The penultimate case for John Dickson Carr’s first sleuth, Henri Bencolin, opens with a wonderful demonstration of the reputation which that juggernaut of justice enjoys among the less salubrious sections of French society: ‘Bencolin was not wearing his evening clothes, and so they knew that nobody was in danger.’ The palpable sense of relief this engenders in all who see him as he travels from tavern to tavern captures the character with a clarity that shows how much Carr grew as an author over his opening five books, and augurs well for the Fellian delights that would follow soon upon the heels of this as Carr hared his way up the detective fiction firmament and into history. And it sets the scene nicely for a deceptively complex little book that almost feels like a short story in its setup, but is wrought into something more by the expert pacing Carr has honed in the couple of short years since It Walks By Night (1930), showing here his emerging talent for taking a situation that many others would struggle to fill 20 pages with and making every nuance and moment of its 188 pages count.
Paris in the early 1930s, and a corpse is found in a waxworks museum following the disappearance of a young lady from the same location. It will surprise precisely no-one that Carr has the creepiness of his setting down perfectly, and is content to keep you on edge with the kind of tacitly threatening backdrop that typifies his early, more Gothic, sweeps at the genre:
The very quiet of the place made me shiver. It smelt — I can only describe it this way — of clothes and hair. We were in an immense grotto, running back nearly eighty feet, and supported by pillars of grotesque fretwork in stone. It swam in a greenish twilight, emanating from some source I could not trace; like greenish water, it distorted and made spectral each outline, so that arches and pillars seemed to waver and change like the toy caverns inside a goldfish bowl. They appeared to trail green tentacles, and to be crusted with iridescent slime.
There’s still a slightly amateur bent to his writing — that use of ‘greenish’ twice in the same sentence above, for one — as Carr hasn’t yet got the hang of those simple turns of phrase that would chill the blood so effectively in his later works. Still, he gives us a cast of grotesques and aristocrats who are believably forced into each others’ lives and keeps you guessing as to the perpetrator of the murder in a very clever fashion, though arguably one of the clues provided much to Bencolin’s delight is not something we readers are able to appreciate until it is made explicit following the murderer’s reveal.
In a way, this reminded me of the apprentice works Robert Ludlum produced in his early years before redefining the international thriller in the 1980s. There’s a vacillation here between outright detection — Bencolin’s recreation of the central murder in chapter 10 is a marvel of atmosphere and deduction, and the character himself deliberately grinds out some beautiful misdirection to throw as sand into the eyes of others — and a penny dreadful, late Victorian hophouse thriller (chapter 14 is titled simply ‘Knives!’) which can be hard to reconcile at times. Of these two tones, the former is certainly the most successful, though it’s nice to see Jeff Marle’s mettle being tested in the latter stages as the thriller takes a larger chunk out of proceedings. In fact, Marle gets a full five chapters to himself towards the end, with no Bencolin in sight, and is even allowed a hint of romantic entanglement…so it would be nice to think that Carr’s loss of interest in M. Henri at least gave poor old Jeff something to look forward to in his later years.
The expansion of the puzzle is very well-handled, and you can see here a fascination with the intricacy of high society that would bring Carr back to the enticements of the proper airs utilised in is historical novels that he started writing in the 1950s. He loves his setting, and if the plot feels a touch secondary at times, well, so be it. It lacks the devilish machinations that would be revealed in, say, The Bowstring Murders (1933) or the cramped brilliance of Death-Watch (1934), but the important thing is that Carr went on from here to write those books. Had this been the final book he ever produced — bloody hell, what a horrible thought! — it would stand up extremely well against that which preceded it, so it coming across as minor in the wake of what followed isn’t really to be held against it. It is unquestionably a third-tier Carr, but that still commends it above a lot of other books you could read.
It’s interesting to reflect on the over-writing of this in light of how adept Carr would become in his later career, and part of me wonders how much his radio dramas had a hand in this. Having to set a scene simply by the use of background noises or the tone of someone’s voice would be a distinct step on from his gangling, twisting sentences here, and perhaps as he developed he realised how the same could be done with the written word in much the same way: the twist of an adjective could instil as much menace as the click of heels on a stone pavement, or simply describing someone’s running as “flight” and allowing the implied panic to seep in through other, equally subtle means, rather than detailing their helter-skelter dash from pillar to post for half a page. It’s not a reflection that sits well in this review, I’m aware, but it occurred to me for the first time while reading this and I wanted to share it with you. So it’s tacked on here at the end. Which thankfully isn’t awkward at all.
In January 2021, the British Library Crime Classics range continued its excellent work by reissuing The Corpse in the Waxworks and including the early Bencolin story ‘The Murder in Number 4’ (1928). Concerning the impossible strangulation of a passenger alone in a train compartment with a door bolted on the inside and the window open only a very few inches — certainly too small a gap for any grown man or woman to fit through — this might be my favourite of the pre-novel Bencolin tales. Firstly, that tendency to overwrite that I mention above has largely been curbed — despite this being an earlier work, so maybe Carr had been given a word limit — and the descriptions deployed are of the most delightfully Gothic hue and stripe:
On this run, too, there was once a fearful wreck; they say that on some nights, when you pass the place, you can see the dead men peering over the edge of the embankment, with their smashed foreheads, and lanterns hanging from their teeth.
You can see some callowness in Carr packing perhaps a bit too much in (the entire thread about the sighting — or non-sighting — of the ghost that looks into every compartment is needless, and requires the omniscient narrator to lie), but the tone is handled expertly throughout, and we even get something akin to good jokes, which would prove to not be a forte of Carr’s going forward:
“[The killer] didn’t go through a bolted door,” said Villon, smiling. “He must, therefore, have come through the window.”
“Wriggling a normal body through five or six inches of space while the train was in motion?”
“Well, he might have been a very small man.”
“A dwarf, yes. Where does your dwarf come from? And how is he able to strangle a man?”
“Why, from the roof of the carriage, possibly. They do it frequently in the American moving pictures.”
However, the other delight here is the truncated treatise on detection that Bencolin gives once the case is solved and the killer captured. The nature of the observations made, and how the different schools of detection are inferior to pure logical reasoning (though he spurns the word), are communicated with an efficiency and a clarity that already marks the young John Dickson Carr out as someone who was bound to do great things in the genre. Another brilliant decision by the BLCC, and a story that warrants buying this book a second time if you already possess it. Plus, that might persuade them to complete the Bencolins and publish the excellent The Four False Weapons (1938), too…
The Henri Bencolin novels by John Dickson Carr
1. It Walks by Night (1930)
2. The Lost Gallows (1931)
3. Castle Skull (1931)
4. The Corpse in the Waxworks, a.k.a. The Waxworks Murder (1932)
5. The Four False Weapons (1938)