Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr

 Mark Despard is disturbed. His uncle Miles Despard has died and he thinks somebody poisoned him. Mrs Henderson, the maid, claims that while the house was empty and Miles was in his room, she saw the silhouette of a woman standing over his bed, giving him a drink and then disappearing through a door which was not there. Mrs Henderson could not make out who this women was but she did describe the dress that she was wearing, she was wearing the dress worn by Madame de Brinvilliers, the french serial killer who poisoned tens of people and then was caught by an ancestor of the Despards. In 1676, she was guillotined and then burnt at the stake.

There was another detail about the enigmatic visitor that Mrs Henderson missed but later recited, she felt that  the neck of the woman wasn't properly "fastened"! The Despards now think that it was the ghost of Madame de Brinvilliers who came back to take revenge on the bloodline of her nemesis, and that is how the specter escaped from a door that was not there.

Mark Despard wants to now exhume the body of his dead uncle and check if he was poisoned or not. Mark enlists two old friends for this clandestine task. Together they open the crypt where the Despards keep their dead, then they open the wooden coffin and find that apparently Miles Despard has escaped from his grave. The Coffin is empty. The Crypt has remained unperturbed since the day Miles was buried with his ancestors. Furthermore, the crypt is made of granite which is impregnable and the question of hidden passages is ruled out. So where did the dead body of Miles go? and who was the women who entered Miles room on the night of his murder and where did she disappear? In this tale of the occult, witches, poisoners and murders nobody is what they seem.


Review: The Burning Court published in 1937, is one of the most famous books by the master of impossible crime. There is even a French movie based on the classic mystery. The Burning court caused quite an uproar in its time due to its supernatural solution. All the Carr books that I have read till date have an impossible premise and the reader is encouraged to believe by a character or characters in the book that it is perpetrated by a supernatural force but in the end the detective proves how a mortal perpetrated the crime and rules out any inhuman intervention, but in this respect The Burning Court is diametrically opposite. 
The Mystery is quite baffling and everyone involved is given water tight alibis, so it becomes quite difficult to figure out the murderer. Carr does give a rational explanation to the situation with the crypt and the woman walking through a door that does not exist. I was quite convinced with the explanation when I was reading it last night but now the explanation that Carr gives for the escape of the women from the room seems like one with a lot of faults and lots of unlikely coincidences, but then what happens after these explanations is also an explanation for the weakness of these explanations. The explanation of the missing body from the crypt is something which I would not like to comment on since I somehow forgot about an event which happened in the starting of the book, this happens when you read a book in multiple sittings.

The atmosphere that Carr creates is spooky, and sometimes even of pure terror. I won't argue with anyone that would say that this is horror novel with a murder mystery thrown in between. The Burning court along with The Plague court murders are two Carr novels who have more supernatural element then others. The part where Mark Despard along with his confederates open the crypt is reminiscent of those awesome horror movies of the 60's and 70's. 

The theme of suspicion falling on the protagonist's lover/wife is common with "Till Death Do us Part", here too the central character is suspicious of his spouse, of indulging in unscrupulous activities. This is an important plot element in both the books. The Character of Cross who plays the detective is quite flimsy and supercilious he dismisses alibis of certain people and clung to others, and proves to be an amateur at detection, his deductions when carefully scrutinized are found wanting.
There are other elements in the book which only serve as a reminder to Carr's unquestionable Genius. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the history of witches and poisoners. Carr must have done a lot of research to get that in here and is put in the book congruously. I think anyone with a interest in the history of poisoners and witches will find it congenial.

Finally we come to the last chapter in the book, I can guarantee you that it will knock your socks off. I read the last chapter thrice to completely understand what just happened and after you comprehend the ending you will realize that everything and everyone are not what they seem to be. It is a mind boggling and terrifying experience. The Last chapter in the book is apposite to the rest of the theme of the book. 

This is very very strongly recommended, a masterpiece from JD Carr.

4.5 Stars out of 5

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