Forgotten Books: The Burning Court and The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr

You know how it is: You read about a book somewhere, it might be just a passing reference and  not a full-fledged review but it intrigues you so much that you want to read the book. So it was that I read a line from The Burning Court @ Classic Mystery Hunt …and I simply had to read the novel.

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.

Both the books have been posted about frequently and you can read about The Burning Court @ Classic Mystery Hunt, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?Valli’s Book Den

Black Spectacles (aka Green Capsule) @ Classic Mystery Hunt,  Mystery File, Pretty Sinister Books

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
Pages: 228
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

Publication Details: NY: Award Books, 1976
First Published: 1939
Pages: 228
Source: H.M. Library
Other Books read of the same author: The Hollow Man, He Who Whispers, Eight of Swords


Entry for FFB @ Pattinase

28 thoughts on “Forgotten Books: The Burning Court and The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr

  1. So glad you loved BURNING COURT – it's a classic of its kind and in fact I want to dash off and read it again RIGHT NOW – but first I have to finish my review of BLACK SPECTACLES, which may not be Carr's finest but which it is safe to say I like more than you – shall follow this one up shortly Neeru!


  2. Sergio, The Burning Court is definitely going to be on my Top 10 Mysteries of all time. Gripping and mesmerizing. And the epilogue… just great.Black Spectacles was a big let-down. I could hardly finish it. It became a pain to read it. Looking forward to your views, Sergio.


  3. BURNING COURT sounds very good. I don't have many of John Dickson Carr's books, and I keep reading compliments on his writing. That one sounds like one I should look for.


  4. I agree that of the two reviewed here THE BURNING COURT is the better book. In fact, I'd say it's superior to the other in every aspect. THE BLACK SPECTACLES is too gimmicky for me though I enjoyed reading it. THE BURNING COURT is a classic but there are some who hate it for the ending which defies the so called rules of a traditional mysterr novel. Tough! I love this book for exactly what Carr does in the final pages. (Oh! and thanks for the link to my review.)


  5. THE BURNING COURT is a classic, and regarding the epilogue, if you don't like it you can dismiss it as the ramblings of a lunatic. So to me, it works either way.THE BLACK SPECTACLES had a nice twist towards the end, but was quite slow, and I don't think it's in the first rank of Carr's work.


  6. I agree with Tracy, Burning Court sounds wonderful and compliments for your presentation of it in this review. You described the sinister atmosphere ….comme si j' y étais (as if I was there!). I read your blog and Bitter Tea and Mystery regularly …but am not a 'real' crime book reader. I manage to read 2 or 3 crime books a year ..tout au plus (at the most). Great review….interesting comparison.


  7. I couldn't agree with you more, John. The epilogue uplifts The Burning Court from a good mystery to a brilliant one. I don't understand these rules about mysteries. In fact, I love to be shocked (albeit convincingly) by the author. In Black Spectacles, I thought the author was trying a little too hard.And you are welcome John. It is always a pleasure to go through your posts.


  8. Welcome to the blog Graham. I like the epilogue – in fact I absolutely love it. Had to read it more than once to make sure that I was reading it right. :)There are many things in Black Spectacles that were simply not convincing, esp. that 'shotgun wedding' thing.


  9. Thank you for these very kind words Nancy. Nancy, you read Walter Scott and Emile Zola, that is something really great. I am looking forward to your winter project on Augustus Caesar.


  10. Welcome back Valli. Where did you disappear?BURNING COURT is really wonderful and GREEN CAPSULE too is liked by many. I think I must be in the minority. 🙂


  11. Neeru – I'm very glad you enjoyed The Burning Court. It definitely shows Carr's skills both as a writer and as a storyteller.


  12. I know I read every John Dickson Carr / Carter Dickson book I could get my hands on when I was younger, but darn if I can remember any of them except CASTLE SKULL. THE BURNING COURT sounds like one I'd like to reacquaint myself with, Neer. THANKS for the prompt. I really have been meaning to re-read Carr aka Carter Dickson. Where does the time fly? :)October is a good John Dickson Carr month.


  13. I had read 3 books of Carr before I read THE BURNING COURT but hadn't really developed a great deal of liking for his books but this book changed all that and now I can't wait to read his other books, so definitely start with this one Prashant.


  14. Absolutely Yvette, the bewitching month of October is perfect for THE BURNING COURT. And I really want to read your review of it.Where does time fly? I wish I knew Yvette. Even 2014 is coming to an end….


  15. Yes, thanks Rishi. This was indeed a book that everybody should read. And what are rules in a mystery? The things that I hate in a mystery are the murderer turning out to be a stranger with hardly any presence in the narrative or the writer not being efective enough in the handling of clues.


  16. Nitu diPlease become a member of Open Library (it is free and you cane borrow books for two weeks). The book is available there. The only thing is that you will have to read it as an ebook so there wouldn't be the pleasure of holding the book in your hand or inhaling its scent. 🙂


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