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