#730: The Lost Gallows (1931) by John Dickson Carr

Lost Gallows, The

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It’s rather a coup of scheduling that the British Library opted to reissue this November-set second case for Henri Bencolin in November 2020, because there’s something distinctly eerie the fog-shrouded, darkening streets of the London of John Dickson Carr’s second novel The Lost Gallows (1931) that would, one feels, be lost if read in the blistering July sunshine (yes, thank-you, the Southern Hemisphere). Indeed, I enjoyed this one more at this second reading than I thought I would — in part because Carr’s melodrama doesn’t hit me so hard second time around, but I’m also going to cite “tis the season” as a definite factor.

Juge d’instruction Bencolin finds himself, with narrator Jeff Marle, swapping Paris for London this time around, where the disappearance of Egyptian man of means Nezam El Moulk from the Brimstone Club — “one of the most curious, and certainly most disreputable, institution of the West End” (a shockingly ungrammatical sentence from Carr, that…) — and the apparent ability of his chauffeur to drive a car through the streets of London when several hours dead, form the backbone of our plot. And the backbone is the largest part of the skeleton here, if you follow me.

It’s a thin plot, is what I’m saying, and the wonder displayed by Inspector Talbot at some of Bencolin’s deductions is a little overdone on Carr’s part as if trying to convince us that the puzzle is as complex as he’d like (“If I had committed a crime, I would rather have the devil after me than Henri Bencolin” — calm down, man). I don’t really know what to make of the various impossibilities on display, since they’re all slightly unsatisfying, and I feel Martin Edwards is generous in his introduction to label the vanishing of Runiation Street as one — we’re hardly in The Phantom Passage (2005, tr. 2015) or The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) territory, after all, since ‘Ruination Street’ is clearly more a concept than a place. Still, a couple of nice riddles (“Why is a book like a piece of rope?”) show Carr trying his hardest to make them as engaging as possible.

This second novel is really more the youthful Carr finding his feet tonally, with some magnificently overwritten prose so thick you can stand a spoon up in it and that still tastes wonderful going down:

El Moulk, Dallings, the woman of the nightclub, Sharon: little blind gods had them and were disposing them mirthfully. Not a spinning, not a design, not an intricate doll-dance, but a cataract — blind like themselves, and roaring.

There are infelicities, of course — and one in particular we’ll get to — but that youth (Carr was 24 when this was published, as Edwards points out) and enthusiasm will account for things like Jeff’s ornate description of an evening spent in Sharon’s company that has no bearing on the plot, or the on the nose dismissal of the adage “truth is stranger than fiction”. And the promise in this young man’s pen can be found in moment like this, where a corpse has been carried inside and placed on the only surface large enough, a snooker table:

I shuddered again when Dallings’s finger indicated the stain that was crawling across the green table towards one of the billiard pockets. Watching that blood, it was horribly as though you were waiting for a ball to drop there in a game, and wondering whether it would.

You can see Carr’s love of the Gothic rising every time he allows a paragraph to last more than four sentences, and the grotesque and bizarre creep around the edges in the like of the physically and mentally stunted Teddy, or Dr. Pilgrim’s story of what he witnessed through a conveniently-open curtain. The whole concoction is so brazenly weird that I wouldn’t have been surprised if come the end Bencolin had revealed himself to be Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief Arsene Lupin and sailed off in a balloon. As it happens, the closing events are possibly the aspect that I enjoyed the most — I remembered them striking an odd note with me when I first read this several years back, but having encountered much more Carr in the interim I’m pleased to find the final moments showing Bencolin at possibly his most supreme.

One infelicity we must address is that this novel was the only time I remembered Carr indulging in now unacceptable racial slurs and, upon reading this British Library edition, my memory seemed to be faulty: there were none. I went and checked my other editions — I have three, it’s a sickness — and, sure enough, the BL have quietly removed them. Now, I’d expect me to be against this (see here for an expansion of that point) but, let’s be honest, there’s nothing added to the narrative — and it would upset and dissuade more than a few modern readers — by having a character referred to as a “n*gger” on two occasions, and I think I’m beginning to change my mind on this point. I do find it very odd, however, that any references to that character’s race is excised — a photo of him in boxing garb in which “his black muscles gleamed” has the adjective removed here, for instance — as surely a black chauffeur in 1929 (we’re told the war ended ten years ago) would invite notice. But I guess this debate will rage on and on. However, for the first of these points, I do applaud the decision.

Anyone reading this for the first time might want to take a star off my rating, or should wait until The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932) is published by the BL in January 2021…or better yet wait for The Four False Weapons (1938) which is surely due to follow. Early Carr is an acquired taste, I feel, as he tries to bend his love of the macabre into the shape of a detective novel, and you’re not going to think him successful if your reading of the Golden Age is E.C.R. Lorac and some Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s the perfect stepping stone into the frank madness of Castle Skull (1931), but if you want to see what the fuss surrounding Carr is I’d wager the recently reprinted The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) or She Died a Lady (1943) are firmer first ground to break.

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A second good decision on the British Library’s part is the continued inclusion of the Bencolin short stories in the back of each novel, herewith ‘The Ends of Justice’ (1927). In a motif Carr would return to for the third Gideon Fell novel, The Eight of Swords (1934), we have in this a crime-solving Bishop who is shown the folly of his ways by the series detective — though, in reality, it’s not that complex an illusion to see through: Bencolin is very close to the mark when he decries it as “cheap and stagy”. But it’s easily the best-written of the Bencolin shorts, and the final page of this version is a great indicator of what Carr brought to the genre that was new. Wonderful to have this back in print.

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See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: Overall, it’s not a bad book – I may have given you that impression from my first few comments. While it may be at the bottom of my Carr list, it’s up against some fierce competition. The story was entertaining and the atmosphere was top notch. I just didn’t feel like it delivered on the mystery, and unfortunately that’s the most important part.

Mike @ Only Detect: Carr overdoes it plotting and on atmospherics, even as he leaves the story itself somewhat underdone. He packs a slew of complications and climaxes into 157 pages (the length of Berkley paperback edition that I read, pictured at left), but offers readers no chance to catch a breath or to enjoy the show. A tendency to mistake antic confusion for dramatic mystification was a besetting flaw of Carr’s, and it marks this engaging but too-clever-by-half early work.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Carr’s style has greatly improved since It Walks by Night. Even though lurid in parts, the prose is generally excellent, and gives the impression of moving through a nightmare, at once theatrical and melodramatic, but thoroughly entertaining. The only serious flaw is that Jack Ketch is far too easily spotted – this is one of the few times I spotted the villain in a Carr novel. Note also a very strange but effective ending.

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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)

40 thoughts on “#730: The Lost Gallows (1931) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I recall quite enjoying ‘Lost Gallows’, and I think my favourite Bencolin novel is actually ‘Waxworks’. For some reason I found ‘Weapons’ overly convoluted and slightly too long for its good, with that bizarre card gambling scene that made me roll my eyes.

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  2. Thanks for this JJ – not read it in ages and interesting to note the censorship as Carr was the one writer I would have sworn has never used a pejorative racial epithet. Must dig out my old Penguin and refresh my memory, clearly.

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    • This is why the use of pejorative terms stuck out so clearly in my mind, because I could not recall any other use of them in Carr’s work. Hence my feeling of slight confusion when none appeared in the BL edition, because there’s clearly one character to whom they would be applied.

      Anyway, it’s not like anything about the book is made weaker by removing them, and I almost didn’t say anything about it — I usually don’t — but having stood up in defence of not removing these terms and attitudes I was surprised to find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with it in this case.

      So, y’know, there’s hope for me yet.

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      • Ah, interesting. I thought I remembered some comments about “half-castes” in TRiW. Not read Crimson Blind. I’d assumed it was cultural blindness mixed with ‘youthful exuberance’ here, but that doesn’t quite wash for books published a decade later…

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  3. Yeah, I dunno about this one. There’s a lot to appreciate when placed in the context of the things to come. The atmosphere’s nice and the overall setups are intriguing, but the solutions are pretty lackluster and while Bencolin’s moment at the end is pretty good, he feels way too passive in the rest of the story.

    It’s probably the weakest of the Bencolin stories for me, but definitely not Carr’s worst or anything.

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    • First time around I felt the same, but this second reading cleared up a lot of my issues — it’s still not the greatest mystery, but it holds together as a narrative pretty well and is clearly infused with a boundless energy.

      Come back to it in four or five years and see how you feel then 🙂

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          • Joking aside, I don’t actually do a whole lot of re-reading. The only thing I’ve actually re-read in recent memory has been the Decagon House Murders when it was re-released by Pushkin and it’s been, like 5 years since I first read it.

            I mean, if I’m gonna spend time reading, might as well fill it with new stuph.

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            • I know what you mean — it took me a long time to justify rereading books on the same grounds, because there always seemed to be more to read and my TBR isn’t getting any smaller.

              And then ever so often I’ll read three duff books in a row and just want something I know I can rely on, so a Carr gets broken out, or I’ll be able to turn to a Christie for my ongoing Spoielr Warning stuff with Brad and Moira…and knowing I have that option really helped me power on through the duds.

              Plus, when the BL go to such great efforts to bring us more Carr, it’s the very least I can do to publicise the book to the eight people who read my blog in the hope that one of them might buy a copy and that sudden upsurge in profits will convince the BL to reprint even more Carr 🙂 Future generations had better be grateful…

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    • I think your comment nails my feelings exactly. Overall I recall it being decently written, especially the harrowing conclusion. The mysteries are really weak though – the impossibility may be Carr’s worst and the identity of the culprit seemed easy to guess.

      I read this as my 21st Carr novel, and the run of books that preceded it were sure to make anyone’s best of list. At the time I thought of this as being my first “bad” Carr, although in hindsight the writing is much better than most of what came after 1950. I suspect if I read it for the first time now, I’d look at it as a breath of fresh air. Apparently JJ did…

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  4. I would probably also agree that Waxworks is the most readable of the first four Bencolins, though I still think the identity of the murderer there is a bit of a cheat. But then, Carr often resorted to those…

    Can I trouble you for the chapters where you found those racial slurs? I’d just like to see how the Swedish translators decided to handle them…

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    • I think Waxworks is the most readable, Castye Skull is the best structured (until it goes cerrr-azy at the end), Lost Gallows is the most traditional, and It Walks by Night is the most imaginative. Each has an advantage over the others, but I can see why Carr ditched Bencolin and moved onto greater things.

      Feeling rather like Mary Whitehouse poring over a book for its prurient details, I can direct you to the middle of chapter 3 where the police are examining the contents of the chauffeur’s pockets and Sir John expresses his surprise at “a n______ chauffeur with a platinum cigarette case!”. There’s another instance late on, but I couldn’t find it. Plus, at almost every other instance of his appearance he’s referred to as a “negro” in the original text — so how translators dealt with (or avoided) this would be interesting to learn.

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      • In Swedish, we do not have two different words, we only have “neger”. And that’s the term that seems to have been used in all instances, at least from my cursory check. That word is definitely used in the instance you refer to above.

        The term was probably never quite as offensive as it was in English – though I’m not sure exactly how offensive “negro” is and was – but it has also fallen out of favour the last 30 or 40 years. I mean, even the Swedish edition of “And Then There Were None” had to change its title when it was re-published in the 2010s…

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        • No, see, I’m also not entirely sure how offensive “negro” is in this context — I would have assumed it was the era-appropriate term used to describe someone we’d now refer to as black. That said, I’m sure that I wouldn’t refer to someone as “a negro” today — that seems…very wrong — and so I’m now frankly very confused.

          Still, there’s no reason why “negro chauffeur” in the text here couldn’t have been “black chauffeur”, but I don’t want this to come across like a fixation, so after today I’m going to say no more about it. I’m honestly just curious, but I’m also aware of how things posted online can be deliberately misunderstood and misused.

          I’m fairly amazed that Sweden made it to 2010 before retitling ATTWN. Sure, it’s not as offensive, but I thought 1964 (or thereabouts) in England was leaving it late, and I’d have assumed that the title would have been adopted for foreign translations at the same time. Weird what we just presume sometimes, isn’t it?

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          • I enjoy these linguistic excursions of ours, so I’d just like to get this post in as well.

            The exact year of changing the Swedish title for ATTWN is actually 2006, when a CD book was published with the new name. After that, there was an audiobook published the year after with the old title. And then, finally, in 2014, when the next print edition was published, it came out with the new name. And all editions after that (well, there’s only been four) have kept to the new name.

            I don’t know how much debate there actually was over its title – I don’t really remember much discussion of it. However, that may simply be a mirror of how impopular the “pusseldeckare” genre was in Sweden.

            Our huge controversy regarding the use of “neger” instead took place over something very different: negerbollar. (Yes, “bollar” means “balls”. Yes, the translation probably sounds incredibly offensive in English.)

            It’s a kind of sweet or baked offering that is peculiar to Sweden, as far as I’m aware, and consists of oat grain, butter, cocoa, butter, sugar, butter, some ground coffee and then some coconut flakes. You can see a picture here: https://imgs.aftonbladet-cdn.se/v2/images/3bbee41a-9150-4a02-9bb8-07dc9fbeb367?fit=crop&h=750&q=50&w=1000&s=4d47499f36338c07747dadbfbdaca44f308eb92d. These inoffensive pastries are now called “chokladbollar” by all except the wilfully obstinate.

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          • Still, there’s no reason why “negro chauffeur” in the text here couldn’t have been “black chauffeur

            See, once you start you find that there’s no way you can censor books without butchering them. You end up having to remove all the non-white characters because you can’t find an acceptable way to describe them. And removing the non-white characters is actually much much more racist. You end up with the books being re-edited so all the characters are white.

            And then you have to remove any references to the Orient.

            After that you’ll find that The Maltese Falcon will have to be re-edited to remove Joel Cairo (too much gay stereotyping). And the you’ll have to remove Brigid O’Shaughnessy (too much sexist stereotyping). Gutman will have to go (fat-shaming). But then you end up with books re-edited so they’re entirely about white heterosexual men, which is more offensive.

            And in the case of The Maltese Falcon the Maltese Falcon itself will have to be removed since it’s an artifact of the Knights of St John and they were islamophobic and colonialist. So you end up with The Maltese Falcon being a book in which Sam Spade just sits in his office talking to himself.

            And once you’ve made the first compromise all the others are inevitable.

            The correct solution is NOT to censor at all, but include an introduction explaining the historical context and warning readers that the book contains things with which modern readers will strongly disagree.

            There’s also the problem that by censoring books you’re just covering things up. If Carr held views that are not acceptable today that’s too bad for Carr. We should present Carr warts and all rather than trying to pretend that he didn’t hold certain views. If we change his books to cover up the unacceptable concepts we’re just whitewashing him.

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        • I believe the term “negro” was inoffensive in the 1950s and 1960s USA, as indicated by the fact that both Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy used the term, as did many others working for racial inclusion and civil rights.

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  5. If there are any two of Carr’s works that should be read back to back, they are It Walks by Night and The Lost Gallows. There isn’t close continuity of story, but it seems to be the closest that Carr ever came. I always found it to be unfortunate that Sharon Grey dropped out of sight.

    Btw, have you read Poison in Jest? It features Jeff Marle and I consider it somewhat of a continuation of the Bencolin stories. It certainly feels more like a Bencolin story than The Four False Weapons, which always struck me as having more of a Dr Fell vibe. In particular, Fell’s early stories tend to focus on bizarre crime scenes more than impossible crimes (The Eight of Swords, Arabian Nights, To Wake the Dead, Mad Hatter…).

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    • Memory tells me that I read Poison in Jest after I read this the first time, but memory has lied to me before. I might make PiJ the Carr I read after I reread the BL edition of Waxworks Murder, because I can see where you’re coming from with them as continuations of Bencolin.

      And, yes, the return of Bencolin does have an oddly Fellian vibe about it — I wonder if Carr just wanted to knock some of the corners off his first sleuth so that he could be put to bed at last. Perhaps, since the room in that book is pretty crowded, Fell couldn’t have negotiated it without knocking a few things over with his canes, catching his cape on the curtains, and generally causing chaos…

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  6. Not a fan of silently editing any book like that. Part of the interest in reading old books can be the historical one. (In general and to see how author developed.)

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    • I’d normally agreeing wholeheartedly — and the complete eradication of the chauffeur’s race is an odd over-correction in my eyes — but let’s be honest: nothing is added to the book in either era by having a racial epithet bandied around by two characters the reader is intended to sympathise with.

      Were it used to show a character’s coarseness, or their intolerance, there’s an argument for its inclusion — and in that regard I’d agree that it should remain. In this case, my feeling is that the right thing was done…but, of course, this is the nature of divisive topics: they divide opinion.

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      • I disagree. It says something about the times and the author, which is interesting in of itself. Carr is a great author, but part of the reason to read his earliest work over other authors is to see the development of his fiction. Any edits make that element less possible. And it is a slippery slope once you start editing.

        Should they start removing Carr’s comments about women as well? (I certainly hope not.) In addition, it is fun to discover when an author has views that surprisingly agree with your own, but that element is removed if we don’t know if the element is original or it is editing afterwards that has made it so.

        But I am primarily objecting to silent editing here. They could mention that political incorrect language has been removed, that would satisfy most objectors without scaring anyone away. It is not uncommon for new editions to mention they have corrected spelling errors so silently removing not only objectionable language but changing the race of a character is deceitful in my view.

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        • Yeah, I see your point. I’m in a conflicted state about a lot of this, but I can’t criticise the exclusion of the offensive terminology — once it’s not there, you realise how needless it was.

          It’s a debate that will run and run, though, and I don’t think either side is wholly wrong.

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  7. If the British Library is going to start censoring books then that’s it for me. I won’t buy any more of their books. It’s a point that is non-negotiable for me. Once you start censoring you don’t stop. A little bit of judicious censorship is like being just a tiny bit pregnant.

    Sorry for the rant!

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    • Honestly, the “”censorship”” here being the reason to drop the entire lineup is pretty silly, imo.

      As JJ explained — and I agree with it wholeheartedly — the only thing that was removed were the slurs, the slurs did not add to the story, and it’s clear they weren’t being used to somehow add imperfections to the main cast, but rather just a product of its time. And while one can argue leaving them in “perserves” the original work, this particular reflection of society likely wasn’t what the novel was trying to convey, so what active harm does removing them do, exactly?

      And also, the experience of someone reading in 1920s and someone reading in present time is wildly different — with the latter having a bit of a harder time looking past the slurs and actively seeing the characters in a different light as intended, whether they liked it or not. If anything, removing them helped preserve the original reading experience.

      Consider this, too: if someone who had never read Carr in their life started with this book, with the slurs intact and everything, it is VERY likely that they would’ve made assumptions — both about Carr’s character, the kinds of people his detectives are, and the rest of his works — and decide he’s not worth reading. That’d be pretty unfortunate.

      This isn’t even a “slippery slope”; both because the change makes perfect sense to do here and because I don’t see the logical jump of going from this to flat-out altering intent.

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  8. The bishop in the short story is a little over the top as a caricature. I can’t see him as a friend of a spiritualist, here Carr seemed to just combined traits he disliked into one person without regard for coherence. I recall the bishop in the Eight of Swords as a more interesting character, I guess I will see soon since I am rereading Carr’s books.

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  9. Pingback: My Book Notes: The Lost Gallows, 1931 (Henri Bencolin, #2) by John Dickson Carr – A Crime is Afoot

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