And what a read it turned out to be.
Edward Stevens is a well-settled young man in his thirties. He has a loving wife and a secure job in a publishing house. When the novel begins, he is returning home from work, glancing cursorily at the manuscript of a book which deals with murder trials. Stevens remembers the odd conversation with his editor when the latter asked him to go through the manuscript but doesn’t dwell on it much, his mind being preoccupied with the death of his neighbour Miles Despaard whose housekeeper later claimed that she had seen a woman in ‘old-fashioned clothes’ in Miles’ room the night of his death. A woman who had later disappeared through a wall…
Just a woman’s weird imaginings, Stevens thinks to himself and starts concentrating on the manuscript in his hands. His eyes fall on the photograph of a woman : a certain Marie D’Aubray who had been guillotined for murder in 1861 – and everything changes for him in that split second because he was looking at a photograph of his own wife.
Oh! The Thrill of reading this book! My Little One went to sleep early and since I had some time at hand I thought of reading this… and I just could not stop, reading it through the dark of the night with all the lights switched off and there being only the glow from my laptop. It complemented well the eerie atmosphere that Carr creates magnificently. Unquestionably, my best mystery read of the year. If you haven’t read it, read it NOW.
You know how it is: You read a book and fall so much in love with it that you want to read other books by the same author. And you start another one….. and it simply falls flat. So it was with Carr’s Black Spectacles that I started reading after finishing The Burning Court.
The premise of the book is very interesting. An eccentric millionaire Marcus Chesney wants to prove that people wear ‘black spectacles’ while watching anything, i.e. they don’t really observe what is happening in front of them. To prove it, he goes in for an elaborate set-up enlisting the help of his assistant, Wilbur Emmet. In front of an audience of three – Chesney’s friend Prof. Ingram, Chesney’s niece Marjory, and her fiance George Harding – a figure (ostensibly Emmet) enters wearing outlandish clothes. He then proceeds to put a capsule in the mouth of Chesney and disappears in the gloom inside. Chesney pretends to die, then gets up, and all venture out. It’s time for question and answer session but they discover Emmet lying unconscious outside and before they can understand what is happening, Chesney too kicks the bucket. Who was then the masked figure? The three witnesses cannot agree on what they saw. Not one but three police officials: Inspector Andrew Elliot, Chief Constable Major Crow, and Superintendent Bostwick arrive on the spot. To balance things, they too cannot agree on who the culprit might be and so like the victim’s brother Dr. Joe Chesney who was supposed to be present but arrived late for the show, Dr. Gideon Fell enters the scene and well you know what Dr.Fell can do.
The book begins extremely well in the ruins of Pompeii but I have never really enjoyed the investigative officer falling in love with a prime accused in the case. This trope – which is all too frequent – ruined the Adam Dalgliesh series for me – and here it was painful to read Inspector Elliot behaving like a love-sick teenager. He even goes to the extent of hiding incriminating evidence against Marjorie from his superior officer because he is head-over-heels in love with her.
I don’t know why I dislike this trope so much (perhaps I want the investigating officers to behave in a non-partisan manner) but it is worse when the damsel in distress has a fiance/ lover because you can bet that he will be shown in a very poor light if not as being utterly despicable. And Carr really pours it on thick over Harding.
First Line: “There was a man lived by a churchyard – ” is an intriguing beginning for a story left unfinished.
Title: The Burning Court
Author: John Dickson Carr
Publication Details: NY: International Polygonics,1985
First Published: 1937
Source: Open Library
Trivia: No.10 in the Tozai Top 100 Mysteries
Other Books read of the same author: The Hollow Man, He Who Whispers, Eight of Swords
First Line: It began, as a certain man remembered it, at a house in Pompeii.
Title: The Black Spectacles
Alternate Title: The Problem of the Green Capsule