"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.