The Devil in Velvet (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: US, Harper, 1950; UK, Hamish Hamilton, 1950

Blurb (UK)

The setting is Restoration London—bawdy, turbulent, spirited.  The subject is murder—the slow, insidious administration of arsenic.  The motive is passion—two alluring women and the man they both wanted.

With accuracy and brilliance John Dickson Carr has reconstructed the many-faceted London of 1675.  From Pall Mall to the Strand, from cookshop to lime kiln, from the amorous dalliance of Spring Gardens to the suave politics of the Green Ribbon Club, Restoration London emerges in all its vitality.

There is murder afoot in the household of the dashing Sir Nicholas Fenton, and he knows its outcome with a dreadful prescience.  There is swordplay, romance, and tense, convincing intrigue.  There are two women of entirely different backgrounds, Sir Nick’s wife, Lydia, whose Presbyterian heritage masks her allure—for awhile—and the magnetic, earthy Meg York, whose intense attractiveness provokes half the trouble.

It was in The Bride of Newgate that John Dickson Carr first combined authentic historical background with the expert plotting for which his mystery novels are famous.  Here he carries the process a stage further and in America, where the book appeared just before it was published here, it has been hailed as the best he has ever written.

‘For sheer ingenuity of plot, for sizzling suspense and a thick lather of excitement, The Devil in Velvet is grand.  Its casual mixture of the supernatural, of a murder mystery and of Restoration atmosphere is entrancing.  I don’t see how anyone with a taste for old-fashioned storytelling could fail to enjoy this flamboyant melodrama of swords, daggers, arsenic and metempsychosis in reverse.’—ORVILLE PRESCOTT (New York Times)

My review

Carr himself considered this was his “single finest piece of historical fiction”- and he will find few who disagree, for it is compulsively readable throughout its 330 closely-printed pages.

Professor Nicholas Fenton sells his soul in order to travel back to 1675, where he inherits the body of the unpleasant Sir Nicholas Fenton (no relation), in an attempt to prevent the murder of Lydia Fenton by poisoning, and thereby undo the course of history (which leads him to blurt out things better left unsaid). This ingenious and tense situation is described with such skill and delicacy as to prove those who accuse Carr of writing artificial and mechanical puzzles wrong, for this is a remarkably human book, Carr’s considerable talent shining as never before, especially in the characters of Fenton, Lydia, and her cousin Meg York. Restoration London is brought vividly to life, and with it such illustrious personages as Charles II, Nell Gwynn, and Lord Shaftesbury of the Green Ribbon Club, which soon establishes itself as a threat. With Fenton facing danger from four fronts, having to prevent Lady Fenton’s murder, his murder at the head of the Cromwellites, the devil from gaining possession of his soul, and Sir Nick Fenton from gaining possession of his body, there is plenty of action and danger. This is perhaps Carr’s most violent book, with swordplay in Dead Man’s Lane, battles in Pall Mall, and a final thrilling duel at the Tower of London, all of which show the influence of Alexandre Dumas. If anything suffers, it is detection, for this is predominantly a novel of action. Yet Carr produces a genuinely surprising solution, as satisfying as that of The Crooked Hinge – and follows it up with an ending equally unsatisfactory.

Contemporary reviews

NY Times (Richard Match, 22nd April 1951, 450w):

Those who read Mr. Carr’s first historical novel, The Bride of Newgate, will be braced now for the breathless pace and ingenious plotting of the second.  Yet nobody can fail to be staggered by his casual familiarity with the reign of Charles II.  This is more than research.  This is addiction, like Professor Fenton’s.


NY Herald Tribune Bk R (E.L. Acken, 29th April 1951, 260w):

In telling his story, Mr. Carr gives evidence of being a careful student of the Seventeenth Century, but as the plot shows, he has not let research hamper his imagination.  He is skilful at recreating the atmosphere of restoration days and at sustaining the reader’s interest in Professor Fenton’s adventures.

Concerns a professor of history at Cambridge in 1925, who had become obsessed with an incident of the year 1675 when a young wife died of poison.  The victim’s murderer was never discovered, and the professor had spent years in research on the antique mystery, and become so expert in the customs and manners of the period that he felt that he would return to it and be at home.  Finally, he did just that.


San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 20th May 1951, 70w):

If some of the fantasy details bewilder realistic readers, the murder and the historical action shouldn’t, and they’re all inter-dependent—and wonderful.


Sat R of Lit (R.E. Roberts, 7th July 1951, 240w):

Few students of the gentle art of murder are going to be held by the feeble mystery.  The scanty sprinkling of readers who enjoy fantasy will find here no whetstone to appetite.  And that great shoal of book buyers who swim avidly toward the historical romance will be repelled by both the above elements as well as the dreary claptrap of the standard cloak-and-sworder.


Times Literary Supplement (Alfred Leo Duggan, 16th November 1951):

In The Devil in Velvet Mr. Carr is hopelessly entangled in the machinery of his plot.  A historian of the present day makes a compact with the Devil by which he is carried back to the year 1675; he sees the Popish Plot coming, and knows Titus Oates for a liar, but can he, even with infernal help, alter the past?  Mr. Carr walks steadfastly up to this difficulty and then sidesteps neatly.  The story dwindles to a minor mystery of poisoning, complicated by love-affairs and murderous affrays.  Yet the author knows Restoration London, and as a picture of the times—the ever-present stink, the traffic in the Strand, the nasty ill-bottled wine, the lack of a toothbrush—the story has great interest.