It’s a very bad habit of mine that when I find an author I like, I collect rigorously those books featuring his or her detective and get much less fussy when it comes to non-series books. However, occasionally I spot something on eBay and this is how I came into possession of my copy of The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr. I figured that a book by the master of the locked room and impossible crime was an excellent candidate for the letter J in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction.
Set in 1815, The Bride of Newgate tells the story of Dick Darwent, framed for a murder and rotting in Newgate Prison awaiting execution. Caroline Ross needs to marry in order to inherit her estates and so arranges to marry Dick, assuming he will quickly die. Needless to say, due to rather bizarre circumstances, he is reprieved and sets about using his new position as the Marquess of Darwent to write some wrongs and find the real murderer. And, to no surprise to anyone, fall in love with his new wife.
If you’re expecting the usual Carr impossibilities, you may be a little disappointed, as while there is an impossibly vanishing murder scene – with a very simple resolution, there is considerably more swashbuckling than you might expect. It’s a pretty solid mystery though, but it is frequently punctuated with action, mostly involving duels. It’s kind of hard to pin down which character the detective is supposed to be, but it does follow the tradition of only revealing the villain at the end – part of the reveal is a nice surprise, the other part might make you scratch your head – it’s a bit of a jump to the true killer, but, I guess, there are enough hints.
The story jogs along at a decent pace, and the central characters are interesting, although you do want to slap Darwent on occasion. One of the problems is the book is so full of pompous army types who persist on annoying Darwent, I found myself losing track of the central plot on occasion. I sometimes felt that I should be making notes as to who’s who as I went, but, as it transpired by the end, everything that needed to be clear was clear enough.
The other problem is that the history of the book is so well researched (some characters and situations actually occurred) is that Carr cannot resist the urge to historical facts left, right and centre. Some are interesting, but some are just showing off – e.g. “Dick, you’re a revolutionary, just like that Thomas Paine” and they stand out a bit as odd.
The character of Caroline gets some pretty short shrift as well, almost immediately falling in love with Darwent. Carr does a pretty good job of keeping the conflict going between them, but the somewhat artificial device of Darwent’s dying ex-ladyfriend is handled somewhat clunkily.
According the mighty Wikipedia, this is considered to be the first historical mystery – it isn’t. Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As The End was written in 1944, predating this by six years. It is Carr’s first attempt and is free of the somewhat silly time-travelling antics that occur in Fire, Burn and The Devil In Velvet. This was written at a time when all of Carr’s best work (with the exception of The Nine Wrong Answers) was behind him, but I find it hard to compare with the Gideon Fell novels, simply because it’s a different sort of book. If you want a mystery-thriller set in 1815, then this is probably the book for you. But forgive me if I revert to Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale the next time I want to be reminded of how great Carr was.