With the superb British Library Crime Classics range having recently published its one hundredth title, and with doubtless many more books still in its future, the time seems ripe to revisit one of its most exciting reprints, It Walks by Night (1930) the novel-length debut of John Dickson Carr and his first sleuth, Henri Bencolin.
The excitement surrounding this reprint when it was announced sprung from the potential it opened up for more Carr books to finally find their way back into print — as indeed as been the case, with three of Bencolin’s four other cases and excellent titles like Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and The Seat of the Scornful (1941) following, and The White Priory Murders (1934) — and hopefully more — on the way. But it’s not strictly fair to It Walks by Night to evince enthusiasm purely on account of other books, since Carr’s debut, while not without flaws, does many excellent things on its own and deserves plenty of kudos for how confidently its young author wrangled so successfully with many difficult themes and ideas.
Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction mentions the “miasma of unreality which swirls around [Carr’s] storylines”, which I think might be the perfect encapsulation of what we have here: Carr’s Paris feels at once solid and ethereal, full of concrete physical geography to give you a firm grip on what’s happening that’s nevertheless positioned in a “Babylonian carnival through which [Bencolin] walked in the name of the prefecture”. The opening quote about “mis-shapen beast[s] with blood-bedabbled claws” seems to set you up for supernatural terrors that I know some readers were disappointed didn’t materialise, but does the impossible crime subgenre not carry with it an element of the eldritch anyway? Why else would these events be so fascinating, but for their being no immediate earthly explanation for their commission?
In keeping his at-times-too-florid prose on a footing between the mundane and the malevolent, Carr shows here an already well-honed sense in mixing contrasting themes to wonderful, chilling effect.
There was a startled silence. Bencolin burst out laughing. Suddenly he checked himself, and said, soberly:
“I beg madame’s pardon. I did not consider the matter at all comic, but I usually find that the ridiculous is not very far removed from black fear.”
Time and again, Carr finds contrasts in his descriptions that clash in ways which bespeak wonderfully of the effects he is orchestrating; reporters and photographers at the scene of the Duke de Saligny’s impossible beheading cast as “pecking chickens making a barnyard of justice”, the American Sid Golton blithely and drunkenly stumbling into the scene of the crime wearing a party hat and twirling a rattle whose “sharp rasping sound in that room of death, flimsy and foolish like the paper hat, intensified the horror by contrast”. And Carr does a wonderful line in subverted expectations of this nature, too, with our narrator Jeff Marle calling on the comely Sharon Grey and faced with the horror that confronts them in her garden:
The chill of dread was back; a sense of being alone and without weapons in this whispering place of death, a sense of having to stand and fight a host of creeping things with hideous faces. Well, damn them! — so I could. A pounding sensation inside. I shuddered clammily, and shook my fist at the trees. Then I saw, moving along the path from the hedge, the glow of a cigar. It moved up, it pulsed red, and ash was knocked from it as a shadowy figure came closer. Footsteps sauntered on the walk.
“My dear young fellow,” said the voice of Bencolin, suddenly and lazily, “You seem to make no more efficient preventer of crime than I.”
This discordance allows Carr to, for one, drop in subtle comic asides while in the depth of this nightmare without ever breaking his strangle-hold on your attention. See Dr. Grafentein (“a huge man, bulging out of seedy clothes… His skin was ruddy, and he wore square spectacles through which pale-blue eyes peered in a naively intent stare. When he spoke, his big bronze moustache blew out over a slow-moving jaw buried in his collar. He kept clasping and unclasping his hands, shifting his shoulders, and peering from right to left with near-sighted abstraction,” — almost like he’s the model for someone, eh?) who, upon meeting Louise Saligny, one-time wife of the murderer Laurent, now newly-wed to Raoul Saligny, “seemed about to assure her that he had made a special study of her first husband, omitting no gory detail”; see M. Fenelli, owner of the establishment where the impossible beheading takes place, “drawn up in offended dignity, rather like a laundry bag attempting to resemble a gold shipment”; see the lawyer M. Kilard, and his disdain for the “professional men from the race-track, swordsmen, boxers, and others whom we come to look on in this day and age as the equal of a nobleman of France….”. Glorious, all of it, and only a sprinkling of the delights on offer.
Having fully enmeshed you in the between-worlds nightmare of this hideous, intractable crime — “The back of the dress-coat was soaked, the entire shirt front crimson, and both arms were splattered so that thin red splashes daubed the backs of the hands…” — Carr then starts the second act with “a springtime to make you laugh at the cynical paragraph you had written the night before” and widens his investigation to take in the life and affairs of the Duke in the hope of finding the answers he requires in the daylight. This section came fresh and new to me, since my abiding impression of It Walks by Night came from its opening and closing sections…no doubt enhanced by, between my two readings of this book, encountering the story in its original novella form, ‘Grand Guignol’ (1929) in Bodies from the Library 3 (2020). For all Bencolin’s gall at the veneration of the policeman of fiction being “a human, patient, thorough worker, who often makes mistakes and is frequently baffled” — calling such an attitude “deplorable”, and giving us a window on the brilliant sleuths Carr would unveil only a few short years hence — these investigative sections are well-structured, well-written, well-clued, very enjoyable to read, and not without some magnificent moments:
We sat at that long table, in the gloom of the tall house which smelled of medicine and death, with our elbows among the roses….
Since Carr would go on to become a byword for the impossible crime, we should really look at this murder, eh?
I love the floorplan provided at the beginning — “(The plan is very important — please consult)” — and the moment the problem is laid out, having been able to build slowly in the consciousness as the details and position of everyone is established, is lovely:
“In short, there are no secret entrances; the murderer was not hiding anywhere in the room; he did not go out by the window; he did not go out the salon door under my watching, nor the hall door under Francois’ — but he was not there when we entered. Yet a murderer had beheaded his victim there; we know in this case above all others that the dead man did not kill himself.”
And, as later events proved, Bencolin spoke the absolute truth.
You can feel Carr’s excitement at the italicised sentence — yes, he’d written impossibilities before for his school magazine, but this is a man with grand plans for the genre announcing himself to the world, and he wants you to know the ingenuity you’re about to revel in. All this said, my memory here — as with The Plague Court Murders (1934) before rereading it recently — was that the actual workings of the crime were explained in a little more detail than we actually get. You can broadly figure it out, of course, and it’s a distinct improvement on the way the explanation is given (and indeed reached) in ‘Grand Guignol’, but I remember being amazed when reading that explanation for the first time…and I was very slightly confused this time around. Clearly the intervening years have allowed me to add my own details, but I’m surprised to find I’ve done this now twice with Carr. How many other explanations’ given details am I remembering inaccurately? Do I want to find out??
Finally, a few words about our detective, Juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin. He’s been at best my fourth-favourite of Carr’s sleuths for some time now (it goes Fell, Merrivale, Kinross, then either Gaunt or Bencolin, if you’re interested), but it’s always fun to revisit a character’s debut and see how much of their original form they retained…which is why ‘The Dead Planet’ (1963) from Doctor Who is so fascinating, if you’ll allow me that momentary diversion. Carr would seek to de-escalate Bencolin in the years ahead, but this time around he’s not as abrasive as elsewhere: even taking the time to make a joke (“I am inclined to think that the American Volstead Act was the worst law in the history of France.”) and going surprisingly John Thorndyke in the closing stages with his talk of acetic acid and ferro-cyanide. He is also very much the voice of reason to Jeff Marle’s sudden urge to strangle one character when an especially heinous string to their bow is revealed, and seems to view his American appendage as a scamp to be tolerated in all things.
Maybe because he changed so much — Bencolin here is not the Bencolin of The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932), and Carr’s conscious decision to dial back his aggressive tendencies for The Four False Weapons (1938) marks another shift — I’ve never really felt that sure of what he represented as a character, where the moral line fell with him. But then I also enjoyed It Walks by Night this time around even more than I had at first reading, and am happy to call this my favourite of M. Bencolin’s first four cases even if I can’t get a handle on the man himself…so why fret about it too much?
That Carr capitalised on the promise of his debut is beyond doubt. Sure, even his most ardent fans will fail to agree on the man’s best book, or best ten books, but that in part shows the fecundity of imagination and talent that he brought to the genre. If, like me, you were excited for It Walks by Night because you were looking past it to these other titles, waiting to see what was coming and wondering if it was one of the ones you would pick, it might be worth going back to It Walks by Night itself and paying credit to this text for what it is: a startlingly mature and composed opening salvo from a man who would, little did we know it, go on to reinvent the grandest game in the world, and more than worthy of attention and credit on its own terms.
To add to the excellent job of these reprints, the British Library has also included a short story of Carr’s from his school days as an appendix to each of the Bencolin novels. This volume contains Carr’s maiden effort, ‘The Shadow of the Goat’ (1926), the true debut of (a version of…) Henri Bencolin. Concerning the murder of M. Jules Fragneau at his home — a sprawling house “built when William the Norman darkened England with a hurricane of swords, and [with] clanking ghosts in its halls” — the story becomes compelling “[b]ecause, you see, the only man who might have killed Fragneau walked through a pair of locked shutters at ten o’clock last night”. Oh, and then vanished into thin air after attacking someone else in their bedroom.
Carr was 19 or 20 when he wrote this, so it’s allowed to lean a little into the hoary side of the genre — would the…central trick really work? — but it’s also fun, creative, and full of wonderful atmosphere (“Fog had made London medieval again, a place of towers and footsteps and dim figures.”) that plays with light and shadow in a manner that echoes (or…foreshadows) the contrasts utilised so skilfully above. And the sense of anticlimax come the end is the perfect summary for the sometimes deflating experience of seeing the curtain of an impossible crime drawn aside for rationality to race in and sweep aside unreason and superstition:
All the elaborate mummery that had been gone into seemed cheap and tawdry as a music hall illusion. Here was simply a felon.
We even get a sense of Carr’s pleasure in laying his impossibilities bare before his readers with an almost verbatim repetition of a key line discussed above — “And, as later events proved, Sir John spoke the absolute truth“. Yes, it’s tempting to see this as over-praised because of who Carr would go on to become, but there can also be little doubt that, as with the book it appends, the signs here point to very promising things. And we can all breathe a sigh of relief that those things came to pass. Good lord, imagine a world in which John Dickson Carr didn’t write his novels of detection — who’d want that?!
An excellent inclusion from the BL; kudos to all involved in making it happen.
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)