The Devil In Velvet
(The following extra was in response to a Red Room Creative Challenge to write about a favorite time travel story.)
My favorite time-travel story is The Devil in Velvet by Golden Age Mystery writer John Dickson Carr, usually known as the master of the subgenre known as the “locked room mystery.”
For Devil in Velvet, Carr stepped away from locked rooms to pen a bubbly and delightful one-off that’s part time-travel tale, part deal-with-the-devil story, part comic-historical swashbuckling romantic mystery that I like to think must have partially inspired George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman tales.
The novel opens in 1925. Nicholas Fenton is an aging, tweedy, book-bound Cambridge professor who’s become fixated on a murder mystery dating back to 1675 Restoration England that implicates an ancestor of the professor's. If only he could his name and restore honor and dignity to the Fenton line!
Who should flare up in Nicholas’s musty study one night but another Nick, the one known as Old Scratch, to grant Nicholas’s wish.
Unfortunately, Old Horny’s method involves transplanting the meek professor’s soul into the body of the main suspect, a 26-year-old impulse-driven, drunken, sword-wielding rake, also named Nicholas Fenton. (For modern movie-going readers, think the mind of Christopher Plummer forcibly fused with the body of Johnny Depp; older readers, Sir Michael Hordern inserted into Errol Flynn).
To say that this ignites a serious case of inner conflict (as they call it in writers workshops) and Yin v. Yang warfare is putting it mildly. The good professor must not only prove the innocence of his thoroughly disgusting ancestor, but must also save the murder victim’s life without falling in love with her, all the while trying to negotiate the seamy grubby world of Restoration England.
The results are tremendously entertaining, written with precise and vivid color, narrative dash, and great humor. The Devil in Velvet never ceases to enthrall and delight. (It’s one of those books I’d throw at Nabokov and Edmund Wilson when they start carping against genre fiction). I’ve only read one other of Carr’s novels, but according to some fans, this rates as his best. Seeing it through the time machine of my memory brings a smile.
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.