The Bride of Newgate – John Dickson Carr (1950)

brideofnewgateThe 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.

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23 thoughts on “The Bride of Newgate – John Dickson Carr (1950)”

  1. That is a wonderful cover, I agree — the art of depicting key scenes or essential aspects of a plot or theme in unique and commissioned cover art is going out of vogue (the British Library covers, love them though I do, are more about mood than plot, and it’s no coincidence that the ones by Chris Andrews — Antidote to Venom, Death in the Tunnel, Death of Anton, Death of an Airman, etc — are easily my favourites).

    As discussed, we disagree about the overall quality of this book, but I was expecting something very different to what I got. I think the let down of this, and the acknowledgement that it was something different to what I’d hoped, was a key factor in me enjoying The Devil in Velvet as much as I did, and I’m now suitably prepared for the remainder of Carr’s later historicals once I get to them. I imagine a reread of this would enchance my opinion, I’m not too proud to admit that, but I still think Fire, Burn takes some unseating as Carr’s finest historical — goddamn, that book is simply marvellous.

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    1. In terms of representing actual scenes from the books in quality ways, there are several covers for He Who Whispers, The Problem of the Wire Cage, and The Emperor’s Snuff Box that pull it off quite nicely. In terms of representing themes, I’m quite partial to the 1960s Berkley Medallion editions.

      I can definitely imagine having a let down if a reader stumbles into a Carr historical while expecting a conventional Carr mystery. Although, that speaks to the brilliance of Fire, Burn – I accidentally read it after mixing up book titles and thought I was reading The Burning Court. That I could come in expecting a Top 10 Carr mystery, and leave in love with something completely different speaks volumes to how rich Fire, Burn is.

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  2. Not read all of Carr’s historicals yet so I couldn’t say which is best. I’ve read this one though and thought it pretty good. The opening grabs you, the pace is well judged and the plot is enough to keep you interested. As JJ said, you have to adjust your expectations with these hybrid books, something I only gradually realized myself, and view them on their own terms.

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  3. I agree that it’s a great cover, an excellent example of what 50s cover art could do. I’d want to read the book even if I didn’t recognize the author’s name.

    For my money, the earlier historicals are the most enjoyable, just because Carr wrote them before his powers started to slacken. Without spoilers, I’d rank the top five as:

    1. The Devil in Velvet (can’t say much more if you haven’t read it)
    2. The Bride of Newgate (a well-concealed murderer and a couple of really loathsome villains – Carr was very, very good at creating hateful characters)
    3. Fear is the Same (a fairly good puzzle and plenty of suspense for our hero)
    4. Fire, Burn! (so-so puzzle but the best at depicting a man somehow pulled back in time and out of his element)
    5. Captain Cut-Throat (as a detective story, meh, but I kept reading just because I wanted to know how the hell our hero was going to get out of this mess in once piece)

    Of course, they’re all great in terms of historical flavour and authenticity. So are the later ones, but I found The Demoniacs and Scandal at High Chimneys pretty dull, and the others had flaws I can’t really discuss without getting into spoiler territory.

    Has anyone here read both Devil Kinsmere and Most Secret? I’ve never seen a copy of DK and in my country Amazon doesn’t even have a copy on offer, not even at some exorbitant price.

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    1. I’ve read both Devil Kinsmere and Most Secret; they’re quite different—Douglas Greene’s biography provides a good overview of that. You may want to check with your local library whether Devil Kinsmere is available on interlibrary loan in your country. I just checked (I’m a librarian) and it looks as if ten American libraries have it; I suspect most have it in Rare Books, but Baylor University’s copy is listed as being in the “General Collection,” Hennepin County Library in Minnesota has a copy in “Stacks,”and the Los Angeles Public Library’s copy is listed as “Available” (that doesn’t mean any of them willl lend it, but it’s worth a try if you’re in the US). To buy a copy, your best bet is to register a “want” with abebooks.com. They’ll notify you if a copy becomes available. That’s how I got my Devil Kinsmere; I missed out on one offered for $20 (I suspect others have registered wants for this title), but eventually got another copy they offered.

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      1. Interesting – I had assumed these would be nearly the same book, but with Most Secret being a little massaged over. Now I know to continue to seek Devil Kinsmere out so that I can do a proper comparison.

        How would you rate Most Secret, by the way? Would it fall into the same category as The Demoniacs and The Bride of Newgate? Is there a fair amount of focus on a puzzle mystery?

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    2. As things stand now, I think I’d go:
      1. Fire, Burn
      2. The Bride of Newgate (very close to #1)
      3. Captain Cut-throat
      4. Fear is the Same
      5. The Demoniacs

      I have a real issue ranking the last two, as I think The Demoniacs is fairly good and perhaps a more even book. Fear is the Same is quite enjoyable, but I think I drag it down in my mind because of the scene towards the end featuring a “who’s who” of important figures from the day engaging in a skirmish.

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    3. No, it’s a swashbuckling adventure novel with a minor puzzle element. It’s very entertaining, but it’s not really like any other Carr I’ve read.

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      1. By the way, that was meant to be a reply to thegreencapsule’s question about whether Most Secret is in the same category as The Demoniacs and The Bride of Newgate.

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      2. That’s a good way of putting it. It’s different from those other books in the way Captain Cut-Throat is… only more so.

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  4. Most Secret is thoroughly rewritten, but with the same basic plot. I thought Devil Kinsmere was overlong and too intent on showing off Carr’s research, but written with enthusiasm, so it was a fun read after a slow start. Most Secret, as I recall (it’s been about 35 years since I read it), is a bit tighter, but I wouldn’t rate either version significantly higher than the other. In either version, the book isn’t entirely satisfactory as a puzzle mystery (I think in 1934 Carr was more intent on writing a historical novel than a fair-play detective story with lots of clues); the two main villains are obvious from the start, and there’s no surprise who the murderer is. The intended surprise twist has to do with the identity of the person behind the two villains, and that person’s motives (I can’t say more without spoiling, but I liked the reversal of expectations). But there is at least one good clue that I didn’t spot while reading.

    I don’t know that Devil Kinsmere is worth its usual price to someone who’s read Most Secret, but it’s worth reading if you can find an affordable copy, or borrow it on interlibrary loan—assuming that, like me, you’re an obsessive Carr completist.

    The Bride of Newgate was my favorite Carr historical; I thought I’d spotted the murderer, but fell into Carr’s trap (my solution was the same as Darwent’s). I found The Demoniacs competent but not top level Carr, though again I missed a good clue (a character did something that seemed natural at the time, but in hindisght, showed that that person had inside knowledge about the murder—the same device that points to the murderer in The Dead Man’s Knock, but handled more subtly).

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