#913: “You people have the most cheerful imaginations…” – It Walks by Night (1930) by John Dickson Carr

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?

“Good point.”

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?

“Good point.”

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.

“Good point.”

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)

19 thoughts on “#913: “You people have the most cheerful imaginations…” – It Walks by Night (1930) by John Dickson Carr

  1. An insightful review, JJ, of one of my favourite Carrs. (In fact, it makes me want to read it again). Haven’t read more of Bencolin but really liked him in this and though this might seem a sacrilege to you found him better than Dr. Fell whom I’ve never warmed up to.

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    • Wow, one of your favourite Carrs?! That’s…impressive. It’s very good, and it’s certainly my favourite of the first four Bencolins, but I can’t say it would outpace Green Capsule, Till Death, Seat of the Scornful, Punch and Judy, Death Watch, Burning Court, Unicorn Murders, Reader is Warned, Constant Suicides, etc. for my own tastes. But, yeah, as a debut it has a remarkable assuredness in its manner and execution, and it surely ranks as among the best first novels from classic era GAD authors.

      As to not warming to Fell…well, to each their own. I hear some people don’t think Ellery Queen is all that hot, so it takes all sorts to make a world 🙂

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  2. Great review Jim, I think your analysis of what made his early work so successful (with some admitted over-writing) is absolutely spot on. Takes me right back to when I first encountered Bencolin in the short stories found in Doug Greene’s indispensable THE DOOR TO DOOM. I just have to go and re-read IT WALKS BY NIGHT again now, it’s been far too long.

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    • Thanks, man — I was delighted to enjoy this so much second time around, more even than my first reading, I’d say. It’s lovely reading it knowing how great Carr would go on to be, but even better being ale to find so much about this book on its own terms. Here’s hoping the BL continue to trickle out a few Carrs a year for a while yet.

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  3. Very nice review, Jim! I read “It Walks By Night” during the height of lockdown – perhaps not best circumstances to read any book – and, maybe as a result, I really remember little about it. I certainly appreciate Carr’s macabre atmosphere, laid on thick here, and Bencolin is an interesting character definitely in the Sherlockian mold. But, as I say, the plot remains pretty elusive for me (the final twist, of course, I appreciated) but the mechanics of the locked room puzzle itself elude me. Carr’s writing was always a little more florid than his contemporaries and his early efforts are even a little more impenetrable than the usual. I probably owe this book a re-read, but with so many other Carr titles lined up, I don’t know that I will be revisiting it anytime soon.

    As an aside, I just finished “Castle Skull” earlier this week and I enjoyed it for all the same reasons as “It Walks By Night.” Its puzzle was neat, with more than its fair share of Poe/Lovecraftian influence, and I’m glad Carr was arch enough to have one character call Bencolin “Satan Face” at every possible opportunity. Though it fell toward the bottom of my Carr ranking, I would lying if I said there wasn’t something about the aura of those early books that draws me back. “Lost Gallows” and “Corpse in the Waxworks” will be soon, I’m sure…

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    • I was surprised how much of this I had forgotten — as I say, I hope in part because ‘Grand Guignol’ loomed so large in my mind and that is largely the opening and the closing of this. Those investigative sections aren’t hugely memorable, but when you know where they’re leading you really appreciate the care Carr has gone to in slowly putting each ioece carefully in just the right place.

      Castle Skull is wild, and possibly one of the most fun Carrs, but difficult to commend as an example of excellence — however, it’s gaudy and very baroque, with oodles of atmosphere and some genuinely nightmarish visuals. I think Lost Gallows is better, and Wazworks is better than Skull but not quite up to Gallows’ standard.

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  4. It has been six years since I read this. What I remember and appreciate most about it is that Carr doesn’t stint on the Gothic excesses. The murders are truly gross! Lots of Poe here! And the second woman character . . . doesn’t she appear naked and act very nymphomaniacal? And she’s the good girl!!

    What damaged the book for me was the same thing that happened when I read The Emperor’s Snuff-box: they basically use the same trick (Gur zheqrere onfvpnyyl cbvagf bire gur yvfgrare’f fubhyqre (be gb n fcbg gung gur yvfgrare pnaabg frr) naq fnlf, “Bu zl Tbq, V frr fbzrguvat gung rkbarengrf zr sebz nal shgher pevzrf. Pna lbh oryvrir gung?” Naq jung gurl fnl gurl frr vf gnxra nf snpg gvyy gur irel raq . . . rkprcg ol zbv!), and it didn’t fool me for a second.

    Oh well! I have since collected all the other Bencolin stories, long and short, and one of these days, I’ll get to them. People seem to love the guy or hate him . . . much as Queen fans feel about Drury Lane (as you’re about to discover, my friend!!!!!!!!!)

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    • It is</i the same trick, but he lays it on less thick here, I’d say — about the only time he does, when you compare the two. Remarkable, really, when you consider that “restraint” doesn’t seem to enter Carr’s lexicon until about 10 books in.

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  5. While I think Waxworks is the best novel among the first four Bencolins, this is a great start.
    Young Carr’s style of writing was evocative, opressive and vivid, but extremely ornate and florid. Sentences didn’t flow as they should and his sense of timing and impact when it came to drop major plot bombs was a bit off. It’s pretty clear that he was still green but it’s a solid effort and, boy did he improve in the next five years!
    Anyway, I’d take atmospheric showy Carr over dry Vindry any and every day of the week. 😋

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    • Fair point, but don’t write off Vindry until you’ve tried The Howling Beast — if ever a novel deserved praise for its slow twist of tension and atmosphere, it’s that one.

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      • I did. It’s the best Vindry by far. I have a few left to read like Necklace of Blood and Friday Afternoon both of which I bought the other day.

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  6. It’s such a joy to experience Carr’s youthful swagger–and count me among those who prefer Bencolin’s edge over the softer shades of his other detectives (despite their superior cases). As in his radio dramas, these early ones seem to gain a bit more purity and energy by bringing Carr’s own voice to the fore. And, with their pretty obviously shared Poetic roots, it’s fascinating to see the connections between his and Woolrich’s writing styles.

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      • Indeed! For all Carr’s brilliance, it’s only when reading or listening to his radio plays that I think he’s not in need of a moderating outside hand.

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        • An interesting observation, that. The radio plays must have also been edited, one imagines, because they would have had to fit a precise time slot/schedule — so perhaps those were more edited than the books, where an extra page or five isn’t going to bother anyone unduly.

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          • Radio plays edited??? I don’t think that’s how it worked. Carr was a master at the craft of writing half hour radio mysteries, both in England and in America. Hell, the massive amount of work he undertook nearly killed him! Anthony Boucher and Ellery Queen could do it, too. These things had to come out fast and furious, both for the weekly deadlines and because all these men were also writing their books. I don’t think radio provided an editor . . . which makes the output here even more stunning!

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            • Like Brad, I had assumed it was the form itself that provided the greater focus there–but it does seem likely that, given the greater economic stakes at play, there would have been more eyes on those scripts, at least at the start. In general, I think his boiled-down tricks work really well in the short form, as does his ability–as famously noted by Sayers–to economically establish mood. And his slightly homogenous sense of character is less distracting than it is in the longer works. All told, it certainly is a stunning output!

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  7. I find Carr’s atmosphere is best appreciated on a reread. The first time I just want to get to the solution.

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    • This is a quite excellent point, and one that occurred to me when I was in the early stages of this. Then that middle section I didn’t recall at all hit, and I found myself drawn in as I usually am with any “new” Carr, only to be able to relax again come the closing stages.

      But, yeah, in general I’d agree, and it applies to all mysteries: we know the answers second time around, and are able to admire the construction better. And third time around even more so. And fourth. And fifth…

      Always assuming, of course, that we’re deprived enough f things to read to be reading the same book five times 🙂

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