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.
And 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.
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.
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.