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.