Vintage mystery: Maybe magic is more plausible

Review: The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr

A keeper? Maybe. Or maybe not.

I’m not sure if The Burning Court deserves shelf space or not. Then again, ambiguity suits this tale.

It’s an unusual Carr in some ways, a very typical one in others. Carr made a career of writing mysteries featuring apparently impossible crimes, especially murders that seemed to have been committed in securely locked rooms. Generally, as the story developed, there were hints of supernatural forces at work. (After all, no less an authority than Sherlock Holmes told us that once you eliminate the impossible explanations, whatever unlikely solution is left must be true. And halfway through a typical Carr, it generally looks as if no non-magical situation could possibly explain what happened.) But finally, a chapter or so from the end, the Great Detective gathers all the surviving characters and explains that the mysteries are completely understandable. No real ghoulies and ghaisties allowed in the Carr universe, thank you.

The typical Carr is also set in England, and features one of his two series detectives – Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. And in these details, The Burning Court stands off to one side – it takes place in Carr’s native Pennsylvania, and the clever investigator who gives us an explanation near the end appears in no other stories. There are more important oddities, though.

First of all, it’s not even clear until well into the story that there’s anything to be suspicious about. True, Miles Despard died recently; but everyone knew he was very ill, so sick that the family had a nurse staying in the house to care for him. (As far as I can tell from reading old mysteries, it seems to have been normal in the thirties for dangerously sick people to be cared for at home instead of being treated in a hospital. So this isn’t unusual.) And yes, the housekeeper claims she saw a strange woman wearing an antique dress feed Miles a mysterious drink the evening before he died. But she also claims that the woman then vanished by walking through a wall. Sounds to me like she was asleep and dreaming.

No, there’s no special reason to think a crime has taken place until the family crypt is opened – and Miles’ coffin turns out to be empty. And from then on matters do get complicated and bizarre, with false identities and strange costumes and hints of some group of murderous creatures who keep returning century after century to poison those they seem to love.

Of course, at last we are treated to a nice this-worldly explanation of all the mysteries, with an unexpected murderer. (Though the details of how the missing corpse was hidden were a bit too ridiculous to swallow.) And all’s well with the world, unless you were close to the unmasked killer. Or is it?

Carr ends the book with an epilogue like nothing in his other stories…strongly suggesting that, actually, the legends about the returning poisoners were true. Or else, of course, that one of the remaining people in the book is dangerously, murderously crazy.

I might keep this one because it’s a skinny little thing, only 215 pages and less than half an inch thick (about a centimeter, maybe), and because I’m kind of a completist. On the other hand, the “realistic” explanation wasn’t entirely convincing, and the scary supernaturalish stuff wasn’t quite creepy enough…it was almost too rational to be a good counterbalance to realism.

Neither one thing nor the other, and I don’t know if I like it or not. A sensible, rational woman would get rid of it.

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