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.
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.
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.