Fire, Burn! (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1957; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1957

Blurb (UK)

John Cheviot was Superintendent of C-One, the Murder Squad of the Criminal Investigation Department.  He owed his promotion to ability rather than seniority; and few of his colleagues can have combined his detective flair and his knowledge of history.  In particular he had always been fascinated by the pre-Victorian period which saw the creation of the first Scotland Yard.  So when he found himself transferred back in time as Superintendent of one of the new police divisions investigating a murder in 1829, he was not as much out of his depth, despite some initial bewilderment, as a man of less imagination might have been.

And it is no ordinary murder that confronts Cheviot.  It is a murder of a beautiful girl, whose strange demeanour suggests the book’s title, and it takes place under the eyes of Cheviot and his mistress, while a ball is in full swing a few yards away.

Before Cheviot solves the crime he is challenged to a duel, raids a gambling house, and himself narrowly escapes arrest for the murder.  The solution, based on a contemporary cause célèbre, and documented in an Appendix, is ingenious and convincing.

John Dickson Carr’s knowledge of the early Police Force and of the London scene when the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister, provides an authentic background for this exciting, fast-moving historical novel.  Cheviot’s occasional slips as he betrays his knowledge of future events, are as amusingly handled as was a similar situation in John Balderston’s play Berkeley Square.  And when the story draws to its ingenious end we feel a pang of regret at returning to our own less romantic times, though for Cheviot there is evidently much in store.

My review


Closely related to The Devil in Velvet. A time-travelling policeman, in love with a woman whose picture he has seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, finds himself involved in a nineteenth-century murder (impossible, of course). Although unnecessarily emotive in parts, there is plenty of action and local colour to compensate. Unfortunately, the ingenious murder is obscured by the gambling den brawls and fisticuffs with Captain Hogben.

Contemporary reviews

NY Herald Tribune (James Sandoe, 2nd June 1957, 110w):

A lively and pleasing turbulence, candidly (and skilfully) melodramatic and just the sort of rare fooling that Mr. Carr the Grand Wizard, brings off so well.


NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 16th June 1957, 190w):

The novel’s only weakness is as a time-fantasy, in which respect Carr has simply not bothered to create suspension of disbelief.  As history, as romance, as mystery, as detection the story is splendid, with an exact and detailed picture of the Yard’s early days, an alluring love story, copious action and a solution wholly surprising—in all, Mr. Carr’s best book in any genre in a round half-dozen years.


Observer (Maurice Richardson, 16th June 1957):

Under the spell of his favourite period, the 1820s, Mr. Carr projects Superintendent Cheviot back into it, dreamwise, à la Berkeley-square, to solve pistolling of strange wayward beauty.  Stap me and try one!  Plenty of historical criminological expertise, though.


Manchester Guardian (Francis Iles, 5th July 1957):

There must be many readers who still enjoy a straight-forward, honest-to-goodness puzzle; and here it is [in Christopher Bush’s The Case of the Russian Cross].  In interesting contrast John Dickson Carr, who used to be as concerned with puzzles as anyone, strikes out into the perilous sea of fantastic originality in Fire, Burn!, setting a modern Scotland Yard man to solve a problem in the 1820s.  How he does it you must read the book to see; and I will only say that having myself embarked on the story with every kind of misgiving I soon found myself a delighted and willing traveller.  A tribute should be paid, too, to the amount of research which must have gone into this most original work.


Sat R (Sergeant Cuff, 24th August 1957, 30w):

Top period piece.