#605: Castle Skull (1931) by John Dickson Carr

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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…”

Bencolin is actually surprisingly mild here, an early encounter where he calls out a lying witness aside — possibly because the wider hints at his past gave Carr pause enough to humanise him, and because the clever back-and-forth of the plot is enough to sustain itself without Bencolin’s Mephistophelean nature needed to work the bellows (that “hearing the boat engine” routine mentioned above is surprisingly genius when you think about it…).  You can see how plot is becoming paramount to Carr here, too, even as he rushes to make it all fit.  Some clues depend on incommunicable information like how one character looked at another or the face of someone in a photograph, but equally the larger design is very keenly constructed even if I’m not quite sure it’s really competently clued just yet.  The patterns are worked out neatly and pleasingly until all goes a bit batshit insane in the final stretch…and while there’s a feeling that this isn’t quite taking place in our precise version of the universe — May 20th 1930 was a Tuesday, for one thing — I wonder if this might be a bit too much for the casual reader of Carr.  Though memorable it certainly is.

Castle Skull BerkleyAnd yet there’s a lot to like.  I remember, when I first read this, being convinced that a particular cheap trick had been played on the reader, only for the appropriate character to remark about two-thirds of the way through “Oh, heavens, no, we’re not doing that“, and while he leans hard into one particular trope, Carr also sets up and dismisses several others that many lesser authors would still be mining 15 years after this was published (hell, some authors still are these days).  There’s also that talent for incongruous, note-perfect description, such as a squirrel watching Jeff “like a nervous tourist”, and the glorious use of various depths of shadow to display far more than they obfuscate in chapter 10.  So while I’m not sure this is the best introduction to Carr, and while I’m not sure why the BL are publishing this, the third Bencolin novel, second having published the first book, It Walks by Night (1930), first, I am delighted to see Henri back on the page, and for him and Carr to find a wider audience.  Just know that the ingredients which make up that bizarro ending do get diluted pretty darn quickly, that Carr really is a master of the form, and that further reading will be necessary to see him at his best.

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UPDATE: Having now received the British Library edition as a Christmas present, it’s great to see that the BL have followed through by including another of the Bencolin short stories as they did in their edition of It Walks by Night (1930) — which included Bencolin’s debut appearance, ‘The Shadow of the Goat’ (1926).  While the von Arnheim-starring ‘As Drink the Dead…’ (1926) would have been the ideal coda to this, I’m more than happy to settle for one of the other Bencolin short stories, ‘The Fourth Suspect’ (1927).  The four or five early Bencolin stories originally published in The Haverfordian are so darned rare that they’re perfect inclusions as an incentive to Carr-ites who already own these novels in other editions, and I’m excited to see them added as a little bonus to the two books thus far printed.  It’s to be hoped that the other novels and short stories follow in due course.

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See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: Castle Skull lays on thick atmosphere, but it doesn’t quite approach the level of illusion of potential horror as some later books. Yeah, we get a creepy castle, and there are hidden passages (I’m giving away nothing), but Carr hasn’t yet figure out how to combine this with legend of horrors past to create a misdirection of something more sinister going on. With that said, we still get some great passages involving the exploration of the eerie castle during an epic thunderstorm.

Curtis @ The Passing Tramp: Besides being grippingly narrated, the solution is eminently fair play, I think.  One has to admire not only Carr’s ingenuity with murder designs — a skill John Street, for example, had too — but also Carr’s admirable clue placement, which at times rivals the great Agatha Christie.  My only complaint (besides the absence of a castle floor plan…) with Castle Skull is that the characters really don’t do justice the superb setting. 

D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: One of Carr’s great strengths was his genuine feel for the gothic and he gives it full rein in this story. Castle Skull is as forbidding (and spectacular) inside as it is from the outside, a place that has seen much bloodshed and many crimes over the centuries. The story itself is reeking with gothic atmosphere.

9 thoughts on “#605: Castle Skull (1931) by John Dickson Carr

  1. There were so many separate elements I loved about CS, but they never quite gelled. The ‘celebration’ at the end was superb. It struck the right notes of craziness, suspense, and horror–thoroughly enjoyable. Then, the denouement (clever as it was) limped onto the page. It could be we needed another proper scene between Bencolin and Arnheim. Their relationship is the most important in the novel (almost by default).

    You’re quite correct about the boat. It’s a wonderful bit of misdirection.

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    • Carr nails the various relationships here, and it makes it a far stronger book — as Ben says below, the plotting is much more solid than this sort of Gothic Pulp usually got, and I do think the series of orbits Carr sets up sells it brilliantly. But, yeah, the ending is loopy enough to turn you into a werewolf if it bit you.

      I love the skill of the implied depths of Bencolin and Arnheim’s previous dealings. There’s material enough there for a Flambeau/Brown expansion which I hope to never see; we know now that Carr put Bencolin down after one more book, but I can’t help but wonder if he’d foreseen the return of Arnheim at some point, given how quickly that esteemed gentleman simply vanishes from the page…

      I’ll be thinking about that boat misdirect for a long time. I think it just passed me by on first reading (or, more likely, the ending obfuscated it somewhat).

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        • Hahaha. Here’s some motivation for you to reread it, then: when they’re drinking cocktails towards the end of the novel, the particular mix being served is called a Golden Dawn — a name which, since the novel was published, has been adopted by a far right party in Greece. So I’m intrigued as to whether that name has been retained in the BL edition. I mean, learning the answer to that question renders the matter of the boat misdirection somewhat immaterial, eh?

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  2. This is really pulp mystery at its finest. You have the skull shaped castle, secret passages, evil magician, and that crazy ending – all tickling the kid in you – without the shoddy plotting and thinness that tends to pack much of the pulp I’ve read. Castle Skull gives you a legit golden age mystery mixed in with the fantasy.

    One thing that strikes me about the first three Bencolin books is the element of brutality. Carr of course writes mysteries and so death is inevitably dealt with, but there are parts of these early works that feel very stark when it comes to murder. Not that Carr goes into any gruesome detail, but he leaves enough to your imagination to where you can’t help but think of how awful it is. It’s interesting that Carr started his career this way, rather than going that direction in later years as culture changed.

    And man, the ending of Castle Skull really is batshit crazy, isn’t it? I was thoroughly lulled in by that cheap trick you mention (which of course is aimed at the seasoned reader). The ending caught me so off guard and I can’t imagine that any reader has ever seen that coming.

    As you say, this is a bit of an odd choice for BL considering there are only five or six Carr books in print at the moment (that I am aware of anyway). Of course, that make it a bit fun. Someone desperately needs to put out those first four Merrivale novels though.

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    • I didn’t even really get to the evil magician in my review — he earns a quick mention and then couldn’t be worked back in without another 300+ words. Having read Calyton Rawson’s Great Merlini stories since first encountering this, I did find it difficult to get the Gavigan/Gallivan similarity out of my head…but, well, I’ve had bigger issues reading books.

      I agree in every particular about the brutality and the insanity — perhaps because the method of the murder is so clear (shot, set alight — gleeps), there’s a real unadorned element to how Carr addresses it. As his impossible library grew, he became possibly more elliptical where methods of death were concerned so that he was able to mislead us by implication over explicit statement (there are, after all, several Carr novels where the victim dies by a method not suspected until the reveal).

      The plotting here is wonderful, too, until that Poe-tinged crazinesss kick it all over, and then it just becomes a bit of a mess. Some of it still chills the hell out of me, like the reason for him being set on fire, but it also feels a bit, er, late Victorian melodrama, if you know what I mean.

      And, in fairness to the BL, I’m sure they know what they’re doing with regards the order of publication. Hell, I wouldn’t have put out about half of what they have, and the series would have no doubt crashed an burned as a result. This is certainly more memorable than The Lost Gallows, and will give those able to take it something to get excited about…but, dude, I hope we also get a Green Capsule or a Seat of the Scornful, too, to show how magnificent Carr at full pelt can be.

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      • It was a good call by BL to skip The Lost Gallows. I’m probably a bit hard on that book because it was my first “meh” experience with Carr. In hindsight the story was fine, but it was the first time that I spotted the killer and the “impossibility” was weak.

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        • My next Carr chronologically is Lord of the Sorcerers/The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, but I’m tempted to reread Lost Gallows to see what I make of it now (not least because I enjoyed elements of this much more second time around). And I might as well do It Walks by Night and The Waxworks Murder while I’m at it. So it could be a while before I get to any new-to-me Carr…

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          • I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the run of Carrs between 1945-48: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, My Late Wives, The Sleeping Sphinx, and The Skeleton in the Clock. They have great setups (with the exception of Bronze Lamp), are excellent reads, and culminate in an exciting finish with a somewhat disappointing solution. In a sense, these are all To Wake the Dead.

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