It dawned on me recently that it had been a while since I read a historical Carr novel. In an attempt to draw out my remaining Fell and Merrivale library, why not reach into the author’s unique backlog of stories of the past? My experience with the sub-genre has been limited so far, but I’ve learned it’s something to be savored. In my two prior encounters – Fire, Burn and The Witch of the Low Tide – Carr utilizes tomes of research to layer the stories with historical nuances. While The Witch of the Low Tide is a more conventional impossible crime novel slathered in details of the past, Fire, Burn is more of a historical novel that just so happens to include a mystery. In both cases, you’re in for a treat – you may come for the standard Carr puzzle, but you walk away wrapped up in a certain sense of time and place.
Where to go next? The Bride of Newgate lured me with the promise of an intriguing plot, but I figured I’d go with a title that flies more under the radar. Out of several candidates I settled on The Demoniacs, mainly because I knew nothing about it.
I can’t help but look at The Demoniacs through the scope of Fire, Burn. The later, taking place in the 1820’s, is set against the backdrop of the founding of Scotland Yard – a telling sign of Carr’s fascination with the origins of detective work. The Demoniacs finds the author taking a leap further back in time to 1757 – the era of the Bow Street Runners, the first semblance of a London police force.
It had been a while since I read a historical Carr novel, and I forgot just how dense these could be. Every aspect of the story – from the technology, to the customs, to the language – is framed within the times. Sure, this is an Carr’s interpretation of a faraway era, but he saturates the story with such details. And of course he backs it up. Similar to Fire, Burn, we’re treated to a final chapter devoted to explaining just how true to history it all is.
The obvious deviation from books like Fire, Burn and The Devil in Velvet is that The Demoniacs involves no time travel. It is thoroughly rooted in 1757 – a pure historical novel. Instead of a detective from the future utilizing his knowledge of forensics to solve crimes in the past, we get a glimpse of how crimes would have been solved at the time by the investigators of the day.
It might be best to just plainly state that you shouldn’t come into The Demoniacs looking for a top notch mystery. There certainly is a mystery, and it does play a crucial role throughout the story, but I wouldn’t quite say the book is focused on this aspect. Instead, we have more of a web of intrigue, with a number of puzzling plot lines, all tied together by, well, I’ll just say it – a mediocre murder. Now don’t let that statement undersell it – I really enjoyed the book, I just want to be clear about what you’re not getting into.
The plot is thick enough that I’d need to go into excruciating details about who is who and what is what – and really, if you haven’t read the book, I don’t see how that’s meaningful for you. To boil it down, a young lady is about to be thrown into prison simply because her uncle declares her to be of loose morals. You know, because men could do that back in the day. Jeffrey Wynne, a thief taker (a private citizen paid to arrest criminals), detests the young lady and yet seeks to clear her honor. He also has some sort of covert plot that we don’t know the details of, which could “lead to law breaking and may lead to murder”. His plans to execute on said plot are interrupted when he stumbles upon the body of a murdered woman at the premises where he planned to commit the crime.
The actual lead in to the crime has potential. We hear the victim get killed, and yet when Wynne reaches her quarters, she is alone and there are no signs of violence. Everyone assume that she died of fright, because, of course, they don’t actually do autopsies back in the 1750s. That element degrades the quality of the mystery. Although though the “how did she die?” element is played up, anyone reading the story has to be thinking “well, you know, you could actually look at the body or something.” Carr takes a further axe to the potential of an intriguing impossibility, with Wynne immediately declaring that a murderer could have easily gotten in and out of the crime scene by way of a back window.
The murder occurs very early on, and remains a key element in the story, but it isn’t the actual focus of the story. The true plot revolves around Wynne trying to clear the honor of the young woman who will obviously evolve into a love interest, and to prevent her from going to prison. There are a lot of other elements that come into play, such as why her skeezy step-aunt is so intent on getting her locked up, and why her seemingly doting uncle is going along with it all.
Don’t get me wrong, the story itself is very interesting and I felt engaged from start to finish. This isn’t a barnstormer by any means, but if you enjoyed Fire, Burn, I think you’ll find a comfortable read here. It’s just that the mystery could have easily been taken up a notch. In fact, when you learn what really did happen, there’s a clever element (I’ll discuss in the spoiler section) that really could have taken this another level – it just wasn’t played to its potential.
The mystery is also dragged down by the main character holding back knowledge from the reader. From the moment that the murder is discovered, we get glimpses that Wynne detects some additional facts, but we don’t find out what those are until the conclusion. This element is present throughout the entire story, with the reader knowing that Wynne is up to something, but never quite being able to see through what is going on. Granted, bits of these secrets are unveiled throughout the book, but it can be a bit annoying as a reader.
As to the solution to the puzzle – I guessed the killer pretty much immediately, but of course that doesn’t mean I had any inkling as to the details of how the crime was committed As far as the mystery of “how did she die?” – believe me, you’ll figure it out long before the book is over. You will be beat over the head with clues as to how it happened. In that sense, I’m almost convinced that Carr couldn’t have thought that any reader would be surprised by the reveal. Either that or he was slipping already.
Weak mystery aside, this is an enjoyable read. Carr lays on all of the historical trappings you can ask for – many of the characters are based on real people and the settings are an authentic reflection of the day. The romance is better than standard. Both characters initially despise each other, and so you really have to work for that inevitable passion. This isn’t going to make any “Top Carr” lists, but if you’re a fan of the author and have experience with the historical novels, give it a go.
Trivia – the book title refers to a secret society of the day, similar to the more famous Hellfire Club. It doesn’t factor into the story at all, although the term gets thrown around a few times.
As I commented above, I wasn’t taken by surprise by any of the core details of the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the murder. What did strike me though was the part about the scream. That element really wasn’t played up to its full potential and kind of got lost in the mix. I suppose Carr intended the scream to provide an alibi for the killer – the thought of which never crossed my mind even though I was fairly confident I knew who the culprit was.
Rather, I think the scream could have added a nice complexity to a tighter impossible crime. The scream implies that the victim was just killed (although, again, Carr doesn’t doesn’t focus on that). If the window wasn’t such an obvious avenue of escape, then the assumption that the victim had just died would have left an excellent puzzle of how the killer had disappeared.
In fact, a better solution just popped into my mind. If I may: The killer murders Grace Delight, and then – leaving the window locked from the inside – exits out the front door. Later, when Wynne and Peg are just about to enter the doorway, the killer screams….through the window. Now Carr just needs to spend some adequate time bashing into our brains the fact that the dwelling was completely locked (with the exception of the doorway where the witnesses stood), and that the victim’s death cry had been heard moments before they rushed into the room. I know that’s a bit derivative of another book, but, hey, it’s better than nothing.