Thursday, August 28, 2014

John Dickson Carr’s The Devil in Velvet

To say that John Dickson Carr’s The Devil in Velvet, which was first published in 1951, is an unconventional detective novel would be a monumental understatement. I mean, how many fictional detectives enlist the help of Satan to solve the crime? And it involves time travel. This is definitely not your average crime novel.

In 1925 a historian becomes obsessed with a murder committed in 1675.  There seem to have been three possible suspects, but although several manuscripts exist that give an account of the events, none name the actual murderer. The historian makes a pact with the Devil, allowing him to travel back in time to 1675, and he finds himself inhabiting the body of the murder victim’s husband. He discovers that the accounts he has read of the crime do not tell the full story.  

He also soon finds himself caught up in the political intrigues of the day, of which there are many – intrigues involving Popish plots, conspiracies against the king, and the vexed problem of the succession (with King Charles II’s Catholic brother being the heir). He finds himself with enemies inside his household, and outside. 

The book is a combination of a clever murder mystery, a strange love story, a political thriller and an enjoyable adventure romp, with some fascinating insights into daily life in the 17th century to add extra interest and spice.  Considering that it was written in the early 1950s it’s also surprisingly frank in dealing with matters of sex. In some ways it has a very modern feel, somewhat akin to the wonderful genre-bending alternative history fantasy novels of writers like Tim Powers and Mary Gentle. In fact it’s a book I can recommend to fantasy and horror fans as well as crime fiction fans. An unusual but very entertaining novel.  

1 comment:

  1. Hear, hear! The Devil in Velvet is an excellent piece of historical fiction, which can be enjoyed by readers from genres other than crime-and historical fiction. This makes it perhaps one of Carr's most accomplished novels.

    Carr wrote a similar themed book in 1957, Fire, Burn!, and places a modern policeman in 1829, but it's never explained how he got there. How the detective interacted with a world he has prior knowledge of (or thinks he has) foreshadows the (BBC) series Life on Mars. I've always wondered if the creators of that show knew about these two mysteries.