Sunday, 16 September 2012

Penguin no. C2220: The Demoniacs
by John Dickson Carr

     The heroines in books were inclined towards the vapours; and so, admittedly, were many women in life. But the heroines in books remained verbosely lofty of virtue, a quality not quite common in life. The heroines in books met all misfortune or adversity with a patience and long-suffering which was not common at all.
     Well, but what if that were so?
     Could you wish any girl you loved to resemble the crafty prudes so admired by women who read secretly as they drank secretly? Moralists condemned both habits. Would you like Pamela or Clarissa if you met either of them? Would you cherish a woman who rolled up her eyes and moved on her knees at all times when she was not denouncing your evil intentions? You would not; you knew you would not.

The Demoniacs is set in 18th Century London in the time of John Fielding, the reforming magistrate of Bow Street, Covent Garden. Fielding had been blind for more than a decade when he succeeded to the role on the death of his brother, the novelist Henry Fielding. Despite his handicap, he continued his brother's pioneering work, forming the first group of detective-type policemen, the Bow Street runners. Prosecutions in those days were private affairs but victims weren't always keen to proceed, and a government desperate to deal with increasing rates of violence and crime offered rewards for the successful conviction of offenders. These financial incentives led to the rise of thief-takers, private individuals who could be hired to catch criminals.

Jeffrey Wynne is one of these thief-takers. He has attached himself to John Fielding's office, and he may be the only capable and honest thief-taker Fielding has, but this is never taken for granted, and Wynne is watched and followed, and always under suspicion. Inevitably the bounties paid for catching criminals were a lure for the corrupt, and there are known cases in which the thief-taker was also the one organising the crimes. The story takes place against this background of criminality and corruption, for in these early days of policing many things could be purchased if you had sufficient funds: a comfortable time in prison, a forgetful witness, a policeman willing to look the other way. And so a villain in custody doesn't necessarily remain there, the guilty often don't make it to gaol, and it is never clear who can be trusted.

It is not at the bidding of Fielding that Wynne makes his way to the heavily-guarded London Bridge late one evening in search of the home of an old woman named Grace Delight. His quest is a personal one, and he is not sure that he won't be tempted to violence, for his squalid existence as a thief-taker is necessary only because the family fortune was squandered by his grandfather for the benefit of this now-aged woman. And she must have fallen on hard times since, as the houses on the bridge are for the destitute, and a decent woman would only visit the area to call on the pins and needles merchants whose shops line its sides. But now that the destruction of the homes and shops is imminent - a plan designed to safeguard the old bridge for a little longer - Wynne wants to find Grace Delight before she decamps. He finds instead her recently-deceased body, with no apparent wound, and a face contorted in a grimace of fear.

He had a second reason for heading down to the bridge that evening. He was searching yet again for the young and fiesty daughter of Sir Mortimer Ralston. Wynne had lately been hired to retrieve her from the school of the French King's private brothel where she had headed under the illusion that it was a school for his private theatre, and he had only just delivered her back into her father's care when she had run away again, leaving clues suggesting she was heading for the bridge. He spends much of the novel in pursuit of Peg, as she is a headstrong girl who rarely acts with caution, and her first thought seems to be of absconding whenever her will is thwarted. But he also senses that she is in danger, and inexplicably, despite her aggravating ways and contrary nature, he is in love with her.

Over the course of one weekend the interests of Peg Ralston and John Fielding intersect, and become entangled with the death of Grace Delight. In order to both satisfy Fielding and protect Peg from her enemies Wynne must solve the mystery of Grace Delight's death, and then find her killer. His search takes him on a tour through some of the renowned sights of 18th Century London, including the Hummums bathhouse in Covent Garden, Mrs Salmon's Waxworks of Fleet Street, and the Ranelagh pleasure gardens of Chelsea.

This is a fictional tale of murder projected onto a conjectured historical background, and John Dickson Carr provides a brief chapter justifying all his inferences about 18th Century London. He may have been influenced by the sketches of Hogarth, for it is a seedy world that he presents. It makes for fascinating reading, although you cannot help but notice that this seems a rather aggressive age with no one behaving particularly well. From Peg Ralston, to Sir Mortimer, to John Fielding, every character has a problem with their temper and their attitude. No one is too concerned with behaving politely.

I really enjoyed it: the story is complex, fast paced, and full of detail, perhaps even a little far-fetched - there was too much going on to ever allow time for reflection on whether it made any sense - but it was certainly entertaining.

Sir John Fielding and Public Justice: The Bow Street Magistrate's Court, 1754-1780 by J.M. Beattie

By the same author:
Penguin no. 814: And So To Murder by Carter Dickson
Penguin no. 816: She Died a Lady by Carter Dickson


  1. This sounds like fun. I know a bit about the 'Peelers' formed by Sir Robert Peel, but nothing about the Bow Street Runners, or the Fielding connection. I wonder if I could find a copy of this,

  2. I've never quite bonded with John Dickenson Carr books but given this one is set near where I'm about to live in Covent Garden, I might give it a go.

  3. I've always enjoyed this one, though the characters can be awfully blockheaded!

  4. Anything that smacks of alternative histories sounds right up my street. This is one I need to read. Coming across books such as this or The Man in the High Castle make me feel a whole lot better about attempting an alternative history of the Spanish Civil War in my own novel, A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts.



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