My encounter with Fire, Burn – one of Carr’s historical works, set in 1829 – emboldened me in a way. Up to then, I had intended to avoid the historical books, under the admittedly uninformed assumption that they wouldn’t provide what I was looking for in a Carr story. The assumption strikes me as odd in retrospect – why would an impossible crime set in the 1930’s thrill me so much more than an impossible crime set in the nineteenth century?
For one, there is a different degree of removal. Although most “modern” Carr books took place over 70 years ago, the 30’s and 40’s still muster a basic skeleton of familiarity to this day. The 1800’s? People in powered wigs or something like that…
The second factor was that I somehow had an inclination that the impossible crime would be downplayed in a historical novel. While an irrational assumption, it seemed to have been somewhat accurate. Although Fire, Burn contains a puzzling (although not impossible) crime, it takes a backseat to the overall flow of the story. Reviews that I’ve read on The Devil In Velvet and Captain Cut-Throat suggest the same.
What struck me about Fire, Burn though was how Carr used his knowledge of the past to lift an already solid plot into a great story. There are nuances to the historical detail that I simply didn’t expect. Fire, Burn isn’t a story that takes place in the 1800’s, much less the first half of that century. It is a story that takes place specifically in 1829, a span of time with its own particular society, technology, and events. You come for the impossible crime, and end up staying for the history.
Soooo…where’s the review of The Witch of the Low Tide? Well, I’m getting there…
It was my realization that historical Carr is something to be savored that led me to The Witch of the Low Tide. It grabbed my attention on two counts, jumping from the very bottom of my To Be Read pile clear to the top.
- Unlike other Carr historical works, it fixates very much on an impossible crime.
- It isn’t that historical, taking place in 1907.
This second aspect was particularly alluring to me. That time period, not too far from the standard Carr timeline, is somewhat hazy for me. Around the advent of the radio, the rise of the automobile, and prior to WW1, I don’t know that I could say too much more about this decade, especially as pertains to England.
The plot is somewhat similar to Till Death Do Us Part or He Who Whispers – a seemingly innocent woman accused of past misdeeds is now the object of suspicion when a new set of crimes occurs. First, we get a variation of a locked room mystery – an attempted strangling is interrupted, with the attacker fleeing out of a cellar door, despite the door being found to be locked from the inside. The second crime is the focal-mystery for the book – a woman is found freshly strangled in a beach-side pavilion surrounded by untouched wet sand. Ah, the “footprints” category of impossible crimes. Carr has done it well before, with The White Priory Murders and She Died a Lady (as well as The Plague Court Murders, which I have yet to read). In this case, the puzzle is the lack of footprints surrounding the crime.
Being a “historical” Carr, we don’t have Fell or Merivale on hand to solve the puzzle for us. Instead, we get a psychiatrist (the suitor of the accused) and a Scotland Yard detective (who we’re not supposed to like). The two get off to a bad start and end up engaged in a duel of wits that adds a decent amount of tension to the story.
Where the book really shines, though, is the history. Set a year after his birth, Carr proudly trots out details of time past, and you’ll be well served to do some side-research as you read. Details like the societal impact of the transition from horse drawn carts to motor cars, motoring veils and mica masks, and the difficulties of early automobiles.
“We did fifty-two miles without a single breakdown.”
Carr litters the story with such nuances and even uses some aspects as central plot pieces. For example, the scene of the impossible crime revolves around an odd contraption called a bathing machine.
In his later years, Carr’s work is widely considered to have slipped in quality. Although one of his last 10 novels, The Witch of the Low Tide doesn’t suffer this fate. His story telling is in top game, and he even divulges a bit of his thoughts on the joys of mystery writing (through the voice of a character in the story).
“It’s the exercise of one’s ingenuity, the setting of the trap and the double-trap, the game you play chapter after chapter against a quick-witted reader.”
In fact, Carr packs the story with references to impossible crime classics like The Mystery of the Yellow Room (warning – he gives away the solution) and The Thinking Machine.
The story telling does have a few periods of denseness – the opening of the book quickly transitions to a flashback, in which another flashback seems to happen, followed, perhaps, by another flashback – I’m not quite certain, because I was fairly lost. The historical flourishes are also heavily packed towards the front of the story – for the final chapters, we’re left with only details on Sunday etiquette.
Overall, it’s a strong outing from Carr – excellent story telling, brilliant use of history, and some really compelling mysteries. The end didn’t sit as well with me as I had hoped, and it is one of the few times that I’ve been disappointed. Oh, it’s a decent ending, to be sure, but there are some things lacking. For that, I’ll need to get into spoilers. No, I’m not going to give away the trick, but I will be discussing details that could ruin your enjoyment of the story.
I know that people take issue with the fact that Carr relies on a bit of a cheat. I personally don’t mind that; perhaps I’d even say it was clever. I have two core issues with the ending. One, it recycles a solution from another book (I won’t say which, in case you haven’t read it) to a vague degree. More serious though, is the motive behind it all. I’m not one to usually fixate too much on motive – if anything, I’m probably too forgiving (as evidence, I have no qualms about the killer’s actions in The Red Widow Murders). What we have here though, are actions that make no sense.
There are two solutions offered in the book. The detective’s (incorrect) solution has decent motivation and I would be fine with it. The correct solution, though…wow. In the correct solution, the killer’s motives are actually quite sound. What is completely destroyed though, is the credibility of the actions that lead to the impossibility. Those actions make perfect sense in the detective’s version, but there is no reasoning behind them in the true solution.