Existing somewhere between an early 2000s romantic comedy – probably starring Chris O’Donnell or Matthew McConnaughaghay – and The Count of Monte Cristo, John Dickson Carr’s The Bride of Newgate was his first foray into the historical mysteries that would come to typify his later career. You never write Carr off – like Christie he waned as he wore on, but there are enough flashes of fire after his peak for everyone to have two or three Later Carr highlights – but these dalliances with the extra detail required show a different side to our man. Mainly they show that he was a massive history nerd – detailing not just what people are wearing, say, but also what they would have removed from their outfit to be left with what they’ve got on – and that he was able to fit this into his wonderful brain and stir up something both necessarily of its setting that also fulfilled the expectations raised by his name on the cover.
I’m not going to tell you the plot – the opening four or five chapters are full of schemes, plans, and revelations enough that you should really experience completely pure – and will instead focus on the writing. Because while he gradually loses his grip on his narrative, his powers of portraiture are sent to their grandest heights with a renewed enthusiasm that is both this book’s chief joy and its main undoing. In a way it’s like a debut: he gets it wrong, but he tries hard and would improve after a few more attempts.
You start off with old-world references to turnkeys and Prinny and Boney, with spoken slang rippling thew-like across the narrative so you’re almost bent close to the page as if deciphering his calligraphy, as if pulled in inexorably by a hand at your throat. Candle-lit rooms are described by the backs of the men in them leaning out of the window, a crowd tosses a dead cat amongst themselves for entertainment. Carr wants your full attention, and as you start to piece it together, as you start to adapt to this strange old world, he hits you with a surprise development that works perfectly in this setting, that makes sense of his use of this time, and then doesn’t let up until you’re bound up in the fate of Dick Darwent and the others draw into the brew.
His characters don’t really do anything new – from effete dandy Jemmy Fletcher to the rapscallion Sir John Buckstone to common tart-with-a-heart Dolly Spencer – and suffer from the fact that it’s not really clear who the protagonist is. Common sense says Darwent, but then his alcoholic lawyer is arguably the detective, and Carr’s decision to flit between viewpoints for a few lines at a time supplies verisimilitude but robs you of a focal point. However, there’s enough joy in the wealth of detail to keep you from worrying about that: only certain people may sit in certain chairs of gentlemen’s clubs, duels were subject to the fashions of the day, republican expression was deemed treason…it never lets up, and paints an honestly fascinating backdrop.
Except it stops being the backdrop and begins to overtake the foreground. It’s this detail that drags it down. As a novel it goes on far too long, with too much repetition in Darwent’s repeated triumphs in duels, fights, scrapes, and confrontations, and the plot ends up somewhat sidelined by its own setting – there’s an impossibility of sorts, though it barely warrants the name given the eventual resolution, and it fades from importance as events progress. It’s not sure what it wants to be: historical thriller, social commentary on the age, love story, redemption story, revenge story, impossible event story…for once, Carr has too many balls in the air and only keeps his eye on the one marked ‘History’.
Which is a shame. This starts wonderfully, with an intriguing notion at its core and then some excellent developments to hasten its intentions, but fails to really deliver on that promise. The Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn! would showcase Carr’s historical sensibilities far more favourably, balancing his love of detail in a way that enhanced the plot rather than overshadowed it, and as only about the second or third historical mystery published it should also be commended for its fairness. But Carr would do better, and in context this is unfortunately about as inessential as he gets.
As ever, though, this humble pundit must express that the opportunity to read this far outstrips any concerns over the failings in the narrative: Carr innovated in so many ways, and this is the gateway to a new facet of his writing that would preserve him and muster up some excellent books to come. The e-book edition is superbly produced again by Orion, and any completist will want to read this if only to see how Carr’s Historical Phase got started. As an introduction to the themes he would gravitate back to again and again until the very end of his career, it’s a fascinating insight into an author’s process and motivation. But anyone just wanting more than a rollicking read should probably apply elsewhere.
I submit this review as my second contribution to the 1950 Monthly Challenge at Past Offences; I’m just sorry it wasn’t a better book!