Thursday, April 12, 2012
THE BRIDE OF NEWGATE by John Dickson Carr
It's 1815. Lady Caroline Ross must marry in order to achieve her inheritance. Being a cold sort with no use for men, she decides to marry a convicted murderer who's due to be hanged. The man she chooses, handsome Dick Darwent, is a fencing instructor convicted of killing a man in a duel, but Darwent insists he is innocent. And then a spanner is thrown in the works: his execution is stayed, and it turns out that when he was convicted, Darwent had just unknowingly inherited the title of Marquess of Darwent (as the people who stood between him and the title had died at Waterloo), and the conviction was invalidated since, as a peer, he could only be tried by the House of Lords. Whatever shall she do?
The Bride of Newgate, published in 1950, is thought by many to be the first historical mystery novel. Carr is an inconsistent writer, but Bride is one of his better works and is something of a mystery classic. It holds up well in the 21st century, as Carr strives to give an honest portrait of the era's class distinctions and of life in the Regency. One good segment is set at an opera house, describing a rowdy performance based on actual records, only throwing in a fire and sword fights for fun.
Carr's characterizations are often paper-thin, but in Bride there's better-than-usual work. Caroline warms to her reluctant husband and it becomes obvious that they are a true meeting of the minds. However, it's all handled very abruptly and matters settled far too quickly and the resolutions are too pat. Plus, Darwent's mistress from before his marriage is dispatched in an overly-convenient way. I found myself wishing that Carr could have collaborated with Georgette Heyer on this; his plotting matched with her extraordinary talent for characterization and psychology would have been fabulous. (And yes, I like Georgette Heyer. Want to make something of it?)
Carr's genius was plot, and this is a good one, with dastardly doings in the Regency's upper crust, and the reader is given duels and amatory bouts galore. One good quality this has is a compactness of narrative; you don't have 200 pages of story stretched out to 400+ pages as one finds so often with modern bestsellers. (Or even worse, something given novel treatment that's really only enough for a decent short story, or novella. Anne Rice's The Tale of the Body Thief comes to mind there.) He doesn't waste time, although the subplot about his mistress could have been handled differently, but one can see how it was used to bring in certain characters.
The Bride of Newgate is out of print, but copies are likely available at your favorite used book emporium, and it's worth seeking out.