Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr

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.

The Burning Court

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.

Rating: 4.25/5


  1. Well . . . You COULD leave the ending out . . . But then it wouldn’t be The Burning Court. That ending works great on the radio, by the way, and it always gives me chills. It’s a rule-breaker, I suppose, but it didn’t irk me like it did you, Kate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No it would be ‘The Even Better Burning Court’! I wasn’t aware of a radio version of the story but I could see how the final chapter would definitely be scary. I think for each individual reader there are different rule breakers which matter, as I imagine some people would be annoyed by the rule breaker in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but it didn’t bother me.


  2. The Puzzle Doctor was to review The Burning Court in November 2014 and accordingly I wrote an article. However, he misplaced the book and did not review the book. I find that the article is still on my computer. I reproduce it here:

    (What follows contains spoilers though I have tried to keep them to the minimum)

    I regard The Burning Court as a brilliant novel provided the epilogue is removed. The epilogue spoils it for me.
    When one reads a locked room/impossible crime novel of Carr, one expects rational explanations for all the strange events. Hence I regard the epilogue as a cheat.
    Of course, Carr has the right to write a novel of any genre including supernatural, but there must be some indication of this to the reader. In The Burning Court, there is no such indication from the beginning to the penultimate chapter.
    Take for example the Sherlock Holmes story The Sussex Vampire (incidentally, one of the most ingenious Sherlock Holmes story). If, after Holmes has given the rational explanation, the author says that the rational explanation is wrong and that there is actually vampirism, what would be the reaction of the reader? The reader will certainly not tolerate this, though Doyle has written several supernatural stories.
    If supernatural explanations are allowed for a locked room/impossible crime, then there is absolutely no ingenuity in the solution. One can easily explain any strange event whatsoever.
    Though many people are enthusiastic about the epilogue, I frankly admit that I could not make head or tail of the epilogue. Who or what are the non-dead ?
    Not content with entities like vampire, ghost, evil spirit etc, Carr creates a new entity called the non-dead !
    It seems that the non-dead are so called because they are reincarnated to “construct a whole cycle of the non-dead, and a return for ever of the slayers and the slain” (Ch. 9) (Actually, according to Hindu philosophy, everyone gets reincarnated and one need not be a non-dead to get reincarnated ! )
    “But I did not wish my husband to guess, not yet. I love him, I love him; he will be one of us presently, if I can transform him without pain. Or too much pain.” (Excerpt from the epilogue)
    It seems that to join the non-dead, one has to be killed by poisoning or violent means. However, the person referred to in the previous paragraph is alive and well after 8 years ! The events of the book take place in 1929 and it is mentioned on the first page that “——- himself now admits that it is a relief to state facts”. ‘Now’ clearly refers to 1937, the year of publication of the book.
    Again the same person is alive and well even after 36 years ! He is referred to briefly in Panic In Box C (1966) whose events take place in 1965.
    “Yes, I knew ——. He had been seeking me, too, it seems. Nor have I denied his cleverness. It was clever of him to pluck a physical explanation, a thing of sizes and dimensions and stone walls, out of all those things which had no explanation I was prepared to give them. I wondered that he could do it so cunningly, for I am not clever. “
    “If I am not clever, as they say, still I think I had the better of ——, after all. ——- asked —–‘s price for what he did, and it was unfortunate that he wished to return to me. He would have been impossible as a lover. And —— was flesh and bone, until the ointment was used. He will return to flesh and bone presently, but I have the better of him now”
    The above 2 excerpts from the epilogue are utter nonsense to me. ( Ravings of a mad woman !) Why was he so intent on saving her ? She, being non-dead would have reincarnated anyway even if executed. In fact, in her previous reincarnation also, she was a poisoner, and was guillotined but has reincarnated in her present life.
    Of course, it may be my personal taste. Vampires, ghosts, evil spirits, non-dead etc. are simply not my cup of tea. I prefer to read novels with more realistic characters !
    A third solution to the Burning Court is suggested in Douglas Greene’s book John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. According to the third solution, her musings in the epilogue show not that she is a witch but that she is mad. She may have thought herself a witch, but there is no strong evidence to prove that she was one, and some indirect evidence to the contrary. The indirect evidence is that she plans to ‘transform’ (i.e. kill) her husband soon, but the husband is alive after 8 years and even after 36 years, as stated earlier by me.
    Thus the third solution is more or less the first (rational) solution, but in the end, it is she (mad woman) who kills her helper (because he wanted to seduce her and she wanted to escape his unwelcome attentions) and then goes mad.
    I can accept the first and third solutions. But I can’t accept the supernatural solution. Non-dead, indeed !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your article and I am so glad there is someone else who didn’t like the final twist and you articulate the problems with this epilogue well. I wasn’t aware of Douglas Greene’s third solution so it was good to hear about that and I could see how that fits in well with what has happened.


  3. Ah! The one Carr novel I’ve read! I quite enjoyed it. The ending didn’t bother me that much, though in my defense, I had read Greene’s Carr biography before this, he talks about the book, and it’s kinda hard to talk about it without hinting at what the ending actually entails.

    Also, I take mild pride that I solved this novel with guessing. XD No, really, I made guesses, they were actually right. First locked room? “Okay, you would use this…” and I was right. Murderer? “Eh, they’d make a good killer.” I was right. Only thing I didn’t get was the tomb thing, and it bothers me. Reminds me of something I’d see in an Edward D. Hoch story, and I normally catch that sort of stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m very impressed with your ability to solve this mystery. I had some vague ideas about how the death of Miles might have been done but I didn’t quite figure it all out. My ability to solve fictional murders is rather hit and miss though. Would you recommend Greene’s biography on Carr?


      • Oh don’t be impressed, they were literally just guesses. XD The kind of educated guesses that come from reading lots of mysteries, but guesses nonetheless. My hit-to-miss ratio is awful, I haven’t solved a lot of mysteries, really. XD

        And yeah, I’d recommend it. Quite good, informative, etc. Only gripe is that he never describes…The White Priory Murders, I think it was.


  4. I absolutely love the last 20 or so pages of this book. You get hit in rapid succession with a series of solutions and surprises. Very similar to the pace at the end of The Ten Teacups. I understand that the ‘twist’ is controversial, but I felt that the way it is positioned in the book lets the reader decide whether they take it seriously or not.

    My full review is here:

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I preferred The Ten Teacups to this book. I get that the readers can choose in regards to the twist at the end but it just didn’t work for me. The Case of the Constant Suicides is probably my favourite Carr novel.


  5. My memory after the first time I read this book was mainly the twist ending. But upon rereading I was struck more by the first explanation, since remembering the last solution I was not expecting Carr to to able to explain all the weird supernatural events so well. I actually don’t mind the twist ending, since Carr did not make a habit of using it and he did not use it as a lazy way out to avoid explaining things.


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