As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, John Dickson Carr is well-remembered for his locked-room puzzles, his sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-haunting mysteries, and his entertaining detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell and (written under the nom de plume of Carter Dickson) Sir Henry Merrivale. Together, there are over forty-five full length novels featuring these two characters, making Carr one of the most prolific Golden Age detective story writers.
In the later decades of his career, however, Carr turned increasingly to a genre that he held a strong affection for, that of the historical mystery. Carr’s historical tastes covered a number of periods, from the comparatively recent Edwardian of The Witch of the Low Tide, all the way back to the Restoration era depicted in The Devil in Velvet. But in between lies one of Carr’s most fascinating historical tales, the late Georgian-set Fire, Burn!, first publishing in 1957.
The strangest thing to notice about this Carr novel is the outright dabbling in either the occult or science fiction that sets the premise of Fire, Burn! The story begins with Detective Superintendent John Cheviot of Scotland Yard hailing a cab in 1957. But when he arrives at his destination, he finds that he has been transported not just from the Euston Road to No. 4, Whitehall Place, but backwards in time nearly one hundred and twenty years. The question of how he has been so transported is not really as relevant as the fact of his arrival. At this critical juncture in the history of crime-fighting, London is a very different city from the one which stood after the Second World War, although hauntingly familiar in the same instance, for this is the London of gas-light and horse-drawn carriages, and of a nation on the cusp of what was arguably the greatest period in its history (the reign of Victoria would begin eight years after the events of this book). Most importantly, Cheviot has arrived (or dreamed that he has arrived, or materialised) just at the birth of Sir Robert Peel’s new entity dedicated to the enforcement of the law, the Metropolitain Police, which was intended to replace the old and corrupt Bow Street Runners.
Even as Cheviot passes through the dreamlike events, he is not troubled much with the notion of returning to his own time. More pressing in his mind are the concerns of 1829, and the role he takes in that era, for he finds that the Cheviot of the early 19th century is not quite the upright man that he only faintly remembers himself to have been (in this, Fire, Burn! shares certain elements of tone with 1951’s The Devil in Velvet). Cheviot must also determine how to deal with the gambling den owned and operated by the vicious Vulcan, a towering mountain of a villain. And then there is the lovely Lady Flora Drayton: is she involved in the mysterious murder of Margaret Renfrew? She was carrying a concealed pistol in the very corridor in which Margaret was murdered: how could she not have fired the fatal shot? And if she did not kill the girl, then who did? The resolution will perhaps be surprising to modern readers, but Carr ably supports his tale with documentation, showing us once again how an impossible border was, in fact, possible.
Carr’s eye for historical detail is laudable in itself, but the ability to incorporate it into a thrilling narrative is a skill which many historical novelists would envy. Carr settles into the period effortlessly, thanks to his extensive reading on the subject (as documented in the “Notes for the Curious,” which occupy the final six pages of the book), and brings pre-Victorian London to life with a vigour and a clarity that is both compelling and tremendously entertaining. In a way, this book is not only Carr doing something that he did extremely well, but a paean to the lost world of pre-War London, before so many of the ancient streets were permanently undone by the fall of Nazi bombs. But Fire, Burn! does not require that the reader care for its subtext in order to enjoy a riveting tale of adventure and mystery, set at the very dawn of the age of Scotland Yard. If readers enjoy an historical tale and detective stories, they are pointed enthusiastically in the direction of this Carr classic.
Reviewed 22 September 2016.