JOHN DICKSON CARR – Fire, Burn!   Harper & Brothers, US, hardcover, 1957. UK edition: Hamish Hamilton, hc, 1957. Paperback reprints include: Bantam A1847, 1958; Bantam S3638, 2nd printing 1968. Carroll & Graf, 1987.


   Fire, Burn! was the first book by John Dickson Carr that I ever read. To be honest the combination of the atmospheric James Bama cover on the Bantam paperback edition, and the time travel aspect probably attracted me more than Carr’s name or his credentials as one of the greats of the Golden Age of Detection at the time. The plot sounded just enough like one of my favorite films (I’ll Never Forget You reviewed here on this blog by me) that I couldn’t resist.

   I’m grateful to both Bantam and Bama for that. Fire, Burn! opened the door to a lifetime of entertainment.

   The time and place is London in the years after the Second World War. That part is important because in those years London suffered some of the worst and most deadly fogs in modern history. The city was socked in for days, even weeks, by heavy yellow fogs that sent thousands to emergency rooms and no few number to their graves.

   It’s in one of those fogs that Superintendent John Cheviot of Scotland Yard grabs a taxi one bleak night and finds his life turned upside down as he finds himself emerging from the taxi into London of 1829 in the reign of George IV at the end of the Regency period.


   Cheviot, who is obsessed with history, especially of the early days of Scotland Yard, finds himself investigating a mystery, and attempting to use his modern skills while trying not to give himself away with his too ready knowledge of events that have yet to happen. In the meantime he finds himself romantically entangled with an attractive but trouble-prone young lady of somewhat screwball tendencies.

   I’ll grant that Fire, Burn! never really bothers to explain how or why Cheviot ends up in 1829 — other than wishful thinking — and the heroine may rub some readers the wrong way — though her type was common enough in the era the book is set in (Georgette Heyer’s clever heroines were probably rarer), but the mystery involves a typical Carr-ian bit of misdirection that takes advantage of a bit of history the reader may not know.

   Fire, Burn! is not the best of Carr’s historicals (that’s probably The Devil in Velvet), but it is an entertaining one, and for me, it holds pride of place as my introduction both to Carr and to historical mysteries in general.


   What Fire, Burn! has is an attractive hero, a clever mystery, and Carr’s painless immersion in the history and language of the period without a strain or an anachronism to mar the experience.

   And in all fairness, it isn’t as if time travel romances are ever particularly strong on exactly how the hero or heroine manages to make the transit of years. Dating back to George Du Maurier and Peter Ibbetson (1891) the time travel aspect seems most often to just happen. As late as Daphne Du Maurier’s House on the Strand the exact manner of how the hero gets back in time was still pretty questionable.

   Give Carr credit though. While you are reading Fire, Burn! you won’t think to ask the question of how Cheviot makes the transition, and if you think of it later, you can’t really blame Carr. He did his part. The willing suspension of disbelief is up to the reader.