A Miracle by Gaslight

"Our heirs, whatever or whoever they may be, will explore space and time to degrees we cannot currently fathom. They will create new melodies in the music of time. There are infinite harmonies to be explored."
- Clifford Pickover
During a long and storied career, John Dickson Carr, arguably the greatest and certainly the most enthusiastic participant of the grandest game in the world, carved himself a legacy as the standard-bearer of the impossible crime movement. But in contrast to these accolades, achieved in the department of miracles, stands a second, equally impressive, body of work produced as a pioneering novelist of historical novels – which has seldom been the recipient of praise. There's no discernible reason why these stories are usually glossed over as they reflect a genuine love for history (c.f. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, 1937) and the atmospheric prose resurrected the ghosts of the centuries that slipped away in the mists of time. Not to mention the fact that he probably spawned a hybrid sub-genre with the introduction of the time traveling detective. 

Fire, Burn! (1957) is a particular fine example of this plot device, in which a modern day policeman is expatriated to the primordial days of Scotland Yard. This stretch of time in the history of the British police force has always fascinated Detective-Superintendent John Cheviot, who harbored private fantasies of crossing space and time to baffle his predecessors with the wonders of modern forensic science, but when he jumps out of a cab one night he inexplicably finds himself standing in the year 1829 in a custom made body! He's all of a sudden living in a dream, but not the one he frequently had as he has to conclude that it's hard to play a demigod of futuristic police work in a time where fingerprinting, ballistics and the preservation of a crime-scene are alien concepts – and basically only has his wits to fall back upon. Oh, and it isn't helpful, either, to quote from biographies that aren't published yet.  

Wits are fine when your assignments consists of such easy tasks as baring the identity of a pilferer who has been nicking birdseed from the beak of a dowagers pet macaw, but when this trifling offense turns out to be a prelude to murder, modern sophistication becomes something to long for – especially when dealing with a murderer who struck in the presence of no less than three witnesses but remained imperceptible to the naked eye. 

The victim, one Margaret Renfrew, who lived in with the old dowager and whose conscience was burdened with guilty knowledge regarding the affair with the birdseed, was shot, at close range, in a gas lit passage in front of Cheviot and two additional witnesses, but none of them saw as much as fleeting silhouette of the phantomlike marksman. Nonetheless, I unhesitatingly tagged one of the characters as the deadeye and deduced how this person obscured him/herself from sight, but was distracted away from these ingenious deductions – which in a way exposes the Achilles heel of this story.

At the core of this story you'll find a clever enough, but rather simplistically, constructed plot, in which your attention is drawn away from the obvious solution with Cheviot romancing over an at times exasperating heroine, gambling den brawls and the preparations of a crooked duel with an army captain.

This is not the kind of misdirection you expect from a reputable Machiavellian schemer, but lets not forgot that this story was jotted down during the big drop-off period late in his career when age started to claim its toll – making this book only an average fare by his own standards. However, it must be noted that some of his faded powers seem to have rejuvenated when he was composing historical mysteries, which perhaps has something to do with his wariness of modern-day life – as he clearly enjoyed reanimating these lost passages of time. As a matter of fact, they're almost lamentable elegies describing an unforfillable longing to the times when honor among men was restored with the aid of a set of dueling pistols, a can of hot coffee and twenty paces at an abandoned churchyard at six in the morning or a concerto of dazzling sword play on the crumbling battlements of a castle under siege. Yeah, he was an incurable and unapologetic romanticist.

To summarize what I'm trying to put across here, rather poorly, is that during the waning years of his career he somewhat rebounded when dedicating himself to writing historical fiction. The plotting regained some of its former glory coupled with an evocative prose and historical detail that really brings a tale to life. And even though Fire, Burn! is a notch or two below his other historical mysteries, such as The Devil in Velvet (1951) and Captain Cut-Throat (1955), it's leaps and bounds ahead of other later period, non-historical novels like Behind the Crimson Blinds (1952) and Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956). Granted, it's not Carr at his most ingenious, but at this point in his life he still refused to yield to that one unpardonable sin, namely that of being dull, and therefore recommendable to everyone who loves a darn good yarn – especially if you're already of a devoted follower of he holds all the keys.

I have two queries, though: how did John Cheviot ended up in 1829 and were the makers of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (the original UK series, not the atrocious US remakes) aware of this book when they created the series?


  1. I agree this is one of his better post-40s books. I find the 50s and 60s ones in modern settings pretty unbearable, to be honest. The historicals work better for me because the outsize way people behave strikes me as as more believable. Although, I should qualify this because I find the Victorian one just as unconvincing as the modern day ones. I don't believe Carr really had too much of a feeling for the Victorian era. Once he got out of his beloved 17th century and past the Regency period of Heyer, he was in the danger zone.

    It's really pretty stunning the collapse in quality in Carr's work, imo. He had peaked as a writer by the time he was in his early forties. But then he was so prolific! You can see something of the same thing with Christie (her work after the early 1950s generally is far inferior to her earlier books--compare Dead Man's Folly and Hickory Dickory Dock with practically anything from the 30s or 40s or even Mrs. McGinty's Dead or After the Funeral from just a few years earlier.

    And of course John Street is not as well known, but his books becoming increasingly rote and uninspired in the 50s, in my view. I think you see the same thing with Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh after about 1951--on the whole their alter work is just not up to par with the earlier stuff. And Sayers of course just dropped out. Innes more and more produced this mild donnish humor stuff that is inoffensive but kind of tedious in my view. Blake still had a few on par with the earlier ones, or close. Henry Wade managed a few very good ones in the 1950s. E. C. R. Lorac produced some of her better books in the 1950s, surprisingly.

    Connington died before 1950, the Coles got bored with detective fiction, Crofts got sick and only publsihed two novels in the 1950s, neither good. Bailey stopped writing. Gladys Mitchell was past her peak (someone else who wrote too much). E. R. Punshon died in 1956 (and most of his later stuff is none too great anyway). Anthony Gilbert kept churning away, but I don't know how good her later stuff is. Christopher Bush seems pretty uninspired (though I don't like his earlier stuff all that much either). Milward Kennedy had quit. Anthony Berkeley had quit. Anthony Wynne quit.

    Julian Symons would say it shows the incompatibility of the post-WW2 era with the fair play detective novel, but I think that's bosh. I think it simply shows it's hard to keep writing good books (with good plots) year after year for decades on end.

    Though to be sure in Carr's case Doug Greene has shown a marked disenchantment on the part of the author with the modern world and you can certainly see his embrace of historicals as a retreat from a modern world he didn't he understand. Street disliked modern changes (i.e. Labour government) as well--though interestingly he actually was in notable ways one of less reactionary British GAD writers in the 30s). But I'm not sure that was what undermined his work. By 1950, off the top of my head, he'd written over 100 crime novels--that was bound to take its toll.

  2. @Curt:

    The final three Dr. Fell novels, The House at Satan's Elbow, Panic Box in C and Dark of the Moon, published between the mid and late 1960s, always fill me with sadness because they show Carr as a shell of his former self – tired, broken down and his imagination largely dried-up. Do the Sherlock Holmes pastiches he co-wrote with Adrian Doyle in the 1950s as Victorian mysteries? They were pretty good! :)

    Yes, Agatha Christie also had a big drop-off in quality during her twilight years, but it's interesting to note that she also rebounded in a few books, Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse and Endless Night, which are, incidentally, mostly standalones. Maybe she was even more sick and tired of her series characters than we ever realized, but then again, there's not much of an excuse for Postern of Fate - and I have read some pretty bad things about Passenger to Frankfurt. I'm only familiar with Gladys Mitchell's work up to Watson's Choice, but from what I understood her middle period was when she was at her weakest, sometimes crossing over into dull humdrum stories, and came back strong during her final years.

    I think there have been enough neo-GAD stories and series to disprove the claim that classic detective stories are incompatible with a modern setting. Once again, Detective Conan (a.k.a. Case Closed) is a perfect example of this.

    Regarding Carr's disenchantment with the modern world, I have often wondered if Carr suffered from chronophobia and posted a message last year to the JDCarr group listing all my reasons for thinking so.

  3. Excellent post TomCat.

    I've always rated this as amongst the most entertaining of the later Carr novels, though I actually think the drop off in quality generally is nowhere near as bad as it was in the case of Christie - well, at least until THE HUNGRY GOBLIN, written when he was quite ill. But then I am such a huge fan that I am far from objective!

    I have the Penguin edition of the book included here and still remember how much I enjoyed reading the 'notes for the curious' at the end as this was my first exposure to his historical novels. Thirty years later and I still remember the central gimmick employed here - there really are not too many mystery novels I can say that about it!

  4. Yes, the Doyle stories Carr wrote are pretty good! Also, the Merrivale novella All in a Maze. I was thinking of Scandal at High Chimeneys (hated Papa la-bas too). I can't think of a modern setting Carr novel post 1940s that I really like though (the Edwardian one The Witch of the Low Tide--brilliant title--has points though Carr strains too hard for EXCITEMENT!). On the other hand, The Bride of Newgate and The Devil in Velvet, at least, is on par with anything did as far as being an being an entertaining tale goes, and Captain Cut-Throat and Fire Burn are very good--I even like The Demoniacs).

    Christie had moments after 1953, like The Pale Horse; she didn't take the final fatal nose-dive until after Endless Night. All the books she wrote after that are messes to some degree, even when there are good ideas. Postern of Fate--well, she was pretty clearly suffering from senility by that one.

    I agree I think they are were getting tired of their detectives. You even see that with Street. The truth is Priestley good have been eliminated from the later books and one would not have noticed. In fact, the books would have been better because Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn would have not have been made to look a fool so much in order to give Priestley something to do. They should have been made straight police procedurals. But even Street managed to produce some decent books as late as the late 1950s.

    Carr, Christie and Street all seem to have some late-in-life disaster: Christie, Postern of Fate, Carr, Hungry Goblin, Street, The Fatal Pool. Street's very last Rhode book actually was a bit of a rebound from The Fatal Pool!

    Mitchell produced some decent books in her last thirty years, but nothing really first rank, in my opinion, except Late, Late in the Evening--her Endless Night, you might say. The last book by Marsh I really rank highly is Opening Night, though I know Scales of Justice and Death of a Fool have advocates. And Ngaio never had an outright disaster, though her very last one is pretty weak.

  5. @Sergio

    "Notes to the curious" was the icing on the cake, and here it even included a photocopy of a book that was mentioned in the story. And it's a solution I won't forget, either, because its strength is in its simplicity.

    Now that I think about it, the fact that the story is set in 1829 could also be considered as a clever misdirection to throw you off the scent (as far as method is concerned).


    I haven't read The Bridge of Newgate, Scandal at High Chimney, Papa La-Bas, but agree with what you said on the other historical titles mentioned – especially Captain Cut-Throat! It really is book that should be better known.

    As far as non-historical, post 1940s are concerned, I remember liking In Spite of Thunder and thought The Dead Man's Knock was a decent enough. The whole reinvention of Wilkie Collins locked room trick was actually very clever and showed a glimmer of his former self.

    Rex Stout is an interesting case if you want to look at the decline in the work of prolific mystery writers. He was never known as someone who was overly concerned with crafting knotty problems, dropping clues and distributing red herrings, but the stories really take nose dive, plot-wise, after Champagne for One (stories like The Father Hunt and Please, Pass the Guilt are atrocities). Nevertheless, the personalities of the characters never shown any signs of wearing and the writing was as crisp as ever – making them extremely readable in spite of the horrendous plotting.

    As I said before, I've not read any Mitchell novels past Watson's Choice, but I remember Nick Fuller praising some of the very late novels in the series (Nest of Vipers, The Mudflats of the Dead, Late, Late in the Evening, The Greenstone Griffins and The Whispering Knights). These books are one of the reasons why I hope the Rue Morgue Press continues their good work.

  6. My grades:

    Nest of Vipers: B+
    Mudflats of the Dead: C
    Late, Late in the Evening: A
    Greenstone Griffins: B
    The Whispering nights: C

    Some I like:

    The Man Who Grew Tomatoes: B (the plot almost works!)

    Convent on Styx: B (a bit bland, but good atmosphere with the nuns)

    Here Lies Gloria Mundy: A- (eerie!)

    Spotted Hemlock: B

    Watson's Choice: B

    But that's like eight books out of the 40+ she published in her last thirty years. though there are a few I haven't read.

    I think Gambit is the last strongly plotted Stout.

  7. As I read through all those comments, I have to protest: what does everyone see about Endless Night? The characters are remarkably flat although plenty of time is spent on them, and the conclusion is laughably ridiculous to an unimaginable extent. Christie tried to recapture her early brilliance and failed dismally.

  8. Excellent post, TomCat.

    First of all Fire, Burn, which, although I did read it a while ago, I did enjoy, but found the solution rather annoying as it felt a bit like JDC was showing off his historical trivia with the solution.

    In terms of the post 1950 books, I must put in a good word for Panic In Box C, as it was the first JDC I read, and it certainly worked for me. Similarly, In Spite of Thunder, Dead Man's Knock and Witch of the Low Tide are all perfectly reasonable in my book. I must admit though, most of the non-series books after this I've avoided due to dreadful word of mouth and the dreadful quality of Dark of the Moon and, in particular, The House At Satan's Elbow, although I gather that was post-illness.

    To be honest though, I think Carr's last great book was The Nine Wrong Answers - which means there was twenty years of sub-par work produced, which was a tragedy...

  9. @Patrick:

    I think Endless Night stands out because it was preceded by a bunch of mediocre novels, and the disasters that followed in its wake.

    As a matter of fact, when I first read Endless Night I suspected it was written much earlier on in her career, but was locked away in a drawer or safe because it was so radically different from her other works – and was only published when she was unable to produce a new novel that year.


    Thanks! :)

    I didn't feel at all that Carr was showing off his arcane knowledge of historical tidbits, but that's perhaps due to the fact that I anticipated the solution early on in the story and, as I mentioned above, the setting could be considered as misdirection as far as the method is concerned – which puts a clever spin on the solution if you think about it.

    One of the things that made Carr such a great writer, is that even when he was tired, wary or broken down most of his stories were still very readable and often had something clever to offer. It wasn't until the mid-1960s (with the publication of The House at Satan's Elbow) that he really become unreadable. But before that, you can make up a defense for nearly every book he put out there. Not all of them were great mysteries, but they were, at the very least, entertaining (The Skeleton in the Clock and A Graveyard to Let anyone?).

    I haven't read The Nine Wrong Answers, but what about the Captain Cut-Throat and In Spite of Thurder (really have to re-read the latter)?

  10. Fascinating that you mention A Graveyard to Let - guess what I've just finished reading... Review should be up in a week or so.

  11. Oh, by the way, I haven't read Captain Cut-throat - it's going on my to-read list - and I completely for In Spite of Thunder, which is perfectly fine.

  12. I have to disagree with The Puzzle Doctor about everything after NINE WRONG ANSWERS being sub-par. Certainly the last few novels that Carr wrote were not his best, but I find a lot of the 50s and 60s stuff enjoyable.

    Talking about the alleged decline in quality of the major authors; Allingham suffered from depression and during the 50s received electro shock treatment; Carr suffered a stroke in the 60s; there has been a suggestion that in the last years of her life Christie may have been suffering from Alzheimers disease. Illness rather than tiredness with their detectives may have been the cause of the decline.

  13. Is this the one where the misdirection hinges on the fact that the murder weapon is more sophisticated than the historical times would suggest? The one with the musket front loader duels? The one with the romp through the illegal? casino? Good fun!