This is my final John Dickson Carr novel in what I consider his first period of historical mysteries. It’s a fine run of books, started twenty years into Carr’s career, with most of his better known novels already behind him. We kick off with The Bride of Newgate in 1950, and add an additional eight titles over a fourteen year period (Most Secret being the final one). Carr would publish four additional historical mysteries before the end of his career, but that second run was an author in decline and is made up of books of less significance and a decidedly different feel.
Carr set these historical mysteries in the years from the seventeenth century all the way up to the time of his birth (The Witch of the Low Tide, taking place in 1906). While these are all mysteries in some sense, they’re absolutely dredged in historical minutiae. Periwigs, fencing, and all around swashbuckling don’t normally register as a thing for me, but Carr manages to craft stories from which you can’t look away. There is a core mystery to each of these novels, yet it’s always on the periphery; these are much more about the adventure and history. As a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I’d read that last sentence and click away, but honestly, read Fire, Burn and tell me that you didn’t love it.
Most Secret has intrigued me for a while. You don’t really see much written about it, and I had no clue as to what the actual mystery would be, if in fact there was to even be a mystery. While you’d expect a mystery at the heart of anything that Carr wrote, I’d seen a few comments imply that Most Secret was much more of an adventure novel. Plus, this was the first book written after Carr suffered a stroke, and it’s generally regarded that his writing went downhill afterwards. So, did Most Secret really belong to that first period of quality historical mysteries, or was it part of the decline?
Before we explore that, it’s worth pointing out that Most Secret isn’t an entirely new novel. The core of the story was actually published by Carr way back in 1934 under the name Roger Fairbairn and with the title Devil Kinsmere. Yes, that’s right, 1934 – the year in which Carr was winding up for a classic run of impossible crime novels that would last over a decade. In that same year that Carr bequeathed us The Plague Court Murders, The White Priory Murders, The Mad Hatter Mystery, and The Eight of Swords, he also slid out a historical novel, very much under the radar. Devil Kinsmere only sold a small number of copies, although Carr followed it two years later with another historical – The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey – this time released under his own name. That was it as far as the historicals for the next fourteen years.
According to Douglas Greene’s biography, Carr was struggling with ideas for a new story following his stroke, and decided to instead revisit a story from his past. The actual plot was held very much in tact, but Carr rewrote nearly every sentence, infusing the story with the historical nuances that he’d refined over the time since The Bride of Newgate. In that sense, this is a story from a young man’s heart, but reworked by a more mature mind.
Most Secret is indeed very much in the vein of Carr’s first period historical mysteries. You have your outsider hero up against the odds (despite limitless wealth and influence at their disposal), trying to unravel some form of murder. He’ll cross swords with an upper crust snob who dogs him, yet never be truly challenged. Despite a constant threat of danger, these stories are all winning all the time for our hero, and although that may sound like a negative trait, it’s loads of fun.
And yes, there is a mystery, but the problem is, I can’t really say much about it. Somewhere near midway through, Carr drops what may well be his most surprising murder. Don’t read too much into that – it’s not like dropping surprising murders is that much of a thing (although Anthony Berkeley’s Dead Miss Stratton may get a prize for timing) – but man, if you saw that death coming, too bad, I don’t believe you. It just serves as a reminder of how Carr can upend every expectation you may have for him.
I don’t know if I’ll go into the plot much beyond that. So, yeah, there’s this surprising murder and the obvious question of who did it, but there’s much more the question of who’s plotting against the king (Charles II in this case), but if I go down that route it’s not going to make that much sense unless you’ve read the book.
Should you read it? Oh yeah you should. It’s not Carr’s best historical (I’ll always hold that to be Fire, Burn), but with the exception of Scandal at High Chimneys (which isn’t that good) and The Witch of the Low Tide (which, while being deliciously historical, is much more of a canonical Carr impossible crime), these first period historicals are mostly the same. And that’s not a criticism, that’s a reassurance.
But each of these books also stand on their own legs, and Most Secret is no exception. It kicks off with a dizzying tour of London, with Carr jostling the reader down the streets in a near stream of consciousness; poking his head inside every tavern and alleyway, painting a picture of the time, place, and society. He even leads with a section titled “Editor’s Notes” – a variant on the Notes for the Curious chapter that typically closes his historicals – pointing out to the reader which aspects of the story are based on fact (my favorite trivia being the vizard masks that women used to wear). Two chapters in and your head will be spinning with the 1670s, and it’s intoxicating.
From there we get a more traditional Carr historical plot, although it’s grander than the rest. The closest book in Carr’s library would probably be Fear is the Same, given the heavy focus on action and intrigue. There’s a touch of The Devil in Velvet in terms of the politics of the time and the hero’s access to royalty (plus these are set in history within a decade of each other), but the mystery element is very different.
The very end falls a bit flat. It’s pure adventure by that point, and Carr closes the story a bit differently than I think most readers would want. The chapters leading up to it are thrilling though, and Carr pulls an unexpected twist, so it’s a minor mark.
Well, that closes out the first period of Carr’s historical mysteries for me. It’s a bit sad that I won’t get another, as they’re very different from anything else that I read, and there’s a sense of going home each time I dive into one. I’ll be putting together an overview of this portion of Carr’s career in the future – it should be fun to piece together my thoughts – but don’t hold your breath.