The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr

Miles Despard lies dead, a victim of gastroenteritis – apparently. But why was a woman wearing period dress seen in his bedroom on the night of his death, a woman who left the room through a door that wasn’t there? His neighbour, Edward Stevens is interested when Despard’s nephew, Mark, tells of his concerns, but is rapidly distracted by the book he is editing.

The book concerns historical poisoners, notably Marie d’Aubray, who was burned for her crimes in 1861. The manuscript contains a photograph of d’Aubray, a woman who is the spitting image of Edward’s own wife, but the photograph soon disappears… as does Despard’s body from his sealed crypt…

John Dickson Carr never really gets much acclaim for his non-series books, with the exception of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box and The Burning Court. And the acclaim for this one usually comes down to the ending of the tale, which either annoys or delights readers in equal measure. Of course, because the end is the most important part of the tale, how on earth do I review it without mentioning it?

Well, let’s look at the tale without the final chapter, and it’s a great read. The problems are intriguing, and while I’m not convinced about the door that wasn’t there, the vanishing body is ingenious. The sense of the bizarre pervades the tale, and the possible unreliability of the sleuth – Gaudan Cross – an expert of poisoners, helps with that. The characters are clearly defined and the plot very well=paced, and there’s a great chapter on the history of poisoners, similar to the locked room lecture of The Hollow Man. All in all, a very good mystery – not quite up there with the best Fell and Merrivale titles, but not far off.

And then we get to the final chapter, the chapter that sets this book apart from the crowd. And to me, it doesn’t work. Not because of the themes that it introduces into the detective novel, but the fact that it mostly comes out of nowhere. To make it work, an important character is side-lined for much of the action and so the final revelations aren’t really clued. Which some people will be fine with, but for me, this feels more like an abrupt switch in genres, rather than a well-blended mash-up. I found it rather jarring, and while I can see what Carr is doing here, I found that it rather undermined what had gone before.

I know that’s not a popular opinion (although both Kate and JJ have similar ones), so I expect some counterpoints in the comments below, but do try and keep clear of spoilers. I’ve tried to – maybe not that successfully – so please try as well.

6 comments

  1. I wonder if you would agree with my view that the last chapter can actually be read in two ways, the alternative one being almost an example of “unreliable narrator”?

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    • This one came in a period where Carr mingled classic well clued who-how-dunnit with experimenting tales. The Burning Court, The Arabian Nights Mystery and The Crooked Hinge all have ambiguous endings. And in this tale the name of the detective is not a hint that something unusual is to come? As you, I wasn’t convinced with the explanation of the vanishing through an inexistent door, Carr was preparing, I gather, an unstable terrain for the eerie finale.

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  2. Great review chum. I don’t agree with you about the ending in two ways: 1. I think it really is NOT what the book depends upon. You can end just before it and it is still a superb novel with a brilliant surprise murderer. 2. I think the ending is superb also because it can be read in a completely subjective way. Thus is the alternative offered in Doug Greene’s biography of Carr and which I think satisfies most naysaying.

    We have discussed this one in the past of course

    https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2017/06/23/the-burning-court-1937-by-john-dickson-carr/

    and I still love it. One of the greatest mystery books if the 1930s. Bar none.

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  3. I love the book. And I love the ending. I agree with #1 (but not #2) of @Cavershamragu’s reasons just above. The book is complete and satisfying, everything fairly and completely resolved, WITHOUT the final chapter.

    So that final chapter, for me, is just an extra dessert, a fun concluding flourish. It makes me grin at the author’s audacity, and when I read it I’m definitely thinking of the author’s glee at including it — fair cluing and sidelined characters are irrelevant concepts here. “Jeu d’esprit” is the phrase that comes to mind.

    Several times I’ve had friends who were interested in reading more Carr and I would suggest a series of titles and lend them my copies. When it came to this book (which I’d include 4 or 5 books in) they were about evenly split on whether they liked it, and it seemed to be linked to whether they had the same kind of sense of humor that I did.

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    • My “subjective” approach is for those who don’t buy into it. I do completely – Carr is loving it and so do I. Brad has talked of this as being Carr’s ROGER ACKROYD and I think he is right – except that this is even more startling for the modern reader.

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