Let me get this out of the way really quick so that you can decide if you want to read further. The Devil in Velvet is not a mystery novel. Yeah, it kind of features the puzzle of a semi-impossible poisoning, but that’s merely a backdrop to a book that must have captured every last passion of late career John Dickson Carr’s infatuation with history. Why read further? The Devil in Velvet is often cited as one of Carr’s best historical mysteries (which I’ll refute), and understanding what the author was aiming for provides an interesting insight into his wider career.
Carr spent the last two decades of his career focusing primarily on historical mysteries. The most well regarded, published between The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Demoniacs (1962) were swashbuckling affairs – light on Carr’s trademark impossible crimes, but heavy on adventure and sword play. I’ll admit that the description doesn’t appeal to me on the surface, but just read Fire, Burn or Captain Cut Throat, and I think most golden age mystery fans will find themselves turned on to a type of novel that they didn’t know they wanted.
The Devil in Velvet is Carr’s second historical work, having been released a year after The Bride of Newgate. It’s his first of three time travel books, in which a modern day man finds himself spun centuries into the past. Uh, yeah, you read that right. Time travel. I can hear you backing slowly towards the door. Trust me, I would have done the same if I hadn’t read my first one on accident.
Nicolas Fenton, a medieval scholar in 1925 London, has spent his career fascinated with an unsolved poisoning that happened in 1675. Apparently it’s an unhealthy obsession, as he makes a deal with the devil – promising his soul in exchange for being transported back into the body of a long dead ancestor. The whole sell your soul thing sounds cheesy, but Carr plays the scenes with the devil well. It’s almost like a surreal conversation between two old friends passing in the night.
Fenton awakens to find himself in the London of 1675. Everything is foreign – the food, the dress, the manner of speech, even the hygiene. It’s almost too much at first – Carr spends the first few chapters forcing historical facts down the throat of the reader as if we were being fattened for foie gras. The story feels shoved to the side in favor of an avalanche of trivia on matters ranging from periwigs and plumbing to the politics of the day.
The first few chapters follow Fenton as he fights through the malaise of adapting to centuries gone by. The one place he does seem to have an easy time adapting is the ladies. Present day Fenton is in his late 50’s, and he wastes no time making himself acquainted with the options presented by his newfound youthful body. There’s a modern day creep factor there, in that one of his love interests strikes a remarkable similarity to the eighteen year old daughter of one of his friends in the twentieth century.
There is a mystery though – the slow poisoning of Fenton’s wife Lydia, which will inevitably result in her death. The poisoning is treated somewhat like an impossible crime. Everything that Lydia consumes is prepared under watchful eyes, and yet she is gradually being fed a dose of arsenic. It’s a weak impossibility though. There’s nothing quite air tight about the situation, and a reader can easily imagine that there are avenues for the poison to be introduced that simply haven’t been explored. It struck me a bit like the grapefruit poisoning crime (no spoilers) in Carr’s Seeing is Believing – an acceptable secondary murder, but not one to focus an entire novel on.
The fact that the exact date of Lydia’s death is known beforehand acts as a ticking clock, always driving the story forward, awkward stroke by stroke. Carr takes a lot of diversions though. The best of these are the flares of adventure, and it’s these moments that really carry the novel. Fenton’s historical self is a renowned dualist, and his skill with the sword is amplified by modern day Fenton’s knowledge of fencing techniques yet to be discovered in the 1600’s.
Prior to fully diving into Carr’s library, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be interested in this sort of swordplay driven adventure, but I’ll readily admit it’s The Devil in Velvet’s strong suit. The swashbuckling angle is central to most of Carr’s classic historical novels and it’s a rush. We’re not dealing with modern day action where the hero is pushed repeatedly to the brink of death before finally overcoming the foe in a final brilliant twist of fate. Carr’s historicals are written in the era where action was all winning all the time. While that may seem cheap by modern standards, there’s a fulfillment in watching his heroes inflict constant justice on their oppressors.
The battles that Fenton engages in are the highlights of the The Devil in Velvet. They may be the best of Carr’s career, which is impressive when stacked against titles such as Fear is the Same, Captain Cut Throat, and The Demoniacs.
You can tell that Carr is writing the type of story that he really wants to tell. Unfortunately it’s overly long. My Carroll and Graf edition runs 335 pages. Cut that down to 230 and we might have a more successfully book on our hands. But I’m not sure it would be the book that Carr wanted to write. You’d have to cut swathes of politics and historical minutiae. Mostly the politics though, I think. The author was successful at weaving the historical trivia seamlessly into his other novels. It’s a bit more clumsily handled in The Devil in Velvet.
It’s the politics that are heavy handed, and a bit difficult for a modern reader to connect with – at least as a non-British reader. Why an American transplant would feel so strongly about the plight of the cavaliers vs the Roundheads is beyond me. It’s a subject that Carr tackled a bit more successfully in The Cavalier’s Cup, which is strange given that I’d consider that to be his weakest novel.
The Devil in Velvet is a fun read – downright gripping at times – but not the classic it’s heralded to be. There’s a somewhat clever twist in the end, although the possibility had occurred to me early on and the delivery lacked the standard satisfaction of a denouement. The whole thing somewhat sags in the last thirty or so pages. It’s as if Carr had accomplished what he set out to do and didn’t quite know where to take the book. The story ends so abruptly that I was caught off guard. Like many of Carr’s other historicals, there’s a final chapter that lays out the research that Carr did for the historical aspects of the story. This added page count left me expecting that quite a bit of the core story was left to tell, and so when I turned the page and realized the actual story was actually over, I was legitimately surprised.
The ending is also marred by an abrupt change of character. There’s a relationship between a pair of characters throughout the novel that is casually discarded in the last few pages, and that contributed to what felt like a rushed ending.
It’s somewhat unfortunate, as I had counted on The Devil in Velvet to be one of the last remaining “classic” Carrs that I had to left to read. It was fine – not time wasted in the least – but not what I had hoped for. At it’s best The Devil in Velvet possibly transcends the other historicals. Taken as a whole, it may be the weakest.
Fortunately, this was only Carr’s second historical mystery novel (not counting The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey and Devil Kinsmere [published as Roger Fairbairn]). He successfully tuned his game for his remaining swashbuckling adventures (I don’t count 1959’s Scandal at High Chimneys in this category), creating a deft mix of adventure, light mystery, and historical appreciation in his remaining first-era historical novels through The Demoniacs (1962).