Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Bottle of Poison
N.B. Having read the rules for Bev’s Scavenger Hunt I have selected a cover from the internet as my own book does not have a dust jacket.
A Brief Interruption
When the Tuesday Night Bloggers looked at Dorothy L Sayers last month I did a poll to see which novel was peoples’ favourite and the results certainly did surprise me. Therefore I thought it would be interesting to find out peoples’ Carr preferences. Due to the size of his work I have decided for this week to just focus on Carr’s Dr. Fell novels. So please do join in and let your opinion be known, by taking part in the poll below:
Normal Service Resumed: Back to Carr’s The Burning Court …
Last week I looked at Carr’s work as a whole focusing on the types of settings he used. This week though I am only going to be looking at one Carr novel, The Burning Court (1937), one of Carr’s best known works and until last week I had not read it. I only knew a small amount about the plot before reading this book but the title itself gave me some clue as to what it might touch on or allude to. That is because The Burning Court, was the name for a judicial court in 17th century France, which was set up to deal with the spate of arsenic poisonings occurring in the Royal French court. Such aristocratic poisoners were supposedly collaborating with an infamous poisoner named La Voisin. The court was so named because of the punishment given to those deemed guilty by the 12 judges.
However the book begins much less fantastically with Edwards Stevens in 1920s America, returning home after a hard day’s work at the publishing firm he edits for. To pass the time on the train he decides to peruse a client’s new manuscript. Gaudan Cross, the client in question writes up historical murder trials and his latest book looks at female poisoners from history. He is given a serious jolt though when he looks at a photograph from the book, as not only does it look so strikingly like his wife, who he met in Paris a few years ago and whom he quickly married, but the name on the photograph matches with his wife’s own maiden name, Marie D’Aubray. Does his wife have a 19th century arsenic poisoner in her ancestry? His anxiety is further increased when a friend he meets on the train mentions that the only poisoner he knew with that name was the Marquise de Brinvilliers who was burnt for her crimes in 1676. In an age where discovering your family tree is a hobby and even a topic for TV documentaries, such a fact wouldn’t necessarily be disturbing. But for Stevens this causes him a good deal of worry. Nearby to his home is the Despard family and a number of weeks ago the eldest member Miles, died of gastroenteritis, leaving his fortune to his nephews, Mark and Ogden and his niece, Edith. Already Mark has told Stevens of some strange circumstances surrounding Miles’ seemingly natural death, that of the cook saying she saw a woman in old fashioned clothes in Miles room on the night of his death, who left through a door which has been bricked up for over 200 years.
On returning home to Marie further pieces of information make Stevens even more anxious about his wife such as the photograph from the manuscript disappearing, Mark’s declaration that he believes his uncle was murdered with arsenic and Marie’s ominous words to Stevens as he goes off with Mark to dig up Miles from the crypt he is buried in. Why does she say he will find nothing there? Many of you might be wondering why Mark has not gone to the police with his suspicions, but it seems Marie is not the only one under a cloud of suspicion and it seems Mark’s wife Lucy also looks like a prime suspect due to circumstantial evidence such as having the opportunity to give Miles poison and her fancy dress outfit based on a portrait of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, (her amongst other went to such a party on the night of Miles’ death), matching that of the woman who the cook saw in Miles’ room. Yet the late night digging party are in for a surprise when they discover as Marie predicted that they would find nothing, not even Miles’ body. How could the body have been stolen from a sealed crypt, with granite floors, ceilings and walls? Was Miles ever in the crypt?
A malicious letter/ telegram writer brings the police into the situation, whose investigation puts many people under the spotlight, including Stevens’ and his wife, especially when other people seem to have such strong alibis. Carr is adept at keeping the mystery hidden until the end, having made me suspect pretty much everyone apart from the cat, and even then adding a final twist which suggests an alternative version of events. This final twist is the biggest bit of rug pulling I have experienced in a long while and on the one hand this did impress me. However, on the other hand I did not enjoy this final twist, much preferring the sequence of events articulated prior to it, as I felt there was no credible motivation for what this twist suggests happens. I could see how it was sneaky and clever, but this time it did not work for me.
There is also the presence of the amateur sleuth through the character of Gaudan Cross and it is a pity that he was not developed further as a character or featured in other Carr novels. Cross has many distinctive aspects such as being a convicted criminal, who committed a crime in order to get real life experience of prison. This was a psychological idea which intrigued me a lot and I was a little disappointed that more was not made of it, as I feel it would add a new dimension to the role of amateur detection. One thing that did annoy me was that a character gets a girl into trouble and after her abortion goes wrong ditches her, all the while being engaged to a woman he goes on to marry. The part that irked me the most was that when this information is revealed other characters act very decently about it to the extent that one female character even justifies the actions by suggesting that ditching the vulnerable woman was a sign of devotion to one he was going to marry.
However, something Carr does do well in this novel is balance the way the events of his plots can be viewed either from a supernatural or natural point of view and these differing viewpoints are shown at their extremes at the denouement of the novel. The inclusion of both perspectives on a given event adds an additional element of mystery and suspense to the tale. For example Miles is found with a piece of string under his pillow with nine knots in it and there is both a fantastical and practical perspective on this point. I particularly enjoyed the practical point of view as it makes an allusion to Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner stories from 1908.
In some respects I can see how this novel can be regarded as one of Carr’s best as the central mystery is certainly baffling and although not known for his characterisation skills, the characters in this novel are well crafted and one is drawn to Stevens as he worries about his wife. The atmosphere is also well set up and the prose style keeps you reading. Nevertheless the final twist was disappointing and in my opinion upset the balance of the book and it would have been better if it had been left out. However I would be interested to hear other peoples’ thoughts on this.