Saturday, 20 August 2022

Forgotten Book - The Demoniacs

The Demoniacs, first published in 1962, is one of the historical mystery novels in which John Dickson Carr specialised in the later stages of his career. Like Carr, I'm fascinated by history, and I share his view that historical fiction offers the novelist rich possibilities. In this story, set in 1757, his protagonist is Jeffrey Wynne, a Bow Street Runner, and this choice reflects his interest in the history of policing in Britain, another appealing subject in its own right.

The title of the book is intriguing, and it's rather a pity that it is, as Doug Greene says in his biography of Carr, of little relevance to the storyline. The cast of characters includes Henry Fielding, himself later a lead character in one or two other mystery novels, and Laurence Sterne of Tristram Shandy fame, here seen as a rather disreputable clergyman.

As ever with Carr, the atmospherics are very well done and complement the action effectively. What of the action itself? Well, Jeffrey has been sent to France by Sir Mortimer Ralston to bring back to England Sir Mortimer's headstrong (but beautiful) niece Peg. She risks being imprisoned in Newgate Jail for 'harlotry'. The central mystery concerns the death of an old woman.

The book begins quite vividly, but I'm afraid that within a few chapters, I'd lost interest. This is partly because the dialogue is slightly wearisome, but mainly because the story is - at least to me - lacking in grip. I've been a Carr fan since my teens, but - like Christie and Sayers among many others - not every book he wrote was a winner. Doug Greene acknowledges the weaknesses, and points out a significant mistake that Carr made in the clueing (though authors are only human - if this had been the only flaw in the book, it would have been easily forgiven as far as I'm concerned). Alas, long before the end, I'd ceased to care about either the characters or the puzzle.


dfordoom said...

I have a definite soft spot for Carr's historical mysteries. I know that a lot of Carr fans aren't fond of them. Carr's historical mysteries had a particular flavour that I really enjoy.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, it's clear that he enjoyed writing them and his interest in history is evident even in the then contemporary books.

TomCat said...

The Demoniacs is one of the handful of Carr novels I've not read yet. So it's always disappointing to hear that most of those remaining novels can be counted among his least successful mysteries, but, as you said, they can't all be winners.

The cast of characters includes Henry Fielding, himself later a lead character in one or two other mystery novels...

Henry Fielding figures in a Japanese mystery novel, Hiroko Minagawa's The Resurrection Fireplace, which is a Dickensian crime novel set in 1770s London. Not your typical or even best shin honkaku mystery to be translated into English, but full of rich, imaginative storytelling and off-beat characterization. Never let it be said I only care about plot and puzzles!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, TomCat. I didn't know about the Japanese book! You may think more kindly of The Demoniacs than I do. These things are of course a matter of personal taste.