilogue seems absurd.

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        • I’m coming round to the notion of the epilogue having an aspect of interpretation in it, but I think Carr’s intended effect was a more literal one: he wants you to take what the epilogue says at face value and nothing more.

          Are we prepared for the epilogue? It’s debatable. It does make Gaudan Cross come out as a rather fascinating figure given the role he plays — and the motivation and chicanery behind it — and I like hos there’s actually a lot of stringing together of things that have perfectly reasonable explanations to give them an air of brimstone…but, man, I just don’t know where I am with this any more.

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      • I agree JJ that the book even without the epilogue is brilliant. Right from the first sentence: There was a man who lived by a churchyard….” , you are hooked. But what I also think – and I am no Carr scholar because I have read only a handful of his books – is that Carr wanted to shock people out of their complacency in this, the kind of ‘complacency’ that they had come to expect from a Carr novel, at any rate (I hope that makes sense). See the setting: for a story of this kind I would expect a misty moor or Scottish highlands but Carr sets it in ‘prosaic’ USA. It is the first inkling that things are going to be different in this book. The rational explanation is the kind of ‘impossible but Carr can make it work – and how!!!’ ending. But Carr goes a step further and uses the technique of ‘defamiliarization’. In one stroke, the novel becomes something more from the ‘familiar’ Carr novel. And, sorry JJ, but it is not a matter of ‘uhh witches’ because frankly how many stories involving witches get into our heads the way this one does. The epilogue demonstrates, an artist so confident of his art that he was willing to take risks. And we also get one of the most haunting last sentences ever.

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    • Having had a day to reflect, I still don;t love the epilogue, but equally I have come to a sort of accommodation with it. It’s…bold, let’s go with that, but I don’t think I’ll actually be able to come to a final opinion on it for a while yet — hairy Aaron, who knew this GAD could be so…complicated?!

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  5. I’ve always been annoyed about this book because of the epilogue … I’m a hard-headed rationalist in many respects, and for 99% of his career, Carr was also. He would set up situations where the answer “had to be” witchcraft or vampirism or general spookiness, and then brilliantly demonstrate that it was a murderer trying to make it look like general spookiness. Mind you, I mean, the guy did have Satan as a character in one of his novels, I suppose I can’t overlook that. But for the most part when it came to non-historical mystery, Carr was my refuge of rationalism. I recognize that no author “owes” me consistency … but when I read this epilogue, I remember feeling cheated because I expected rationalism.

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    • Now, you raise a wonderful point there upon which I shall expand: the time travel in Fire, Burn is explained on the basis that…it really needs to have time travel in it to make the plot work, and I didn’t even blink (quite the reverse, that book is one of my favourites). Equally, The Devil in Velvet (wherein Old Nick pops up, albeit obliquely) has time travel in for exactly the same reason and about a third as much logic in its utilisation…so surely Carr’s flights of fancy in this pretend logic shouldn’t seem so disregarding — he has previous form (yes, those books were written later, but I read them before this).

      Hmmmm. I think my difficulty is more the obliteration of the wonderful rational solution that is a piece of pure artistry and then thrown out completely. But, well, maybe that’s the point — maybe Carr’s at the top of his game and decides to throw us a big wink to let us know that it is still a game. Hmmmm. And he makes it work so much better than would Christie or Queen or Brand or Rhode (ha, can you imagine?!) or Crofts (!!!) or Sayers or Marsh or Gardner or Mitchell or… Yeah, okay, maybe I’m coming round.

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  6. Spoilers I’m not going to actually spoil anything, but, as you know, it’s impossible to discuss this book without alluding to things. And I myself was influenced by such comments prior to reading The Burning Court, although it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. If you read below, you’ve been warned.

    I take the epilogue as a completely optional aside, similar to the additional solutions provided by other authors at the end of The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Or perhaps a bit like one of those scenes shown at the end of one of the Marvel superhero movies – it doesn’t really count as part of the plot.

    The core story in The Burning Court is simply wonderful. For all that everyone talks about the ending, I most vividly recall the beginning. Not a specific passage, but just this sense of “this is going to be a fun ride.” In terms of story telling, this is one of those rare books where everything just comes together perfectly for Carr – similar to Till Death Do Us Part, The Crooked Hinge, and The Red Widow Murders. Note that I’m not talking about the puzzles or solutions for those three books, but the overall story telling.

    Of course, The Burning Court has strong puzzles, and an incredibly strong ending to the book proper. The last 40 or so pages are tremendous. We get false solutions. We get true solutions. And then, erm, that thing happens that is really really surprising. This is quite possibly Carr’s most solid ending to a book (although I’m not saying it is by any means his finest solutions).

    And then comes the epilogue. A wink from the author. I think it is meant literally, but I think it is also purely optional as to whether you take it as the true solution. I don’t. But it’s brilliant. And that it made you angry means that you’ll remember it. I’m curious to hear how you recall it a month from now.

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    • I agree wholeheartedly wth the spirit of what you say here, even if I don’t quite draw the same parallels — those Poisoned Chocolates Case endings, for one, are in no way canon: Berkeley wrote his ending and that is the ending of the book. The rest are fan fiction, just by high profile and very talented fans.

      By contrast, Carr wrote the ending to this and there’s no option about it. We can choose to put interpretations on anything we like, but Carr intends it literally. And I think I would actually have loved it if Marie happened to be a witch and Jeannette White was still the killer anyway. Maybe that wouldn’t be as powerful, I dunno, but it would feel llike less of an unravelling. I, too, and very curious to know what I think about this in a month from now!

      And you’ve raised an excellent point: the solutions to the impossibilities — especially the vanishing body — really aren’t all that hot. Knowing them in advance possibly inured me to this, but as solutions in themselves they’re really nothing to get excited about. They work very well in the context of the book, and maybe that’s why Carr used them here: the superb story-telling and thrust and parry of the suspicions and revelations would make up for a less than A-game couple of resolutions in this thread.

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    • Okay, here’s a thought that came to me last night: if the supernatural explanation is to be taken as literally true…how and why does it account for the vanishing body? The body has to still be around so that the groundsman can see it in his cottage later that evening…but why would Marie need to result to shenanigans like that if she can just waltz through walls, steal it, and do…something unknown (for some unknown purpise) with it?

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  7. This is certainly Carr’s most popular book in France, the only one that has never been out of print and a genuine crossover hit with fans ranging from Boris Vian to filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (none of whom being GA enthusiasts, far from it) and the ending is a key element of that. The French have always been skeptical of GA mysteries because they found them dryly rationalistic and lacking in originality – The Burning Court thus had everything to please them!
    I read it once in its er, improved French translation when I was 15 (it actually was my birthday present that year) and I remember being somewhat disappointed, not because of the ending (I was a horror/fantasy reader before branching out into crime fiction and I don’t object to some hocus pocus in my mysteries) but because I had huge expectations given its iconic status. I have recently bought an English-language edition and I plan to read it to see whether I was too young to fully appreciate its greatness or the book just isn’t for me.
    Re “the breach of contract” that some here object to regarding the ending, I’d like to point out that Carr did it at least twice in his short stories (“Blind Man’s Hood” everyone?) not to mention the books JJ mentioned. He obviously didn’t feel constrained by rationalism – which should not come as a surprise as Carr always favored imagination over reason; he wouldn’t have written the same books if he didn’t. Most of Carr’s mysteries are fantasies with a logical explanation; he just went one step further with The Burning Court but as always with his “radical” books it was just an one-off. That’s the one thing I’d complain about him: he was frequently experimental but he always ultimately retreated to his usual, familiar territory. He was a man of fixed ideas – as a French critic said of Laurence Olivier, that was both his greatness and his limitation.

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    • I’d slightly quibble with the short story comment, if just because we have different expectations for a short story than we do a novel, and are (slightly) more open to experimentation. Also the supernatural in stories like Blind Man’s Bluff is only introduced at the end and doesn’t overturn the mystery plot like it does in The Burning Court.

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      • Agreed, all bets are off in short fiction. Else how would we justify solidly half of Christie’s The Hound of Death collection, or The Mysterious Mr. Quin?

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        • The Mr. Quin tales certainly played with mixing crime and the supernatural, but in a much more fey sort of way. I think the final story reveals something of Quin’s character that pushes the boundaries even more. Christie loved playing with the supernatural; I’m not sure she did it particularly well, but some of the tales in THoD are sorta fun.

          I think of the shock I felt at the reveal in She Died a Lady, and it leads me to think that there is a discussion to be had about the type and quality of the surprise endings we have all experienced. Clearly what we have here is proof that not all reversals are the same, and the emotional effect they have on us differs, although the shock may initially feel the same.

          Omigod, I’m rambling!! It’s the tryptophan. I ate too much tonight, and I should NEVER respond to comments after eating turkey!!

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    • I know what you mean about his imagination and the retreating to familiar ground…but isn’t the second just a staple of genre fiction? Authors tend to pick an area or story-form they’re happiest working in, and everything built around that ends up conforming to the rules and expectations of that form. I’d love there to be an author who jumped genres from book to book without any warning or preparation, but I have a feeling their career would not be especially long!

      At least with Carr we got the imagination, that desire to take something and push it as far as it could go within the confines of the detective novel. Fine, it meant that you were (a majority of the time) certain that the supernatural element was pure hokum and a smokescreen for some rationality, but there are ways to be creative within the genre beyond simply “Is this a vampire? Nope!”.

      It enabled a group of people on a plane to be forced to land unexpectedly, make their way to the nearest, isolated country mansion, and be greeted at the door having been fully expected. It discovered countless ways for someone to be killed by corpoeal means when there seemed to be no possible explanation — including such classics as a man stabbed three times in the back when in a thrice-locked hut surrounded by mud without a footprint to show for how his assailant approached and no possible way to stab him through the walls, windows, roof, floor or doors.

      Sure, Carr retreated to a lot of the same ground time after time, but the imagaination he brought to it is anything but a weakness. Arguably it’s the reason he’s still so beloved today in spite of nearly 80 books to his name which are a long way from the public eye: lots of people trod the same “rational ground” as Carr, but few if any with such consistently brilliant creativity.

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      • I know what you mean about his imagination and the retreating to familiar ground…but isn’t the second just a staple of genre fiction? Authors tend to pick an area or story-form they’re happiest working in, and everything built around that ends up conforming to the rules and expectations of that form. I’d love there to be an author who jumped genres from book to book without any warning or preparation, but I have a feeling their career would not be especially long!

        I agree, but there is strong evidence throughout his career that Carr was not entirely satisfied with the niche he had carved for himself

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        • Interesting, I did not know that. Mind you, I know very little about Carr himself, pretty much all I can think of is gleaned from the books and context thereof.

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        • I agree, but there is strong evidence throughout his career that Carr was not entirely satisfied with the niche he had carved for himself, but couldn’t bring himself to leave it for good. GA writers, most of them at least, fall into two camps: those who satisfied themselves with the rules of the genre and those who didn’t. Ngaio Marsh is a good example of the first faction: she improved over time but basically wrote the same kind of book for all her career. Dorothy L. Sayers or EQ belong in the other: they got fed up with what they perceived (rightly or wrongly, this is not the issue at hand) as the limitations of their craft, then proceeded to burning their bridges and never look back. I can think of several books, The Burning Court being one, in which Carr seems about to go the second way but ultimately he always reverted to type, opting instead for Christie’s middle way of experimentation now and then without challenging the statu quo, as though he was afraid of what he might find on the other side.. Even when he finally did something genuinely radical – ditching his series characters, which is something very few of his colleagues had the guts to do – it was not to move forward, but to retreat further in the past of the genre (the historicals make more sense if you see them as sensation novels, not detective novels)
          Be that as it may he left us as you say with a tremendous body of work that remains to me among the greatest achievements ever in our field, but I still find he did not wholly fulfill his potential.

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        • Your point seems to be that when Sayers or Queen mixed it up they were being radical, but when Carr mixed it up he wasn’t being radical. But, well, “retreating into the past” for the historicals doesn’t have to represent a professional retrograde step: if anything, the challenges of writing in such strictured conditions make it more of a challenge — I always saw them as Carr pushing himself to maintain interest by creating an even more difficult setting for his plots, without the technology or the understanding of police routine that his contemporary novels could rely upon (indeed, Fire, Burn makes this exact explicit point the focus of the entire plot).

          The sheer amount of extra effort required to research and write realistic representations of the milieu in which he was writing in no way betokens a man who was disinterested in challenging the status quo — there’s a level of professional challenge therein that you’d expect from a far younger author, not someone who was settling in a putting his feet up for an easy life.

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        • Your point seems to be that when Sayers or Queen mixed it up they were being radical, but when Carr mixed it up he wasn’t being radical.

          No, it would rather be that Carr was periodically radical but always returned to his usual self. One key factor of course was that his views on crime fiction were much more “traditionalistic” than those of Sayers and Queen to begin with. Also, he didn’t crave as much for literary significance.

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        • It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we read the same words and find entirely different things behind them? I’d say what Carr did with the contortions of plot was more radical than all the modernising of Queen…but then I’ve never been completely sold on Queen, and my recent experiences have doubtless prejudiced me against them!

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        • Your recent experiences stem from 1929! What you have read by Mr. Queen is by no means innovative. It is imitative, although I think it is just as good if not better than the author whom they imitate. I know you have read some later Queen too, like The King Is Dead, but there’s better stuff to try. And now, I’m done flogging a dead horse! I’m off to curl up and read a good book.

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  8. Well, why not, I’ll toss in a big SPOILERS in my post to, all the cool kids are doing it.

    But first I want to boast that I actually 2/3s solved this. By guessing, so I can’t boast that much. Somehow I pinged the culprit and the method by more or less going, “Well, this is the only way you could pull this trick off.” and “Well, they’re an unexpected culprit.” Annoyed that I didn’t figure out the trick with the tomb, because I would think that would be something I would get. Oh well, enough about me.

    I didn’t mind the ending, but that’s because I was spoiled on it. Not directly, but you can only hint at it so much without giving the game away. So I was able to appreciate it, but if it had been thrown at me unprepared my response would have probably been similar to my response to the end of The Fourth Door. I dunno, I certainly think it’s clever, but if I never knew about the ending and it was like the last Carr book I had to read, then yeah, I’d be irritated about it, to say the least.

    This is bit off-topic, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that this novel inspired Umineko no naku Koro ni, which also had witches and ambiguity between “magic” and “real” solutions.

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    • The Fourth Door — man, now I have to try to do this without spoiling that in a way that might mar the enjoyment of anyone yet to experience it — is an exceptionally apt comparison. I really like the ending of that, and in fairness it is a sort of updating of the idea here — not because it explores the same, er, possibility, but because of the revisionism it invites on behalf of what you just read.

      I wonder if that would be viewed les controversially because of a) the French attitudes to mysteries that Xavier mentions in his comment above, and b) the fact that it was Halter’s first novel and so there was no expectation of him to be working in a partcular idiom. Sure, there’s no guarantee it would be the first Halter book everyone read, but even if you read it about ten books in there’s a sense of “Well, it was his first book and maybe he was over-reaching himself” if you don’t enjoy it.

      The difficulty people may have with TBC — and this isn’t my difficulty at all — is that it’s it’s the nineteenth thing he published and veered suddenly out of his usual wheelhouse. Dunno, but it’s an interesting contrast, and I thank you for raising it.

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        • I didn’t mind that at all — there’s HUGE scope for interpretation, and it’s more just a bit of playing around than actively forcing you to reconsider everything. Was it something other people actively didn’t like? That would surprise me…

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        • Even I, Bradley “Good Grief, Halter!” Friedman, didn’t mind the ending to The Madman’s Room, Santosh, so I don’t get your point. The Picture From the Past, now, there’s a crappy narrative twist!

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        • I could launch in and defend TPftP from such a dismissal, but I won;t be convincing you. Also, I had an entirely different twist in mind, and was delighted to find a different interpretation on those same events. I still really enjoy that book, there’s a narrative tricksiness that plays into my kinda thing near-perfectly.

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        • I barely remembered the twist from Picture, other than that I had no idea what it was implying at first, then I think I got it and went “Well this was pointless.” At least the one from Door has a narrative progression.

          (Also, is it just me, or does Halter bear a not mild resemblance to M. Night? 😛 Though not as bad.)

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        • …because there are twists at the end? Sure, but then the same cold be said about Jeffery Deaver, Harlan Coben, and doubtless a ton of other modern crime writers…

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    • That may seem like an innocent question, but an answer to it is worthy of an entire blog post. Let me attempt an abbreviated answer…

      First, some ground rules. When we talk “non-series Carr”, I think we’re ruling out the historicals, because those are kind of their own thing. This leaves us with The Bowstring Murders, Poison in Jest, The Burning Court, Fatal Descent (only partially counts since it is a collaboration), The Emperor’s Snuff Box, Patrick Butler For the Defense, and The Nine Wrong Answers. You could argue that The Witch of the Low Tide counts, as it is only set 25 years before his other core mysteries and is very much in the traditional GAD impossible crime vein, but I’d say that it’s still the historical elements that makes me truly love that book.

      I haven’t yet read Poison in Jest or Patrick Butler, but the rest of the pack is made up of superb entries, with the exception of Fatal Descent, which I’d only classify as “quite good”. Here’s my order from “worst” to best:
      5. Fatal Descent
      4. The Bowstring Murders – although I have this ranked second to last, this is an excellent book. In fact, I lent it out tonight.
      3. The Nine Wrong Answers
      2. The Emperor’s Snuff Box
      1.The Burning Court

      Comparing these books is difficult because they are so varied. The Bowstring Murders is probably the most “traditional Carr” from a locked room detective style perspective, although Fatal Descent is kind of a clever variation of the theme. The Nine Wrong Answers is very much it’s own thing – a true one of a kind for Carr. The Emperor’s Snuff Box – well, the less you know, the better. On a different day I might rank it first. Then there’s The Burning Court. Carr creates his own strange little non-series world with this one – it’s a thousand miles from Fell or Merrivale. One could argue it’s a vaguely traditional Carr locked room mystery, but for reasons I won’t go into, it sets itself apart from the rest of the pack.

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  9. Been a long while since I read this one so I’ve skipped over a lot of the review until I take another look. But if you want to do a full-on spoiler-sport post on this one with me, give me a shout and I’ll dig out my copy.

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  10. “One key factor of course was that his views on crime fiction were much more “traditionalistic” than those of Sayers and Queen to begin with. Also, he didn’t crave as much for literary significance.”

    Sorry to butt in on your intriguing discussion, Xavier and JJ, but I like what you said here, Xavier! One of the first things I learned reading Doug Greene’s biography was that Carr had no interest in naturalism or modernism; he was firmly entrenched in Grand Guignol and old-fashioned melodrama, and even as he progressed in his career, his work always had a tinge of that – and, in many cases, much more. He wanted to write genre fiction, and if he sometimes slurred the genres, that’s pretty much the extent of his “experimentation.” This isn’t an insult, JJ! I think it’s what Carr wanted. Sayers – well, I can’t speak about her too much because I don’t read her, but I do know that she quickly grew weary of the limitations of 30’s puzzle mysteries to explore character and life issues, and she parted ways with it as an author.

    Queen started out as merely an imitator of S.S. Van Dine, and he/they crafted a collection of nifty classic novels in the early 30’s. But he wanted to branch out so badly, admittedly at the start for reasons of wanting to grow his audience, but later to explore these themes of Dannay’s. Even if on the surface you say that a book like And on the Eighth Day isn’t any more experimental than Carr for its plot, there are elements at work that stretch the subject matter a traditional mystery will go to. Queen never shifted to the supernatural, but he tried to make a hybrid of a mystery and a modern novel, which is no less amazing (or jarring, if that’s what you think.)

    What’s odd to me, Xavier, is that when Queen gave up his mantle to the ghost writers, they gradually shifted back to the traditions of the 30’s. I wonder why he didn’t keep pushing it further . . .

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  11. Hmm . . . If we start dissing JP, do you think we Davids can topple the mighty Goliath Patterson empire? Or would we all disappear off the face of the earth? Or worse – would we end up as character names in Nailed to the Cross or The Murder Club Eats Nachos and Has a bad Day?

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    • I’m still waitng for him to write Alex Very Cross, where a series of minor irritations dog the detective all day and he just gets more and more frustrated before shouting at someone and then having to offer an awkward and semi-sincere apology. And possibly attend some sort of professionally mandated rage-management sessions.

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      • It’ll never happen: whenever Alex is in the least bit irritable, he gets a smack on the head from 163-year-old Nana Mama, and he’s fine again. But I loooooove the title Alex Very Cross!!!!!!

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        • Forthcoming titles in the series may include

          Crossrail: Alex comes to London and joins a residents’ group protesting the closing of local businesses and the consequent loss of income to allow for the building of the controversial train network

          Cross-Hatching: Walking in the country, Alex find a swan’s nest abandoned by its parents and must sit on the eggs — fighting arthritis, the need to urinate, and the mockery of passers-by — until the chicks are born.

          Cross Purposes: An innovative, novel-length interview where is becomes apparent that the suspect Alex is interviewing thinks they’re talking about something entirely different. Linguistic hilarity and shenanigans ensue.

          Cross That Bridge When We Come to It: Driving around Madison County with his children, Alex makes this dad joke every six pages for the entire novel.

          (c) Me, so pay up if you want to use these, Patterson…

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  12. This morning, a full page ad in the NY Times of the latest in the series: The People vs. Alex Cross! Yes, we want this to be about the author having to face his critics, but I think poor Alex is framed for murder – again – and it’s going to be another money-maker for James Freaking Patterson.

    It doesn’t matter, JJ! We should still mount our campaign to bring him down! Yes, we will endure persecution from all the fans who enjoy 359 easy-read chapters in their books! Yes, we will be viciously attacked by Maxine Pietro and the 73 other “co-writers” who will try to bring us down!!! And you know what? We’ll Cross that Bridge When We Come to It!

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  13. Regarding The Nine Wrong Answers, only the initial 2 editions are unabridged: Hamish Hamilton (1952) and Harper & Brothers (1952), both hardcover. Used copies of these editions are available.

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  14. It is rare thing when the least likely possibilities (witchcraft, non-dead beings, walking through walls, cadavers disappearing through enclosed crypts) also seem the most reasonable. The sense of dread and of irrevocable movement towards some sort of revelation are the main drivers behind Carr’s writing. The clues laid out, obvious but not condescending, make sense when they are shown. At the end, the same clues make sense through another point of view entirely while cancelling our previous understanding of them. When every chapter ends with the mystery deepening–the solutions becoming more apparent and at the same time impossible–the novel’s grip continues to tighten. The epilogue is another matter entirely. To me, it feels like a cheat because it provides two equal possibilities (the last chapter before the epilogue and the epilogue) for the solution. If they’re both equally possible then choosing one is arbitrary. In my eyes, there should be only one solution because the epilogue undercuts the emotional impact of the last chapter. However, it doesn’t change my perception of the novel since what preceded it was so masterful. I do have to say that without it, The Burning Court would be perfect.

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    • I still fail to see — and having had time to think about and discuss this, I believe it’s my main problem — how the explanation in the epilogue in any way fits the “vanishing body” impossibility. In a way, it’s not just a cheat but also one that requires liberal hand-waving on account of not actually covering the possibilities it is claimed to…and I don’t think there’s a way out of that. Which is a shame, because it is an absolute masterpiece until those closing few pages, as you rightly say.

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