Trapped in time, a detective from the 1950s struggles to make sense of the world when he finds himself in 1820’s London. In charge of London’s fledgling police force, he applies his knowledge of modern forensic science to solve a seemingly impossible crime.
It is only out of my own sheer stupidity that I read this book. My intended target was The Burning Court, which is commonly held to be one of Carr’s best. Perhaps it was the reference to flame in the title, or maybe it was the knowledge that The Burning Court involved murders from past centuries. I was about 1/3 of the way through when it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. And what a fortunate mistake it was. No, Fire, Burn doesn’t reach the heights of The Burning Court, the later of which I read immediately after. Rather, my pleasant error led me to part of Carr’s catalogue that I wouldn’t have touched for a long time – the historical novel.
By reputation, Fire, Burn seems to inhabit the lower end of Carr’s historical works – Captain Cutthroat, The Bride of Newgate, The Witch of the Low Tide, and The Devil in Velvet being held in higher esteem. I haven’t read any of these books yet, but if Fire, Burn is the weakest, then I’m in for a treat.
Fire, Burn is part of even a smaller niche of Carr’s work – the time travel mystery. I was extremely hesitant to approach this portion of his catalogue. I’m interested in an impossible crime, regardless of the era, but the notion of time travel seemed destined to be clumsy. I could just imagine the author getting bogged down with contrived quasi-scientific explanations, quaint by their mid-20th century standards. Wrong – Carr handles it perfectly, hardly even addressing the subject at all. A 20th century detective steps into a cab and steps out into the 19th century. I can imagine readers taking issue with Carr glossing over a key plot point, but it was fine by me. Less unnecessary baggage before the impossible crime, thank you.
As to the impossible crime….mmm, not the finest. The detective and another member of the police attend a party to investigate stolen jewelry. As they walk down a hallway, a woman is shot and killed immediately in front of them, but with no audible gunshot and no perpetrator in sight. Although it was an interesting puzzle, it didn’t dawn on me for several chapters that this was to be the story’s central impossible crime. Partly, it was due to the crime not seeming that impossible. There were plenty of doors around the crime scene, one of which we know moved at the time of the killing. As far as I was concerned, there could have been some gun contraption hidden in a wall or a piece of furniture. Carr of course has something very different up his sleeve, and the way the killing was carried out is actually fairly clever.
Although the impossible aspect of the crime was a bit lacking, Carr’s treatment of the overall premise is enjoyable Transported back in time, the main character uses his knowledge of 20th century investigation techniques to his advantage. This is balanced by the challenge of navigating 19th century norms. The book moves along nicely through a range of different scenarios, such as a raid on a gambling den and a duel. To me, it reads more like an adventure than a standard Carr book.
If you’re getting started with Carr, you could do better. But, if, like me, you’re shy of the lower tier books in his catalogue, you might be pleasantly surprised. Based on reputation, I had the story occupying the lower third of The Middle Ground. Taking into account my other categories, this places Fire, Burn well into the bottom 1/4 of Carr’s work. I’m pleased with this – my assumption has been that his work would degrade to the point that I wouldn’t bother reading quite a few books. This changes my expectations. JJ from The Invisible Event put it well in a response to one of my posts – “I’d just be wary of going into a book thinking ‘This is going to be a weak book’ because — especially with Carr — the tendency then is to find thing about it which make it weak.” Maybe I’ll play a bit more loose with my book order from now on. Rather than burn through the top third, perhaps you’ll start to see reviews of books like Below Suspicion or Seeing is Believing.
31 thoughts on “Fire, Burn”
I love this one. Love love love it — the impossibility is minor, but, oh, the history! Bride of Newgate was, to my mind, something of a leaden-footed caper (virtually everyone else disagrees with me, I should say, in the spirit of not pre-prejudicing a book…) but Carr recovered swiftly, and this is a wonderful excursion into the past that fully justifies his renewed interest in the challenges such an undertaking would present. The way he brings out so many key aspects of the time — the suspicion of a professional police force, for one, which it never occurred to me could ever be a controversial thing — is so lightly and brilliantly done, so easily worked in with every other plot strand, and he covers so many of the aspects of life at that time (as you say the gambling den raid, the duel) that it feels like a genuine window on that time…for sheer prose, it might even be his best work.
So I’m extremely pleased to see you not only enjoyed it but also had pretty much the same response to it that I did; forget the time-travel codswallop, it would never be satisfactorially explained anyway, so let’s get back to the past and get on with it!
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Your comment reminds me of something I forgot to put in my main post – the position of this work in Carr’s timeline. Pretty much everyone seems to agree that The Cavalier’s Cup, Behind the Crimson Blind, and Patrick Butler are among Carr’s worst – part of the decline at the end of his career. However, Fire, Burn comes after them.
I probably wouldn’t have touched this one under the assumption that everything written after the 40’s wasn’t worth reading. Well, that is obviously incorrect, as The Nine Wrong Answers falls into that time period. The Devil in Velvet, The Witch of the Low Tide, and Captain Cut Throat do too, and they seem to be held in respectable regard.
So, the question is – when did Carr’s decline start? Well, I probably know the answer – it isn’t that simple, you can’t just draw a line through it.
Ah, well, there you’re on subjective grounds, and this is part of why I think reading an author boradly in order can be so informative. Take Agatha Christie as a counter-point: much like Carr, the received wisdom is that everything past Date X is poor, but I would argue that her late books just take a idfferent perspective — and I’ve gone into great depths on my site about some of the later books (Mirror Crack’d, Caribbean Mystery, Bertram’s Hotel, Endless Night) which are seen as not as good (and mystery-wise they’re not up to Crooked ouse, or One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, or The Moving Finger, or…). But, when looked at as the output of a woman who’s been in many ways the public face of detective fiction for 5 decades and is getting on and knowing the end of her career is approaching…well, they become something rather more special.
The notion of decline, though, implies an overall lessening of quality, implying a run of poor books after a run a very very good ones. I think Carr is harder to pin down than most because he managed to sprinkle a fair few misses in among his hits…but his misses are often (not always, mind) interesting failures: Bride of Newgate being a case in point — it’s not a bad book, it just doesn’t do what you’d expect; the question remains whether it did what Carr wanted it to do… 🙂 There are enough lively ideas in his less successful books to make me think that he would typically plot on an inspired spark, and sometime the work needed around that caught fire and sometimes it…didn’t. The level of construction is huge in Carr’s plots, and I think to write at the volume and rage he did, he’d often be a ways thorugh something before it was obvious that it might not be working. But he’d got his idea out, given it a run, and that would satisfy him.
He had a stroke in 1963, after which he still published Most Secret, The House at Satan’s Elbow, Panic in Box C, Dark of the Moon, Papa La-Bas, The Ghosts’ High Noon, Deadly Hall, and The Hungry Goblin, and these are frequently titles that appear on “Hmmm, Well Carr’s a Bit Rubbish” lists. I’ve only read Papa La-Bas and it’s…not good, but I understand GHN and DH are supposed to be not all that terrible…dunno, I’ll see when I get there! Of my experience so far, I’d say The Problem of the Green Capsule is the best book he wrote (and, as such, is therefore the best detective novel ever written), from which it’s arguable he declined from 1939 onwards…but, well, others would disagree. That’s why we keep writing about this kind of thing, right?!
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