London, and Inspector John Cheviot wasn’t expecting much when he got into a taxicab on his way home. But when he emerges into the fog, things aren’t quite what he expected. It’s 1829, for a start.
Armed only with a seemingly encyclopaedical knowledge of the period, especially the origins of the police force, and his passion for the Lady Flora, who it seems he has seen a picture of once. Trying to ingratiate himself into the upper echelons of the new detective force, he takes on a test of a case – to find who has been stealing bird seed from Lady Cork – and more importantly, why is she keeping bird seed in a place where birds can’t eat it, because, that’s the obvious answer, surely?
Anyway, soon Cheviot finds himself up against a more challenging case – a young woman is shot dead in a room where no gunman could have been. But can he find a murderer and his way home – if he wants to go home, that is?
“A novel of terror and monstrous evil in the bawdy candle-lit London of 1829“? Blimey! I think the cover writer got a bit carried away by the cover picture and didn’t get round to reading the book…
Well, after And Cauldron Bubble, I had to do Fire, Burn!, didn’t I? Really annoying there doesn’t seem to be a mystery called Toil and Trouble as otherwise, I could do that and Ellery Queen’s Double Double next and make a nice little pattern of titles on my homepage. Having said that, just like the previous review, the plot has f-all to do with Macbeth, with Cheviot just muttering “fire, burn and cauldron bubble” under his breath for no particular reason. Regardless, I’m going to do a little series for the rest of the year of mystery novels with titles from Macbeth. I’ve got Double Double, By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, Light Thickens and So Much Blood lined up – I’ve already reviewed What Bloody Man Is That? – any suggestions for more? Oh, Alanna Knight’s Enter Second Murderer is from a Macbeth stage direction, so that sort of counts. But I’ve already reviewed it an age ago…
Back to this one though. It’s a quick, engrossing read. Like many of Carr’s historicals, there’s less of a focus on the impossible crime than there is in seeing some bits and pieces of history before solving things at the last minute. The pace never drags, as Cheviot tries to deal with the various aspects of the case and his relationship with Flora…
… but as I said with his historicals, Carr seems to have lost interest somewhat in the impossible crime angle. After the impossible shooting happens, that aspect of it is barely mentioned until the denouement, wherein it all hinges around something that you probably didn’t think existed in 1829 (although Carr produces a clear reference to the fact that it did). Both this aspect, and the identity of the murderer, are fairly disappointing, following the larks and hijinks that have led to this point.
And the resolution to the time-travel aspect? Well, how can you resolve it satisfactorily? I suppose the bigger question is why do it in the first place – I suppose it’s because of the nature of the impossibility. Without knowledge of the future, it might be harder to justify the existence of something – or even the use of a certain phrase to make things easier for the reader to understand it. So there is a reason for it, I guess… Still pretty weird though.
Regardless of the resolution, if you like Carr’s historical novels, this is one of the better ones, but it’s certainly not without its flaws. Well Worth A Look.
You could do an entire thread on Blurb Writers Who Haven’t Read The Book – some of the House of Stratus reprints of Austin Freeman are particularly bad in this respect, particularly on “The Shadow of the Wolf” where the blurber thinks it’s a collection of short stories rather than a single novel… At least that way you don’t get blurb spoilers!
Some suggestions for titles from Macbeth:
Look To The Lady by Margery Allingham
Taste Of Fears by Margaret Millar
To Fear A Painted Devil by Ruth Rendell
I knew I could rely on you to find a few more. The Rendell isn’t an exact quote – tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil – but I might try one of the others…
The original working title for this book was Fire Burn And Cauldron Bubble. Carr liked this title and had used it earlier for a Suspense radio script (1943). (The radio script is available on the Internet). The publishers, however, shortened the title.
The longer version still doesn’t really make any more sense as there’s no real reason for Cheviot to mutter the phrase on occasion other than to give the book a title…
Bullets for Macbeth by Marvin Kaye, perhaps?
Don’t think that’s a direct quote from the play… 😀
Heh – sadly not. Zelda Popkin also did a So Much Blood. Also Larry Darter wrote Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair.
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the detective solves the case partly through a quote from Macbeth uttered by one of the daughters-in-law. Even as a kid, I thought this was pompous of her. Who goes around quoting Shakespeare at moments of extreme stress? It made me feel like such a slob; I would have screamed and fainted! 🙂
This was the first of his historical for me and I still like it a lot 😀 Not least for the Notes for the Curious and a really eye opening murder method.
This may be my favorite Carr historical. I say “may” because the 1950-1962 historicals are all a really tight pack, and I sometimes wonder if my preference for Fire, Burn is influenced by the fact that it was my first. This probably has the best impossible crime out of any of the historicals (unless you count Witch of the Low Tide), but as you say, the impossibility isn’t really the focus for any of these.
Witch, iirc, is more of a “proper” Carr impossibility, but isn’t it basically White Priory on the beach instead of in the snow?
This is one of the earliest Carrs I read, and I was blown away by the brilliance of his historical milieu and the swiftness of his plotting. The time travel is, yeah, kinda weird, but it’s a motif he’d used before to less satisfactory ends (Devil in Velvet, we’re all looking at you…), and I was willing to forgive pretty much anything after how he made me revise my opinions of what could be done with historical mysteries. My previous encoutners had all been fun if stilted (Death Comes As the End) or boring and stilted (C.J. Sansom, Caleb Carr). This was fun and spry and completely wonderful. Though my opinion may not be the same now 🙂
There’s also Cyril Hare’s He Should Have Died Hereafter — sure, it’s a gender reversal on the quote in the play, but if you’re feeling forgiving…
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Incidentally, the book The Fatal Effects Of Gambling (referred to in this book) is available free at the Internet Archive as well as Google Books.
[…] Fire, Burn! By John Dickson Carr […]
More Macbeth titles:
Agatha Christie – By the Pricking of my Thumbs.
Alistair McClean – The Way to Dusty Death
I know that McClean isn’t your usual type of author but his books while being primarily thrillers do often have some mystery elements.
Ah, I got tired of this idea when So Much Blood turned out to be based on a different quote. As for Maclean, maybe one day…