The Burning Court (John Dickson Carr)

  • By John Dickson Carr
  • First published: UK: Hamish Hamilton, 1 April 1937; US: Harper, 21 April 1937

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

One of the author’s best-known books – but not one of his best. It opens in stunning fashion with the hero discovering a photograph of his wife, cited as the Marquise de Brinvilliers, in a book of famous woman poisoners. Following the murder by arsenic of a neighbour and the disappearance of his corpse from a sealed granite crypt, he becomes convinced that she is a poisoning witch risen from the dead. Carr makes this bizarre plot quite convincing through an atmosphere that relies far more on understatement than it does on the thick effects of the Bencolins (or even Hag’s Nook). Unfortunately, Carr follows a highly logical and convincing solution SPOILER with a supernatural one that makes nonsense of the other, yet fills this one with all manner of logical holes, making the reader uncertain of what to believe. Thus are a good story and considerable ingenuity thrown carelessly out of the window.


Blurb (US)

When Ted Stevens, editor at a well-known publishing house, opened the manuscript of the new Gaudan Cross mystery, he received the greatest shock of his life.  For staring up at him from that gallery of famous women poisoners were the name and photograph of his own wife – Marie D’Aubray.  That the Marie D’Aubray of the manuscript had been guillotined for arsenic murder in in 1861; that another Marie D’Aubray – the Marquise de Brinvilliers – had been beheaded and burnt in 1676 for wholesale arsenic murders, did nothing to lessen the chill the uncanny likeness caused him.  When he learned that evening that old Miles Despard, friend of long standing, had died from arsenic poisoning, he was unable to rid himself of the horror and unease which seized him.  As the case developed, his ugly suspicions grew in spite of himself.  Surely there could be no truth in the unearthly legend of the “non-dead”?  His wife’s aversion to a simple tin funnel could not possibly have the unnatural significance he dreaded.  Yet what was he to make of the woman in the Marquise de Brinvilliers’ costume who had been seen in Miles’ room the night he died – the woman whose head sat so oddly on her shoulders, who disappeared through a door that wasn’t there?  And where did Gaudan Cross fit in?  Steven’s mind went blank before the sudden recollection that the 17th century Marquise had had a lover named Gaudan St. Croix.

With the technique of a master artist, Mr. Carr builds up his mystery to a totally unexpected climax.  Then, in an epilogue, he introduces a new element which will leave you gasping with surprise and an uneasy horror.

Blurb (UK)

At the estate called Despard Park, Miles Despard died and was buried in the private crypt beneath the Chapel.  Under his pillow when he died, there was a string tied into nine knots.  Because of a dead cat and a silver cup, Mark Despard believed that his uncle had been poisoned.  The crypt was opened.  No person had touched the stones which sealed it up.  There was no other way into the crypt.  Yet the body was missing from the coffin, and in its place there was a string tied into nine knots.

It was not the only impossible thing which happened in the quiet woods, as Edward Stevens could testify.  Magic had come there, and a dead woman out of the past.  The author has written a detective-ghost story of the sort for which he is best known; a story combining thrills and analysis, with a totally unexpected solution.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 11th April 1937): MURDERS OF MARK

Though he sets his present tale in America, and thus deprives us for once of the stimulating mental assistance of Dr. Fell, Mr. Dickson Carr has made of The Burning Court a composition after his own heart and, therefore, after the hearts of most readers.  He shows an expert preoccupation with the criminology of the past (the Marquise de Brinvilliers stands, as it were, behind, and Marie D’Aubray, guillotined for murder in 1861, at the heart of our mystery) and he also experiments again in the sealed crime and optical illusion.  Captain Brennan is a pleasant and capable detective; but it is a criminal historian and self-confessed assassin, and not he, who clears the air of its brooding supernatural shadows and shows the bare mechanism of the death and disappearance of Miles Despard to the light of day.  And then, during the last half-dozen pages, all the shadows rush back again, and I do not know whether to be glad or sorry.

The Times (27th April 1937): AN ESSAY IN THE MACABRE

Suspicion of murder and something more horrible even than that lurk in every page of Mr. John Dickson Carr’s new and very sinister story, The Burning Court.  Edward Stevens, glancing over the manuscript of a book of famous crimes, is confronted by a photograph of Marie d’Aubray, a Victorian poisoner.  But the photograph is of his wife and her name was Marie d’Aubray; so, too, was the maiden name of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, the famous seventeenth-century poisoner and an ancestor of Mrs. Stevens.  That is a good start to a clever essay in the macabre—a tale of a poisoned man and a corpse which unaccountably disappears, of flesh-and-blood crime and supernatural imaginings.  Mr. Carr’s solution is completely convincing to the matter-of-fact reader, and for those who like to feel the hair stirring uncomfortably on their heads he reintroduces the supernatural element in an equally convincing epilogue.

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 29th May 1937): The Burning Court was the court which in 1676 tried the Marquise de Brinvilliers and the many poisoners and sorcerers connected with her.  But, though we hear a good deal about the Marquise in quotations, the scene of the story is a Philadelphia suburb in 1936.

A crime novelist dealing with sorcery, or with descendants or reincarnations of people like la Brinvilliers, has to decide whether sorcerous events can be explained away or not.  Mr. Carr evades the dilemma by giving the reader the choice.  The last chapter but one explains how A and B poisoned old C and made it look as if Mrs. D had done it.  But then the last chapter shows Mrs. E reflecting on her success as a witch in adding to the number of victims, for, it seems, victims after death always become witches.  Which version fits the previous chapters best the reader must decide.  Some may think that the only incident incapable of normal explanation was the crash of thunder which “was followed almost instantly by the lightning”.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 9th April 1937, 290w): The book may not be to the taste of all, but as an adventure in diablerie it is a remarkable and outstanding achievement.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 18th April 1937, 180w): A fascinating tale.

Sat R of Lit (8th May 1937, 40w): As a straight mystery a knockout, with superbly shivery moments.  But what a haywire ending!