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.
6 thoughts on “The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr”
Read out of context, as I did, The Bride of Newgate is a weird confusion of a book, as you say — the mystery elements feel cramped by the history, the historical details are overwhelming, and the plot after the opening chapters is mainly Darwent getting in a variety of fights.
Read in context, you see Carr’s growing fascination with the Historical elements of the plots in the novels that approach this, and it actually comes across as a bit of a pressure valve finally being let off — as if he has all these historical nuggets he wants to cram into a book just to get them off his mind, and so he sketches out a beginning (which is why the opening chapters are so brilliant) and then, with a huge sigh of relief, crams in that extended skirmish at the opera and all the other weirdly disconnected happenings that have been building in his mind.
It’s still not a good book, but as I’ve read more Carr I’ve come to appreciate what this represents. And his Historicals do improve rapidly after this — the likes of Fire, Burn being among his best and most accessible pieces of writing. He’d revisit that fascination with a borderline-plotless historical milieu far more successfully in The Devil in Velvet in a couple of years, too, which I maintain should be the first Historical Carr anyone reads because of how it does this sort of thing in a far, far more considered manner.
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Which is one of the titles I passed over in favor of this one!
I can definitely see what you mean about that idea of a.valve being let off. You are right that it does feel like he is working something out of his system here.
As far as Carr’s first period historicals go, The Bride of Newgate is towards the bottom of the stack. With that said, the margin of error for these books is rather tight – if you like one, you’ll probably like them all, and vice versa. I suspect from your comments on what didn’t work for you that these books might not be your thing. As JJ says, try Fire Burn. If you don’t like that one, then you can probably avoid the rest. Which would be a pity, as these books are fun in a way I didn’t anticipate I’d enjoy.
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It is odd because I really enjoy historical mysteries generally. But Fire Burn sounds good. I already own a copy anyway!
I’d agree with Ben here. The early historicals by Carr seem more to be about swashbuckling and daring heroes wowing damsels who seem to have a bit of an emotional problem as they are drawn to absolute asshats. For me “The Bride of Newgate” is still the best of these three, mainly because it was the first. “The Devil in Velvet” was interesting in places, but feels much too long (which is a big reason why I haven’t re-read it), while I was thoroughly bored with “Captain Cut-Throat” (I can’t remember it too well at this particular moment, but I seem to remember the protagonist in this one being even more arrogant than the other two).
The historical mysteries that follow are his best, I feel, because a) they focus more on mystery and 2) they are set in a part of history where people didn’t behave like absolutely idiots all the time. (Carr may have idolised this type of behaviour, but it’s off-putting in the extreme to me.) “The Demoniacs”, although also from this middle period of historical mysteries, is unfortunately set in the 1600s so we’re back to prats pratting around in that one.
The final four historicals are worse, but mainly because Carr’s writing acumen was at a low ebb during these final years of his career.
But take my opinion with a whole handful of salt, because I’m not overly fond of historical mysteries, as you’ve probably gathered. 🙂
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No, that’s helpful. I rather enjoyed aspects of Deadly Hall which was one of his last (and was recent enough that I suspect some will quibble with labeling it historical at all). I will definitely keep that in mind when picking my next Carr.