Notes for the Curious

Crime and the occult! These were the only hobbies for a man of taste!

I just had to start with that. This may seem a strange topic for a post, I know, but John Dickson Carr’s epigraphs and sources have long interested me for any number of reasons, including the fact that he and I have many of the same interests. (When Patrick Gore lists his favorite books in The Crooked Hinge, I always find myself cheering whenever I read the book.)

I’m currently re-reading many of my favorite Carrs–I’ve read The Crooked Hinge and The Burning Court and have just started He Who Whispers–which is probably what has prompted this idle musing. Nonetheless, there are some very interesting discoveries in looking into Carrian sources. Now, Carr quoted a wide variety of sources in his career, so we’ll only look at four–the aforementioned three and Beneath Suspicion. Of these, I’ll tackle Beneath Suspicion and The Burning Court today and The Crooked Hinge and He Who Whispers Friday (I have appointments all day tomorrow).


In Beneath Suspicion, for example, Carr (via Dr. Fell) quotes extensively from Margaret Murray (1863-1963), and he refers to her in several other books. (Douglas Greene devotes a chapter to these references.) With my own interest in “crime and the occult,” I naturally had to take a look at Murray’s work, and luckily interlibrary loan had me covered: I was able to read both The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933).


Murray’s work is fascinating. She lays out a remarkably convincing case that the accused witches of the Middle Ages were in fact members of an elaborate pre-Christian fertility cult–“the old religion,” as she called it. All the more remarkable because, in fact, the basis of her thesis has been debunked by such later historians and anthropologists as Elliot Rose (A Razor for a Goat, 1962), Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971), and Norman Cohn (Europe’s Inner Demons, 1975). With all that said, Murray’s argument is excellent background material for the writer. I will add, also, that some of Carlo Ginzburg’s works (The Night Battles, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath) have proved that Murray, though sloppy with her sources, might have possessed a “kernel of truth” in her theory.

I should also note, in passing, that the two witchcraft-related locked-room stories that Carr cites in Beneath Suspicion are real, and remain unsolved mysteries.

And now to a similar case, in The Burning Court.

As far as I can tell, the “non-dead”–poisoning witches who came back from the dead to kill–is a Carrian invention. You will find evidence in mythology for witches who return from the dead, but there is nothing about their being poisoners or a particularly different form of magical creature. Moreover, I find no evidence, for example, that, following the execution of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, Maître Nivelle said anything to the Grand Penitentiary akin to “there is something beyond this. I saw them die. They were not ordinary women. They will be restless,” and “Grimaud’s History of Witchcraft” offers no citation, as other quotations in that “book” do. (An interesting note–is the fictional Grimaud here intended to be The Hollow Man‘s Grimaud, who also wrote on superstition and witchcraft? I haven’t seen much commentary on this subject, but it seems logical. By the by, all of Carr’s footnotes in that “book” are real.) With that said, Joseph R. Christopher wrote an intriguing essay on the subject here.

Needless to say, perhaps, Mme. de Brinvilliers (Marie D’Aubray), Capt. Gaudin Sainte-Croix, Maître Nivelle, La Voisin, and Desprez (actually spelt Desgrez) were all real people, participants in the infamous Affair of the Poisons, one of my favorite subjects in history to study. I have found no evidence, however, of a later girl also named Thérèse La Voisin in 1737, or of a second Marie D’Aubray guillotined in 1861. Lady Anne Somerset wrote an excellent book (simply titled The Affair of the Poisons) on the affair in 2003, and Prof. Holly Tucker wrote a book as recently as this year entitled City of Light, City of Poison.


Let me add, too, that the Black Mass, which was performed in and around Versailles during the Affair, was as gruesome as Carr made it out to be–the details revealed by Etienne Guibourg and the others are, in fact, difficult to read.

Now to move on to the epigraphs. There are four in The Burning Court, and they’re all real (unlike, say, Ellery Queen’s epigraphs in The Roman Hat Mystery, which are all from a book by Insp. Queen!).


The first is from Samuel Pepys, the chief secretary to the Admiralty under Charles II and James II, whose diary is one of our most important primary sources for the Restoration.

Here we supped very merry, and late to bed; Sir William telling me that old Edgeborrow, his predecessor, did die and walk in my chamber, did make me somewhat afraid–but not as much as, for mirth sake, I did seem.

This entry is from April 8, 1663. We know that Pepys was very interested in ghosts and spirits–see the diary entry for June 15, 1663–and also that he was somewhat skeptical of their existence. “Sir William,” by the way, is Sir William Batten (Surveyor of the Navy), whom Pepys disliked, and “Edgeborrow” is Kenrick Edisbury.


The second is from the Rev. Richard Harris Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends, which he wrote under the nom-de-plume of Thomas Ingoldsby. It’s an amusing, witty collections of poems and stories, often regarding such “gallows” subjects as murder and hauntings.

Fly open, lock, to the dead man’s knock,

Fly bolt, and bar, and band!–

By the way, this quotation is from the poem “The Hand of Glory: The Nurse’s Story,” which I believe is a direct inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s “When the Night Wind Howls” (from Ruddigore) and an indirect inspiration (via the G&S song) for Buddy Baker and X Atencio’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts” (used in Disney’s Haunted Mansion). I should also note that Carr used the title–The Dead Man’s Knock–for one of his later books, which indicates (I think) that he was quite fond of this collection.


Our next source probably needs no introduction–M.R. James is probably the greatest writer of ghost stories of them all (at least, tied with Robert Aickman, in my estimation), and he has inspired detective-story writers as different as Carr, Christie, H.C. Bailey, Gladys Mitchell, and Ruth Rendell.

Lawrence was up in the bedroom one day, and picked up a little mask covered with black velvet, and put it on for fun and went to look at himself in the glass. He hadn’t time for a proper look, for old Baxter shouted out to him from the bed: “Put it down, you fool! Do you want to look through a dead man’s eyes?”

The story is James’ “A View from a Hill.” There is little more that needs to be said, especially as fans of detective stories tend also to be fans of ghost stories, except that Carr was attempting to emulate James’s style, especially in the matter of saying nothing and suggesting everything, in many of his more supernatural-esque works; and that James wrote what is probably the first detective story/ghost story hybrid in “The Uncommon Prayer-Book.” (By the way, does anyone know if a copy of Carr’s essay on ghost stories–“Things that Go Bump in the Night,” if I’m remembering correctly–is available anywhere?)


The penultimate epigraph is from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Carr is using it as foreshadowing, as Tom Cecial is describing his trick just as Carr will explain his.

“And where is your nose?” quoth Sancho, seeing him now without disguise. “Here in my pocket,” and so saying, he pulled out the nose of a varnished pasteboard vizard, such as it has been described. … “Blessed Virgin!” quoth Sancho. “Who is this? Thomas Cecial, my friend and neighbor?” “The same, friend Sancho,” quoth the squire. “I will tell you by what tricks and wheedles he was inveigled to come hither.”

I should also note that I believe Sayers used this scene as well as an inspiration for one of her best Wimsey short stories, “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey,” which I think impossible-crime fanciers will like.


The last epigraph in the book is from Thomas Seccombe’s Twelve Bad Men, a study of twelve villains and scoundrels from history.

The tendency has gone so far that one is led to ask oneself, not without the gravest apprehension, “Is there, then, no evidence of extreme depravity?” For the wholesale elimination of the utter villain from history could hardly be regarded save in the light of an aesthetic calamity.

I confess I haven’t read this one–though, looking it over on Amazon, it’s the sort of thing I like. I will note that, according to Amazon’s synopsis, several of Carr’s favorite historical figures–witch-finder Matthew Hopkins, hanging judge Mr. Justice Jeffreys, “Papist plot” organizer Titus Oates, and “gentleman-highwayman” James MacLaine–appear, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that he liked the book.


One more, and then I’ll pause and leave the rest of it (regarding The Crooked Hinge and He Who Whispers) until Friday, but…

William Makepeace Thackeray is most noted for Vanity Fair (1847-1848), but as a satirist he wrote a parody of the realism of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). The hero of Goethe’s novel commits suicide, and Thackeray writes:

Charlotte, having seen his body,/ Just borne by upon a shutter,/ Like a well-conducted maiden,/ Went on cutting bread and butter

–which, Carr writes, went through Ted Stevens’ head as he saw Marie in the kitchen.


Hope my comments serve some kind of purpose–the references have interested me for a long while.

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5 Responses to Notes for the Curious

  1. neeru says:

    This is a fascinating post because I have always loved how books refer back to other books. Thanks for pointing that Anne Somerset book. It would be interesting to read about those notorious poisonings beyond what I have read in THE BURNING COURT and Hoffman’s MILLE de SCUDRI.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Many thanks, Neeru, and apologies for responding so late.

      The Somerset book is a good overview; I think it and the Tucker book complement each other well, as they’re trying to do different things, the former telling it as an unfolding tale and the latter more akin to an inverted detective-story, with the focus on Nicolas de la Reynie’s investigations.

      The poisonings are fascinating, and an area I’ve read a great deal about–but it’s all in French! I’m happy that the Tucker book is out to rekindle [Anglophone] interest in the subject (I hope).

      I too love “cross-references” with other books; Carr’s works abound with them.




  2. JJ says:

    I — and here’s a confession that may lead to a raised eyebrow or two — don’t really go in for epigraphs. If an author is able to communicate some idea or concept or atmosphere in a 50 word epigraph that they can’t in a 100,000 word novel then they’re in the wrong profession. I’m always reminded of Colin Dexter who, when he was unable to find a suitable epigraph to start his chapters, would simply invent one…what on earth is the point of that?

    But, anyway, that said I do find the above a very interesting look at these ideas. I still don’t like them as a literary trope, but you’ve drawn out some interesting things in relation to my favourite athor of all time and I’m not going to deny that you’ve given me more than a little to cosider. For which, my thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My apologies for the late reply, JJ–between getting sick and doing a bit of travelling, I’ve been all over recently. Thanks for the kind words.

      I tend to like epigraphs as “cross-references” (as Neeru noted), especially when one sees how a favorite writer got his or her ideas. I suppose it’s less–methinks–that the author is trying to convey the idea than it is that he’s trying to convey his inspiration for said idea; regarding Carr, for example, I believe the epigraphs cited here are direct inspirations for The Burning Court in particular. (I also tend to believe that Carr learned about the Poisons Affair from Conan Doyle’s “The Leather Funnel,” but that’s a different story.)

      I agree with you that one should not create epigraphs, a monumentally silly (and needless) thing to do, in my opinion. Still, when one compares Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross” with Carr’s The Crooked Hinge… Ah, but there’s the subject of my next post.

      By the by: I noticed today that your and Brad’s blogs have disappeared from my “following” menu. I re-“followed” both of you, but do you have any idea why the blogs were (momentarily) no longer on there?



      Liked by 1 person

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