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.