Saturday, August 11, 2012

THE DEVIL IN VELVET by John Dickson Carr

This is one of the best Carr works I've ever read. It merges his historical mystery milieu with actual supernatural content, in a fairly satisfying way.

In 1925, historian Nicholas Fenton literally makes a deal with the devil to go back in time to 1675, and inhabit the body of another Nicholas Fenton, who was involved in a murder case. Records are incomplete, and Fenton wants to know who did it and why. His friend Mary is appalled; she's a younger lady, daughter of a friend, but there's an admiration there. Satan himself shows up, cunningly described as banal and cold, with an air of nothingness around him.

When Fenton does go back, he is the older historian's mind and soul in the body of a younger man...but the younger man takes over in times of great passion or anger. Carr deals well with the time-travel elements, of how modern sensibilities are not prepared for the smells and sensations of a different era. And he also tackles the subject of Fenton's personality shifts nicely. Fenton quickly falls in love with the murder victim: Lydia, the first Fenton's wife. He identifies that she's being slowly poisoned and divines how it's done...but something seems wrong. Meanwhile, another time-traveler shows up; it's Mary, having gone back for love of him. Fenton, schooled in fencing, soon becomes a fearsome opponent in a time when swordfighting was hack-and-slash. Carr introduces Charles II, again making a case for him as a cunning master manipulator rather than the shallow "merry monarch" that he's normally known as. (Carr also explored this in the excellent Most Secret.) Fenton is soon caught in a morass, torn between two women, hip-deep in political plotting, and simply trying to survive when Old Nick shows up again, and Fenton must find a way out of the contract. Meanwhile, murder is done, and Fenton must seek the answer to save his own life.

It's a rip-roaring read, and with some genuine surprises. The final solution to the mystery was a real shock for me, but it made absolute sense. I loved the introduction of another time-traveler, something you rarely get in time-travel stories. The supernatural elements are well handled; Satan is given both charm and repellence, and there's hints of the Other Power making Its presence known in the character's lives as well.

The Devil in Velvet was published in 1951 and is disgracefully out of print (other Carr works are available here and there, even in Kindle versions). But for it's combination of mystery, history, and supernatural terrors, this is a must and well worth seeking in your local used book emporium. Good luck!

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