Wednesday, 25 June 2003

John Dickson Carr: Fire, Burn! (1957)

Edition: Carroll & Graf, 1994
Review number: 1168

John Dickson Carr is best known to those interested in old-fashioned crime fiction for his detective Gideon Fell, who solved the many variations on the locked room mystery theme which Carr thought up. Fire, Burn!, though still a locked room mystery, is very different. The detective, John Cheviot, is a Scotland Yard superintendent, who finds himself travelling back in time to 1829, to the earliest days of the Metropolitan Police. This is before the days when policemen began to be respected (a situation to which we seem to have been returning for some time), before the institution of the CID, before the ideas on which modern police work is based. He meets a woman with whom he falls in love, but has to risk alienating her and breaking the code governing honourable conduct (in the days when duels were still being fought) in order to solve his case.

Since the publication of Fire, Burn!, historical crime stories have become big business. It is really a precursor to this genre, but it has this unusual time travel aspect as well. One of the major difficulties with the genre is that readers expect modern investigative methods - sifting of evidence, attention paid to forensic detail including examination of the body, elimination of suspects by logical deduction, being willing to suspect anybody - which would have been considered strange and even improper in the past. (The tendency which is still sometimes seen today to automatically blame society's outsiders was often the principal method of criminal investigation.) Difficulties inherent in suspecting or even questioning members of the upper classes are often glossed over for the sake of the plot. By bringing his detective from the future, Carr neatly sidesteps all these problems, and also makes the contrast between the expectations of eighteen twenties society and those of a nineteen fifties policeman the core of the novel.

This makes Fire, Burn! more serious than the majority of Carr's massive output, and it is successful as a carefully documented historical novel as well as in the genre more familiar to the author.

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