the burning court, by john dickson carr

I felt like posting early. Possibly because, with the holiday, I'm having trouble remembering what day it is anyway. There will be spoilers, if "spoilers" can apply to a book published around 75 years ago.

This book gives me the willies. It doesn't matter how many times I read it.

First off, if you're not familiar with John Dickson Carr, he was a very prolific mystery writer, mostly from the 1930s to the 1950s. He specialized in "puzzle" mysteries, most especially impossible crimes such as locked room mysteries. His books often had an aura of the supernatural, but at the end everything was always explained. He wrote under his own name and also as Carter Dickson.

(I will mention specifically The Three Coffins – also known as The Hollow Man – which is a classic locked-room mystery. It even includes a lecture by Gideon Fell about different methods of carrying out a locked-room murder. He does not, of course, describe the method that figures in that book itself, and in any case Carr originally got that one from The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dyne. It's a good gimmick, and in fact I've used it myself, though I'm not going to tell you where.)

The Burning Court was published in 1937, and it starts out as a fairly typical Carr mystery. It's Friday evening and a book editor named Ted Stevens is taking the train from New York, where he works, back to his home in Pennsylvania. On the trip, he pulls out the manuscript he has to read over the weekend, a meticulously-researched true-crime book by an author named Gaudan Cross.

One chapter in the book is about two poisoners, both named Marie d'Aubray (the earlier one, from the 17th century, is more often known as the Marquise de Brinvilliers). The manuscript contains a photograph of the later Marie d'Aubray, from the 19th century, and the photograph looks exactly like Ted Stevens' wife Marie. Whose unmarried name, we learn later was Marie d'Aubray.

(The Marquise de Brinvilliers really existed, by the way. She poisoned a lot of people, with the assistance of her lover, Godin de Sainte-Croix, until she was captured by a detective named Desprez. She was tortured with water, using a funnel, and then beheaded and burned. I think the later Marie d'Aubray was invented by Carr, but with this book nothing would surprise me.)

Stevens gets home, is greeted by his wife (who, by the way, is terrified of funnels, and of fire), and goes upstairs to clean up before dinner. When he comes back down, his briefcase and the manuscript are still where he left them, but the photograph is gone.

So, that's mystery #1.

Then his neighbour, Mark Despard, comes over, and he has a problem. His uncle, Miles, just died of gastroenteritis, but now Mark is convinced he was poisoned. So Ted and Mark, and two others, go off to open the family crypt, to have the body examined for signs of poisoning. Impossibly, the body is gone, though it was definitely put in the undergound crypt, which was then sealed.

That's mystery #2.

Then Mark tells the story of the night Miles died. He says that a housekeeper peeked into Miles' room and saw a woman in an old-fashioned dress hand him a drink, which he drank. Then she left the room by a door which had been sealed 200 years before. The dregs of the drink were found the next morning, and they did contain poison.

That's mystery #3.

The book moves along, with more mysteries, and accusations, and history and spookiness and so on, including that the Despard family were originally called Desprez. There's a policeman on the scene, but no sign of one of Carr's signature ecccentric amateur detectives such as Dr. Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale.

Then Gaudan Cross (the author of the original manuscript Stevens had been reading on the train) shows up. He's eccentric and arrogant and theatrical, and he gathers all the suspects together and describes how the body was removed from the tomb, and how Uncle Miles was poisoned (and how the woman left the bedroom), and why Marie Stevens so exactly resembles Marie d'Aubray.

The last part is a bit dicey, but Carr was writing several books a year in those days and occasionally the details were less than plausible. And at this point I was wondering if there would be more Gaudan Cross mysteries, but then, having ended his explanation, Cross picks up a drink and drinks it, and drops dead, poisoned by the same person who had poisoned Uncle Miles.

So, the poisoner is arrested, and everything is explained, but then there's one more scene.

Marie Stevens is standing at a window in her house, looking out, waiting for her husband to come home, and, as if moving by itself, her hand goes to her desk and unlocks some small compartments, taking out a small box containing poisons, and you realize that she is Marie d'Aubray, a ghost or reincarnation, (or, in the terms of the novel, a non-dead) and she did killl both Uncle Miles and Mark Despard (who has vanished) in vengeance for their ancestor Desprez capturing and torturing and killing her.

She admires Cross for coming up with logical explanations for all the impossible things she did. And she has plans for her husband, too, to make him into a non-dead like her.

When I read the book originally I was spooked by some of it, but in the back of my head was the reassuring thought that this was Carr, and that logical explanations would be forthcoming. I'd have felt very differently if it had been written by Stephen King, for example.

Then I got to the ending, and it was more powerful than it would have been from King, because it had sneaked up on me.

I think the fact that it still creeps me out must be simply good writing, since obviously the book can't surprise me at this point. And it can be very effective when a bit of reality pokes into fiction, as I talked about here.

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5 Responses to the burning court, by john dickson carr

  1. It’s so great when a book lingers and keeps affecting you emotionally even when you know the plot. That’s one of the things that keeps me reading, seeking the next experience.

    The idea of putting “a bit of reality” into fiction is something I’ve thought a lot about in the past year as I’ve worked on my historical novel. I’ve never taken so many bits of truth and fact and embroidered a story around them.

  2. sonje says:

    I read about half of this post but then became so interested in the plot of the book that I did not want to finish the post because I didn’t want to read any spoilers! I’ll have to come back to it once I’ve read the book. 🙂

  3. Sonje: Yes, do read the book. I hope you like it. I do recommend it, to those who enjoy that sort of thing, but I think my primary goal in wriing the post was to try to get it out of my head (rather than to try to get it into yours).

    Laura: I don’t do a lot of that (inserting bits of reality), but I’ve noticed that Thomas Pynchon does. Sometimes the wildest things in his books (zoot suit riots, a kazoo symphony, etc.) turn out to be real. Other times not.

  4. Maggie says:

    Hi Anthony! I’ve nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award – check it out on my blog. 🙂

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