Saturday, December 31, 2011

FIRE, BURN by John Dickson Carr

In the first half of the 20th century, Carr was It. He was a bestselling author. He teamed with Adrian Conan Doyle to write The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most notable early post-Doyle pastiches. And he was a popular writer for radio; he wrote a number of episodes for shows like Suspense! and one of his original shows, "Cabin B-13", ended up being spun off into its own series. His works were also the basis of an early TV show, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, with Boris Karloff in the title role. He also wrote a handful of well-received plays. He had a couple of popular series characters, like Dr. Gideon Fell (who was based on G. K. Chesterton) and Sir Henry Merrivale (modeled on Winston Churchill). He also was a pioneer of the full-length historical mystery novel. Carr was noted as the master of the locked-room murder although later critics noted that his plots often strained plausibility and credulity.

I've read some Carr in the past, and he can be a mixed bag. Some works, like the historical novel The Demoniacs, hold up well today, while one of his early works, Castle Skull, I found to be a crashing bore. He could generate all sorts of Gothick atmosphere, but I feel that all too often he used the promise of supernatural terrors to sell a mundane story. (Such was the case of The Demoniacs, which was certainly good enough but utterly lacking in the macabre.) And that's probably part of why Carr has fallen out of favor today. He was great in the 30s and 40s, but after WWII some felt he lost something (although some of his better works came from that period). By the 60s his style of mannered mysteries had fallen out of favor, and while some are still regarded as classics, others have not aged well at all.

Luckily, Fire, Burn is of the former category. It's a meld of mystery with touches of supernatural or sci-fi, as Scotland Yard officer John Cheviot stepped into a cab in 1957 and stepped out in 1829, stunned and bewildered. We're never told how or why he traveled back in time, or even if it's really happening or some sort of hallucination. It just happens.

Everyone recognizes Cheviot, even his lady-love, so he plays along, feigning a sudden illness sometimes to cover up his lapses in knowledge. Luckily, he's an amateur historian so he understands the Regency and its mores, which gives him an occasional advantage.

He ends up investigating some historical crimes using future knowledge and techniques. It starts off with a noblewoman complaining of stolen birdseed, but then leads into a full-throttle murder investigation when a woman is shot to death in front of a group of people, but no one had a gun nor can one be found that actually fired the bullet.

In between there's romance, ruminations on the period, duels, confrontations, and all sorts of fun. And then a surprising return to the present at the end.

One thing that struck me while reading this was how reminiscent this was of the TV show Life on Mars. The time periods are different, of course; LoM featured a detective from the 2000s projected backwards into the 1970s. I wonder if that show's creators were familiar with this novel.

Anyway, it's a fun, zesty read, like Georgette Heyer with testosterone. It should be easy to pick up at your favorite used book emporium. It is out of print but still protected by copyright.

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