“This is April, not Halloween. Women on broomsticks are a little out of my line. If you tell me that a woman put a spell on Mr. Miles Despard, and rubbed herself with ointment, and got into a dress several hundred odd years old, and consequently walked through that wall—well, all I’ve got to say is, I want a case that’ll at least get past the grand jury.”
Ted Stevens is a happy man. He loves his job as a book editor, his weekend home in a quaint Pennsylvania village, and, most of all, he loves his wife Marie. The only small shadow on his contentment is the recent death of his neighbor, Miles Despard—a bit untimely, but surely natural.
Then one day he opens a book and his life changes forever. Ted begins reading a manuscript about historical crime and sees the photograph of a woman executed for murder seventy years earlier. The woman in the photograph is his wife.
The Burning Court is one of John Dickson Carr’s masterpieces, a heady witch’s brew of mystery and magic. The plot centers around two impossible crimes that may be related. There is the question of Ted’s wife and her relationship to famed poisoner Marie D’Aubray. Then there is the murder of Miles Despard. His nephew Mark is convinced that he was poisoned. However, only two people could have committed the crime. One is Mark’s wife Lucy, who gave Miles his last dose of medicine. The other is a mysterious woman in old-fashioned dress, who was seen through the window of Miles’ room by the housekeeper. After handing Miles a silver cup, the woman left the room through a door that’s been bricked up for two hundred years. The only way Mark can exonerate his wife is to prove that his uncle was murdered by a ghost.
Essentially, we have two men who are frightened of what their wives might be capable of. Are black hearts beating inside these ordinary suburban housewives?
There are so many wonderfully evil possibilities here, and Carr pursues them all with glee. One rational explanation after another is considered and discarded. This seems to leave only the supernatural…or is that what someone wants us to think? Questions of witchcraft and reincarnation are examined with the same rigor as alibis and forensic tests. When Sherlock Holmes said, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” he surely never had anything this improbable in mind.
Part of what makes the book so chilling is the sudden intrusion of “the dark world” into ordinary lives. At one point, Ted gingerly approaches Marie as she is making sandwiches. For the first time in his life, the sight of his wife with a knife in her hand scares him. “The kitchen was white-tiled, and there was a humming noise from the electrical refrigerator. This whole business was nonsensical.” There would seem to be no place for witches and ghosts in a typical suburban home. Our modern world keeps us safe from the devil. But does it?
Suppose the powers of hell really could lay hold, suppose they could run on our smooth rails and into our steam-heated lives past such a shower of banalities as Ingelford’s Soothing Hour…then I tell you the powers of hell must be strong and terrible. We huddle together in cities, we make bonfires of a million lights, we can get a voice from across the ocean to sing to us so that we needn’t feel lonely; it’s a sort of charmed circle, with no heaths to walk at night in the wind. But suppose you, Ted, in your apartment in New York; or you, Part, in your flat in London; or John Smith in his house anywhere in the world—suppose you went home at night, and opened the ordinary door, and heard another kind of voice, Suppose you didn’t want to look behind the umbrella stand, or go down to attend to the furnace at night, because you might see something climbing up?
For most of the story, detective duties fall on Mark, Ted, and the pragmatic Sergeant Brennan. Near the end, a truly splendid figure enters: Gaudan Cross, the flamboyantly sinister true-crime author who may simply be writing what he knows best. Cross crashes into the plot and takes over the murder investigation, which he solves in high style. Fittingly, it is the most eerie character in the book who is able to find the explanation for all these creepy events.
If The Burning Court is one of John Dickson Carr’s most well-regarded titles, it is also his most controversial due to its spectacular twist ending. The first time I read The Burning Court, I was left happily stunned by Carr’s sheer audacity. Others view the epilogue as a betrayal of what has come before or simply an indulgence the book would be better off without, the literary equivalent of removing one accessory before leaving the house. However, it’s exactly the kind of daring experimentation that makes the golden age of detective fiction so exciting, with authors pushing the limits of a still fairly new genre. What Carr does here is a logical next step from one iconic novel of the 1920s in particular. Of course, I appreciate that earlier author’s creativity on a conceptual level without feeling entirely convinced by it as a reader, so I understand that others may feel the same way about The Burning Court. For me, though, this ending absolutely makes the book, and has retained its power even on a second reading.
The Burning Court is a perfect Halloween read, with a chilling atmosphere and meticulously plotted murder mystery culminating in a shocking ending.
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.
In some respects I can see how this novel can be regarded as one of Carr’s best as the central mystery is certainly baffling and although not known for his characterisation skills, the characters in this novel are well crafted and one is drawn to Stevens as he worries about his wife. The atmosphere is also well set up and the prose style keeps you reading. Nevertheless the final twist was disappointing and in my opinion upset the balance of the book and it would have been better if it had been left out.
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 solution is both surprising and inevitable, the way a good solution should be. As Greene tells us, Carr “often pointed out that the human horrors can be infinitely worse than anything produced by ghosts or vampires.” However, I will say that the reveal, where the detective explains all, is upset by an interesting and rare event that does quite a bit to shatter our complacency. And Carr hasn’t even started. That’s when things get crazy . . .
The Burning Court is currently out of print, with used copies widely available.