The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr (Langtail Press, 2011)
#2 The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr. Carr liked to introduce elements of the supernatural into his detective novels, usually with terrifying effect. Made into a film, but I haven’t seen it.
– Karl Edward Wagner, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels (Twilight Zone magazine 1983)
The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr is a strange little mystery novel. It’s not hard to see how it appealed to KEW: a medical aspect to a murder, disappearing corpses, a deadly ghost, and a logical solution to the crime. Or is there one? The conclusion to this novel has been debated ever since its initial publication in 1937.
The novel takes place on the Philadelphia Main Line in 1929. For those of you who haven’t spent much time around the Delaware Valley, the Main Line is the railroad running out of Philadelphia to the east. Running next to the Main Line railroad is Route 30, also known as Lincoln Highway. All along this corridor are the houses of the wealthy. These estates date back in the 19th century when affluent Philadelphians began to purchase farmland owned by Welsh Quakers. Hence the Welsh sounding names: Berwyn, Bala Cynwyd, Bryn Mawr. One of the most affluent boroughs in Pennsylvania is off the Main line: Gladwyne. To have a dwelling on the Main Line is a symbol of old money or new success.
At the beginning of the The Burning Court, one of the main characters is taking the train out to the Main Line borough of Crispin, a small town which is supposed to be between Haverford and Brywn Mawr. This town doesn’t exist, but John Dickson Carr has painted such a rich picture of the Main Line as it existed in the first half of the previous century, you can forgive him. Carr, the master of the golden age “locked room” mystery, hailed from a prestigious Pennsylvania family and attended one of the exclusive Main Line colleges (another feature of the Main Line). From my research into the place names, most of them don’t exist, but are pastiches of other Main Line roads, parks, estates, etc.
The book begins with Edward Stevens traveling by train to his weekend cottage in Crispin on the Main Line to visit his French wife, Marie. The patriarch of the Despard clan, who owns the estate near the cottage, has passed away, leaving his fortune to his nephews and nieces: Mark, Edith and Ogden. With Stevens is a manuscript for the latest “true crime” book his company is about to publish by eccentric writer Gaudan Cross. The book is a study of famous French murder trials. Stevens is thinking over what Mark Despard has told him in regards to his uncle’s death: the night before, the housekeeper swears she saw a woman in ‘queer old-fashioned clothes’ talking to the old man. And she swears the woman exited through a non-existent door.
When Stevens arrives at the estate of the Despards, Mark tells him that he thinks his uncle was murdered. He’s had a silver cup found in his uncle’s room tested for arsenic and it was positive. With the help of a family friend, Mark and Stevens manage to open the crypt where Uncle Miles and previous generations of Despards have been interred. But the coffin is empty.
Matters become even stranger when Stevens starts to examine the manuscript on murder trials and finds a picture of Marie D’Aubray, who was executed as a poisoner in 1861. The picture is an exact match to his wife, who even wears the same cat bracelet seen in the photograph. Then the picture comes up missing. What connection does his wife have to the dead murderess? And how does it all figure into the missing body, closed room murder, and tales of ancient sorcery?
The novel is broken into 5 parts:”Indictment”, “Evidence”, “Argument”, “Summing-Up” and “Verdict”. The plotting is very tight, something for which Carr was renowned. in the third section of the book, “Argument” a police detective shows up from downtown Philadelphia and begins to piece together the murder.I found his presence a little odd since the Main Line is outside of Philadelphia police jurisdiction. At this point, The Burning Court becomes a police detective novel, with “Foxy” Capt. Brennan cross-examining everyone and assembling the evidence. And he’s not putting up with any funny stuff:
“Let me ask you something. Did you expect me to come charging in here, pointing my finger in everybody’s face, insulting people right and left, and roaring for blood? Listen, Mr. Despard. I can tell you this: the cop who acted like that would get his pants thrown out of the police department so quick you couldn’t see ’em for dust.”
The book takes another turn when the author of the manuscript Stevens was carrying makes an appearance. Known as Gaudan Cross, he’s driven in by a chauffeured limo and proceeds to add his knowledge to the solution of the crime. By the end of the final section, you’re ready to nod your head in approval as Cross attempts to solve it all.
Except everything does a complete turn in the final section, “Verdict”, where Carr implies that the murder was the result of supernatural forces. Huh? Then what were we led to believe up to this point? Obviously KEW felt it was the result of deviltry, or he wouldn’t have included in his “13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels” list. But I’m not sure. There’s plenty of ways to read the final pages of this novel and I’m open to discuss it with anyone. But I’m not going to reveal anymore as that would spoil the book for a prospective reader.
As far as the movie that KEW was never able to see, it’s also called The Burning Court and was filmed in France in 1962. It’s only worth seeing if you want to compare it to the book. The local is changed and the “supernatural?” ending is scrapped. At least in the version I saw.