Originally published in 1950
To inherit her family fortune, beautiful Miss Caroline Ross must marry before her twenty-fifth birthday. But she has found only two breeds of husband: violent drunks and irresponsible dandies. To evade wedded agony, she chooses a spouse not long for this world—a convicted murderer with just a few hours left until his date with the hangman. But clever, cold-hearted Caroline does not yet realize it is her neck around which the noose is tightening and that she risks facing a life sentence far grimmer than one at Newgate jail.
It was recently pointed out to me that it has been a while since I last read and reviewed anything by John Dickson Carr on this blog. A quick look back through my posts shows that it has been almost exactly a year since I shared thoughts on The Mad Hatter Mystery and I have added quite a few books to my library since then thanks to the Polygon, British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics reprints.
Unfortunately I chose to overlook all of those other Carr titles I owned in favor of The Bride of Newgate.
The book is a historical mystery set in Georgian England. It opens with a young woman, Miss Caroline Ross, traveling to Newgate Prison to marry a convicted murderer about to be hanged. She is not seeking this marriage for love but rather to fulfil the terms of a will that requires her to marry by her next birthday to inherit a fortune. By marrying Dick Darwent, a condemned man, she hopes to get the fortune without losing her independence. Unfortunately for her Dick’s sentence will soon after be quashed and he will turn out to be a rather longer-term investment than she had presumed.
In the process of securing his release, we learn Dick’s own story which introduces us to the mystery elements of the story. We hear how he found himself blamed for a murder he did not commit after waking up in a room that subsequently vanishes and we follow as he attempts to find the real guilty party and bring them to justice.
The best bit about the book for me is its opening. While Caroline’s complaints about the idea of being married are clearly intended to read rather comically (and establish her as a Katherina-type), her scheme is rather novel and explained well. Similarly the reasons for how Dick comes to escape the noose, however far-fetched they may be, are also extremely easy to follow. Were this a straightforward romance story I could see this as being quite a promising starting point.
The problem is that Carr is writing a murder mystery and those elements of the story never feel quite so clearly explained or defined. There is a reason that the Open Road Media blurb quoted above makes absolutely no mention of the mystery elements of the story – they are much harder to describe consicely. There is a sort of impossibility, in terms of a crime scene that vanishes, and yet that too feels rather vague. The best aspect of it, the idea that the room could not have been disturbed because it is covered in cobwebs, is appealing as an idea and yet feels underutilized as the investigation gets underway.
Not that there is much of an investigation, at least in a structured way. The Bride of Newgate strikes me as a story cut in the adventure mold as there is a heavy focus on the idea of duelling. There are multiple duel scenes laced throughout the story, each featuring different adversaries and all of which left me quite cold. They are neither particularly thrilling, nor are they witty or interesting in some other way, particularly as they feel rather repetitive. Instead they just seem to get in the way of the mystery itself, distracting you from the puzzle that is presumably intended as the story’s focus.
Carr’s protagonist, Dick Darwent, is neither particularly interesting or relatable. While we may initially sympathize with him as having been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, his aggression towards Caroline, herself not a sympathetic character, comes off as quite bitter and unpleasant. Particularly when he does things like threaten her with exercising his husbandly rights. Caroline’s own feelings in the matter are particularly confusing and I never felt I understood exactly why she was drawn to him.
As for the historical details, they’re fine. I appreciated the author’s note at the end in which Carr outlines his sources and it is clear that he enjoyed that aspect of putting together the novel. Some historical details are integrated well into the text, others have a tendency to feel like an author cramming that research onto the page somehow, but I did feel that there was an attempt to evoke a sense of time and place, albeit in a way that felt rather literary in style.
I will say that I appreciated that the details of Dick and Caroline’s respective backstories are quite specific to this period of time, meaning that this is an instance where a historical mystery’s plot arises out of the period rather than simply transposing a whodunnit onto a historical setting. Given that Carr is one of the earliest authors to play with the idea of writing a historical mystery, I think it is to his credit that he seems to be interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by setting his story in a different time rather than treating it as a novelty.
For all my complaints though, I do have to acknowledge that Carr does at least conclude his story quite tidily. The explanations given do pull all of the various threads of the story together and I was convinced that the trick, although quite a simple one, could have been managed. The problem was that by that point I was all too eager to be done with the book to care…
The Verdict: Attempts to blend romance and mystery but does neither well.