If you were to choose any book from John Dickson Carr’s lengthy career, 1951’s The Devil in Velvet would prove a most mis-leading starting point. For while it is classic Carr, with none of the faults of some of his earliest (or indeed, latest) works, this is by no means a typical Carr tale.
For a start, the Devil himself makes an appearance.
Much of a piece with Fire, Burn! (at least, insofar as it too is an historical mystery, although set about 150 years later), The Devil in Velvet is a piece of his historical writing at its finest, full of the touches of a master writing at the peak of his ability, with surprising results. The book opens with history professor Nicholas Fenton musing that he has sold his soul to the Devil. As the story unfolds, the reason for this transaction has become apparent: Fenton, professor at the fictional Parcelsus College, Cambridge, aged 58 years in 1925, has become obsessed with the murder of a distant figure in history, the Lady Lydia Fenton, who died in June, 1675. Through meditation on his obsession, he becomes convinced that he can avert her death. Now, ready to unmoor himself from his comfortable modern academic life, Fenton has resolved to go so far as to summon up and strike a bargain with Old Scratch himself if it will enable him to save Lydia from slow poisoning.
Fenton, who has confided all of this in his young friend, Mary, undertakes the transaction with a shadowy figure in his rooms. He awakes to find himself transported as the Devil has promised to the era of the Restoration, with much of his memory of the future intact. But, of course, it is well known that Old Nick is not one for keeping his promises, and although Fenton has tried to insure himself against the usual sort of trickery, the sorts of things that the Devil is known to do, has he done enough?
Fenton finds himself in strangely familiar surroundings: rough sheets, 17th century sanitation, and a curious-sounding dialect. But if Fenton has travelled by means of black magic some two hundred and fifty years into the past, why has Mary also appeared there, in the guise of his 17th century mistress, Meg York? And is she truly his enemy, or his friend? And who, if any, are the other enemies lurking within his household?
In the meantime, Fenton discovers what sort of man he is in the late 17th Century. Feared by his household for his rages and tempers, he is not thought much by the rich and powerful figures of the day, but he is nevertheless a member of Parliament. Fenton’s character changes when his future incarnation arrives and takes the reigns of the character, and he begins to win the trust and admiration of his household. But will it be enough to protect him from the greater threats that swirl around him?
Why do mysterious figures wearing green ribbons dog his footsteps, and threaten him, challenging him to duels (which he may or may not handily win)? Why is he pursued by figures whose allegiance seems to be to a mysterious society which wears the green ribbon as its mark? And who is the powerful figure who threatens not only Sir Nick, but King Charles II himself?
Carr’s telling of a tale built around the Court and nobles of King Charles II is compelling in part, once again, due to his wide reading in the people and history of the period. Carr went to the lengths of writing a four-page section (found at the end of the book) entitled “Notes for the Curious,” which provides a list of the sources which he read from in order to construct the world of 1675. The bibliographical essay will give the interested reader a list of additional sources to examine, although there have certain been a large number of books about this period written since (Ronald Hutton’s biography Charles II and his earlier book The Restoration, both published by Oxford University Press, spring to mind as just two examples). The intrigues at court are told with verve and glee, bringing this distant – but still familiar – history to life with a clarity and adventurous sense that matches the best of Carr’s Gideon Fell or Henry Merrivale novels. Carr had at this point in his career already visited this period once before, in The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, an earlier historical novel, but his effort here is one of pure historical fiction, and the result is remarkable. In a rich historical tapestry, with plenty of swordplay and political skulduggery, The Devil in Velvet is another fantastic outing from Carr, and well-worth tracking down for any fan of his detective novels, as well as lovers of historical fiction and English history, especially that which is set during the Restoration. Five stars. Recommended.
Reviewed 18 October 2016.