#66: The Bride of Newgate (1950) by John Dickson Carr

Bride of NewgateExisting 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.

star filledstar filledstarsstarsstars

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!

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21 thoughts on “#66: The Bride of Newgate (1950) by John Dickson Carr

  1. I much prefer THE DEVIL IN VELVET and FIRE, BURN but have not read this one in decades (and then in an Italian translation) so thanks for this JJ – must definitely re-read (FEAR IS THE SAME is another of these I want to return to).

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  2. I’m not sure whether this is blatant heresy or simply an honest assessment of the book, but I loved the The Bride of Newgate, from start to finish, when I read it a couple of years ago.

    Your comment about juggling with too many balls, while mainly concentrating on the one marked history, reminded me of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which is a historical mystery based on an unsolved murder case from the history books. As a historical narrative, it’s an impressive and unrivaled piece of work, but comes up short when judged purely as a detective story.

    @Cavershamragu: thanks for reminding me that I have liberate Fear is the Same from my TBR-pile one of these days.

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    • Ha, yeah, I know – it feels a little odd coming away from a Carr novel so…unaffected (and, whisper it, a little bored). He nailed it with Fire, Burn! and The Devil in Velvet so I’m imagining this is just the rusty first swing and he got a bit carried away with All The History. I intend to reread in the future, because it could well be that I was anticipating the wrong thing and knowing what to expect I may find more to enjoy, but feels like one for completists.

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  3. Thanks for heads up on this Carr novel. Might not rush to read it just yet! The only historical Carr novel I have read is Captain Cutthroat, which is set in the Napoleonic wars. Think it acts more like a thriller with a romance subplot though, with a dash of comedy of manners.

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    • Carr’s historicals tend to be on the thriller-with-a-romance-plot side of things – there’s usually an attractive woman (or sometimes two, so the hero has the agony of choice), swordplay/fisticuffs, and a moderately minor impossible element, but he’s blended them to near-perfection elsewhere and overcooks it a bit here.

      I have Captain Cut-Throat on my TBR, so I’ll get to it eventually, but I can already believe it’s more successful than this just on account of how well he’s done the historical crime novel better elsewhere in the wake of The Bride of Newgate. And, hey, it’s a hard trick to pull off, so it’s not like I’m judging him…

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  4. Heresy isn’t putting down the odd hybrid work of a favorite author. (Heck, I’m the first to admit that most of Christie’s one-off spy thrillers leave me cold!) Heresy is trying to look your Carr-swilling, impossible crimes loving fellow blogger in his (virtual) eye and telling him you find The Hollow Man to be a bit of a slog through…..

    But enough about minor matters! What’s this I see in your Twitter feed about Steven Moffat leaving Doctor Who??? Now that’s news! And I have a feeling it bodes well for the series in the long run . . .

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      • Rest assured, JJ, this is far from my first Carr. But let me finish it and think about it as a complete work before I whine! As for Moffat, I will always be grateful to him for giving us the Weeping Angels, Rory and Muffy. I just think the last season’s stories were a little bit tiresome and not as worthy of as great an actor as Peter Capaldi. I’m sure things will start afresh with a new companion, but it’s interesting to see where a new writer might take things. (At least the new guy improved Broadchurch after that out of nowhere, unearned, ridiculous first season finale, so he showed he can get himself out of a hole!)

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        • Yeah, I’ve still not seen Broadchurch. I probably should, I’m sure, but I keep forgetting to. I know Chris Chibnall’s Who episodes haven’t been that strong, but the guy deserves a chance. And, crikey, it’s still nearly two years away…if he can’t come up with anything good in that time then he really is in trouble!

          And, interestingly, I thought this season’s stories were tailor-made precisely TO give Capaldi more to do. His first series was very weak indeed, but there was much more heft for him to get behind this time around. Weird how people see different things, aint it?

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        • I’ll stop after this because, as you say, this discussion belongs on a different site. I’m not sure which episodes Chibnall did, and I must say in all fairness that I am a MOST recent convert to Who Fandom, having binged the entire thing (well, from Eccleston on) over the course of about two months, and I am still reeling from losing Tennant!

          Of course, Broadchurch DOES fit into a discussion of mysteries. I fear that the first season left me cold because of that aforementioned ridiculous solution to the crime. But Season Two was better, ironically because it dropped the whodunit element for the most part and concentrated on the healing and redemption of a severely damaged community. So we didn’t have to uncover everybody’s dark secret (cuz, yep, EVERYONE had one!) and instead we could look at these people as more rounded characters. And we had us some Eve Myles, whom I love as an actress! Unfortunately, you have to watch Season One to make heads or tails of Season Two. No need for you to rush to this, JJ. You are engaged in far more worthy work at this time! 🙂

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  5. Though there is mystery, it is more an adventure cum romance novel than a mystery novel . Hence it may appeal to readers interested in adventure cum romance genre.
    I note that you have not mentioned the convenient resolution at the end !

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    • I always try to give away as little as possible! There’s enough here to be worth experiencing as pure as possible, but yeah the ending does rely on convenience to a somewhat unlikely degree.

      Still, it’s a minor point. I’ve read a book recently that relied on much bigger convenience to prop up pretty much its entire plot…that was annoying!

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  6. Pingback: ‘A mud fight at a village fair’: #1950book results | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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