I’m being a bit cheeky here, using what I believe will be the cover for the British Library Crime Classics reissue of this due out early next year when it’s not actually my copy — I’ll show that below — but, c’mon, it’s a thing of beauty. The skull-shaped castle the title promises and narrative delivers has been somewhat done to death in previous editions, and it’s nice to see someone being a little more liberal in their interpretations. Though, now I’ve said that, the BL will change the cover ahead of its January release to a castle made entirely of skulls, presided over by a man made of skulls, punching Skeletor with a skull-shaped boxing glove.
An argument could be made that these early books featuring Henri Bencolin don’t show John Dickson Carr at his best. While you’ll find no argument from me there — c’mon, the guy wrote some of the frank masterpieces of the genre — I also think the Bencolin novels have about them the sort of gaudy, eye-catching motifs that make them a great inclusion in the BLCC series (which has, after all, been so successful on account of its diversity). Castle Skull (1931) gives us a faded actor found shot and burned to death on the ramparts of a skull-shaped castle on an inaccessible cliff overlooking the Rhine…what’s not to love?! For all the Gothic overtones — and, good grief, doesn’t Carr ever emerge as a disciple of Poe — there’s some solid detection, some nice clewing, and a couple of engagingly creative moments that, with hindsight, show how Carr was probably always going to be something special.
Myron Alison, then, is our actor, who was left the castle by the famed magician Maleger and who, having one night travelled over from his home on the other side of the river, is later seen running around the outside of the castle on fire. Two servants from the house are dispatched, and discover that Alison’s corpse was shot three times before being set aflame. The sound of a boat below alerts them to the fact that one of the weekend guests must be leaving the island which houses the castle, and who but the killer would wish to avoid detection? And so Bencolin is called in, and brings young Jeff Marle with him to investigate.
The household is made up of the usual GAD fare — a puckish Bright Young Thing, an eternal triangle, the sister of the deceased (named Agatha and with a love of black cigars — surely a nod to the two grande dames of GAD, no?), a mysterious violin-playing foreigner, etc — and they’re a largely featureless bunch, with the relationships between them more compelling than the people themselves. And, proving that he’s not above a trope or two, we even get the old Rival Detective Who Is Also Trying to Solve the Case, apparently a requirement for an early book featuring your series detective (cf. The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), The Murder on the Links (1923), Case Without a Corpse (1937)). Although Bencolin shares fascinating history with Herr Baron Sigmund von Arnheim, Chief Inspector of the police of Berlin, rich enough to be a disappointing prequel TV series if anyone’s interested in developing it:
Both of them had directed their lamps at the floor, so that I could see only two dim shapes. “I sometimes wish,” [von Arnheim] went on musingly, “that my friend Bencolin would do something in this world without a reason behind it. I wish he would play a joke, for no reason except that it was a joke. I wish he would go to a theatre, for no reason except that he wanted to see a play. I wish that he would have a whim behind which there was no devilish cause…”