The Bride of Newgate is the first of John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries. Well, in a certain sense. It was preceded by Devil Kinsmere (published under the alias of Roger Fairbairn) in 1934 (and later republished in 1964 as Most Secret) and the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey in 1936. The Bride of Newgate was the beginning of what I see as Carr’s core historical run, lasting from its publishing in 1950 through to The Demoniacs in 1962.
Most of these stories follow somewhat of a formula. A hero is accused of a crime that they didn’t commit and must race against time and conspiring forces to solve the mystery – a puzzle that is somewhat light by Carr’s typical standards. Along the way he’ll win the heart and protect the honor of his one true love. There will be daring feats and duels, often involving humiliating a brash member of the upper crust. Oh, and time travel – there may be some of that.
Well, there’s no time travel in The Bride of Newgate, so we’ll leave that topic for another time. The story hits on all of the other dimensions, and it hits hard. I was glued to the pages until the very end. Time will tell, but The Bride of Newgate will definitely vie with Fire, Burn for Carr’s top historical.
Our hero is Dick Darwent, and he begins the story in dire circumstances. Convicted and sentenced to hang for a crime he didn’t commit, Darwent is mere hours from the hangman’s noose. Broken and tattered, he recounts his strange tale to a sympathetic priest – a story involving a masked coachman, a murder, and a room that disappeared.
A tight impossible crime is a bit of a rarity for this era of Carr’s historical works – The Witch of the Low Tide’s footprints in the sand mystery being the best representation of a classic Carr set up, followed by Fire, Burn’s shooting in an empty hall. In the case of The Bride of Newgate, we’re treated to an entire room that vanishes. Darwent claims that he had been kidnapped, bound, and driven to a country house where he was released into a room containing the corpse of a murdered nobleman – a corpse later discovered along with an unconscious Darwent in a London park. Blamed for the murder and thrown in prison, he sends his lawyer to investigate and prove his innocence. Yet, when the room is examined, it’s lined with a thick coat of dust and cobwebs that shows it to have lain undisturbed for years.
Of course, a plot can’t work on an impossibility alone. We need a hook, and Carr is well prepared. Mere hours before his execution, Darwent receives an unexpected visitor – Caroline Ross. Her 25th birthday looms with a deadline. It is by that date that her deceased grandfather has willed that she must be married – or sacrifice her substantial inheritance. Disgusted by the prospect of her property becoming her husband’s, and bored by the typical gentry, Caroline has crafted a plan. She’ll marry a man condemned to die, thus meeting the stipulation of the will, while retaining what is rightfully hers.
Darwent is approached by Caroline as the hanging hour approaches with a proposition – marry her, and a substantial sum will be left to his financially destitute girlfriend. Needless to say, not everything goes as planned.
I’ll leave the progression of the plot for your own discovery, but The Bride of Newgate is a well balanced historical mystery. There is a fair amount of action in the form of duels and melees, comparable to The Demoniacs and Fear is the Same. That’s balanced by a well presented mystery and subsequent investigation, pushing the book in the direction of Fire, Burn. Add in the intrigue of the compelled marriage – a “how on earth is this going to play out?” element – and we have a nicely rounded plot. Infuse it throughout with Carr’s historical trappings – countless details on the politics, society, technology, and very timbre of the times. Altogether, it’s an engaging read, difficult to put down.
Weaknesses? Mmm, a few, although I border on nitpicking. While I was happy to be given more of an impossible crime focus than some of the other Carr historical novels, the notion of a disappearing room only has so many logical conclusions – or so it seems. Minor nit number two – although rich in its historical trappings, The Bride of Newgate is comparatively light in umami when stood next to it’s brethren. Don’t get me wrong, there’s enough trivial to justify a “Notes for the Curious” section at the end, but we’re not lavished with quite the avalanche of facts that grace later works.
Strengths? There are many (note – statements in this paragraph hint at the overall arc of the plot). Not only is the setup of the mystery more compelling than most other Carr historicals, the conclusion has a head spinning element to it – not so much in the “how”, but in the “who”. We’re also treated to a series of excellent duels in which many an obnoxious character is served their comeuppance. Counter to the modern approach to action, in which the hero is pushed to the brink of defeat before overcoming his adversary, Darwent basically breezes through conflicts, meting out ass whupping with ease. This lack of danger was oddly refreshing and added to the sense of justice being doled out.
I’m not yet sure where I’ll rank The Bride of Newgate in my final rankings of Carr historicals. It’s certainly neck and neck with Fire, Burn, which has its own set of strengths. Of course, I still have several more historicals to read, including the much lauded The Devil in Velvet.
In closing, I’ll call attention to my 1952 Avon edition, pictured above. The cover features an excellent depiction of a key scene. The artist had obviously read the book, as there are a number of nuanced details present – although I will say that it is rather similar to the original cover art from the first edition. Regardless, this is one of my favorite Carr covers and a pleasant respite from the typical seemingly random artwork that graces many Carr covers.