The Non-Dead in John Dickson Carr's the Burning Court

Article excerpt

I enjoyed The Burning Court by John Dickson Carr more than the novels of [Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham]. There is a tinge of black magic that gives it a little of the interest of a horror story, and the author has a virtuosity at playing with alternative hypotheses that makes this trick of detective fiction more amusing than [detective fiction] usually is.

--Edmund Wilson

JOHN DICKSON CARR IS KNOWN FOR having written clever puzzle-plotted mystery novels, mainly in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s-more precisely, from 1930 to 1972. A number of these novels, particularly those with Dr. Gideon Fell as detective, invoke the supernatural only to dispel it in a natural (if often highly unusual) solution. For example, two of the Gideon Fell novels play with the suggestion of vampires, the undead as they are often called--The Three Coffins (1935) and He Who Whispers (1946). In these mysteries' natural resolutions, they belong to the tradition of Ann Radcliffe among the Gothic novelists.

But one of Carr's novels has the supernatural as central to the plot and does not explain it away. In writing this, I am presenting what is usually called a SPOILER in detective-fiction criticism, but one can hardly discuss a novel without mentioning a central element. To state the final twist at the beginning prepares one to actually analyze what the fiction says.

In this essay, first, I want to discuss The Burning Court as a detective story; second, I want to consider in one instance how the plotting affects the characterization; and finally I want to discuss The Burning Court as a Gothic novel of the supernatural kind, with a closing suggestion of its meaning.

To start, then: The Burning Court is a detective novel--more particularly, a puzzle-plotted mystery. Four puzzles are presented to the reader, the first three tied to seemingly supernatural events. I use the word seemingly because, in a consideration of the book as detective fiction, a critic has to ignore the final reversal in the Epilogue. These are the three main puzzles: first, a woman, who in an ancient costume is seen administering a poison to a sick man, thereafter is seen walking out of the room through a door in a doorway that has been bricked up for two hundred years; second, the body of the poisoned man vanishes from a thoroughly sealed underground tomb; and, third, the body is thereafter seen in a rocking chair rocking and raising its hand to a visitor as if to shake his hand. The fourth puzzle has to do with how a second poison is administered, but it does not affect the seemingly supernatural events.

The third of the three puzzles rests on the description of one person and, if he is believed, on the question of how the dead man's appearance was gimmicked. The first of the three is more elaborate and more elaborately developed. I will not go into the question of the costume, with members of the poisoned man's family going to a costume ball, etc., but the walking through a sealed doorway is obviously a variant of the locked-room puzzle for which Carr is famous. The other doors to the room were known to be locked, of course. The amateur detective of the novel, an elderly true-crime writer named Gaudan Cross, explains it with a highly unlikely but possible use of a mirror and one of the supposedly locked doors, but only after a hole has been knocked through the walled-up door, to show there is no secret passageway.

More elaborate, and perhaps even more unlikely, is the vanishing corpse. The family vault on the estate is under ground, with the entrance to the vault dug up before each interment and buried again afterwards. The path with cemented stones is removed and replaced each time since it runs over the entrance. That entrance to the vault has a stone slab, weighing "over half a ton," on it, which has to be moved, after a thin covering of gravel and soil under the cemented stones is also removed. …