Sunday, August 26, 2012

THE BURNING COURT by John Dickson Carr

One of Carr's more famous works, The Burning Court uses the notorious Marie de Brinvilliers case as a springboard for a modern murder.

It's 1929. Publisher Edward Stevens is on his way from New York to his weekend cottage in the Philadelphia suburbs, eager to join his wife Marie. He's got the manuscript of a book on poisonings by true-crime author Gaudan Cross to go over, and he's struck by a chapter on a Marie D'Aubray, who had committed some poisonings in Canada in the 1800s, and he's struck by the resemblance between the portrait of Marie D'Aubray in the book and his own wife...whose maiden name happens to be D'Aubray.

Things get even weirder when he gets to the house. Marie is behaving oddly, and Stevens is visited by his neighbors. Miles Despard, the patriarch of a local family, died recently but his family now suspects it was poison, and are seeking to prove it. Will Stevens help them break into the Despard crypt so they can retrieve the body?

There are all sorts of weirdness going on in this tale. Miles last drank out of a silver cup, and a cat that sampled it died. A servant claims to have seen a woman in old-fashioned dress in Miles' room, and leaving by a door that no longer exists. Marie went missing from a costume party that same night; could she be involved? And Miles' body is missing from the crypt; why?

Sound fun? Well...I'm sorry to say that it's not. The Burning Court's reputation seems to lie more on its ideas than its actual execution. It's a horrendously SLOW novel; the only real action takes place during the break-in of the crypt and the final scene at the end. Other than that, it's mostly people sitting around talking and discussing things that happened off-stage or in the past. Conversations go on for several chapters.

It does go for the Gothick atmosphere but sometimes seems a little silly. Carr really goes for the Despards as Lords of the Manor, but that all seems tone-deaf when you remember the story is set in Pennsylvania. There really is a tone of the Ye Olde English Country House about all this. There's also some intriguing set-up with characters who are descendents of those involved in the original de Brinvilliers case, or having the same name, all showing up; could this be spectral revenge? Talk of deceased criminals coming back as "the non-dead" rather than simply undead is amusing as well.

But the talkiness and sluggishness of it all is deadly, and the last-second appearance of Gaudan Cross in the last quarter of the book to act as deus ex machina and explain everything is fatal. He's utterly uninvolved with the story up until then, but shows up to a rational , earthly solution to the case.

I will give it credit for having a coda that shows that while the murder was earthly, there really WERE supernatural forces at work in the story, with horrors to come for some characters...but it hardly saves the rest of the book.

Would I recommend it? Not really. There's just too much turgidness here to make it exciting for the modern reader. Carr was an inconsistent author, and while he sometimes had great ideas, his execution could be dreadful.

This is the last Carr I'll be reading for a while...onward and upward!

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