Note to self: If you are going to persevere with this blogging thing, you really need to keep up to date with reviews. It’s no use having a title and a blank document for weeks on end!
What does this say about my reaction to this landmark novel? Well…some thoughts and reviews just fly off the page but others are difficult to start or it’s unclear what my opinion really is. In this instance, on reflection, it’s probably more a case of my inefficiency and I can now set out my thoughts on the first detective novel of the legendary John Dickson Carr.
Firstly, hats off to British Library Crime Classics on a number of fronts. Their efforts in preserving and reissuing so many “lost” gems deserve so much credit. Plus the actual physical products themselves are so well realised: beautifully presented; every one of them a joy to hold. Here, the book cover depicts a night time view of the Place de la Concorde, evoking the Parisian setting of the narrative as well as the title. Now how about that title? Well a lot of the important action takes place at night (tick). But what is “it” that walks. OK – the main characters walk but they are not “it”. Actually, “it” is the werewolf that is referred to early in the story but then rapidly disappears never to be mentioned again. Readers who possessed the edition showing those monstrous hands (paws?) (see illustration above) must have been sorely disappointed. So let’s just say the title isn’t the best feature of this book and move on.
Atmosphere. Amongst the golden age authors, no-one evokes a sense of place, setting and feeling quite like John Dickson Carr. Whether this is what Paris in the late 1920s was really like hardly matters: it feels as if it is Paris in that era, particularly the seamier side of things. The gambling den which is the scene of the baffling, locked room, decapitative murder of the Duc de Saligny is beautifully brought to life. Carr’s prose gives an amazingly descriptive sense of the seedy ostentation of the place: I get a sense of over the top decoration, excessively grandiose on the surface but grubby up close. The nightclub may be brightly lit but all is dark in this story of passion, retribution and horror in Paris. There is a real sense of the macabre, and especially in the description of the murders.
Our protagonist is Henri Bencolin, Carr’s non-Fell, non-Merrivale early sleuth. This is a calmer and more Holmesian style of detective, assisted by Jeff Marle, an American in Paris, as his Watson. Like Holmes, Bencolin is very confident in his own abilities, which are considerable. The reader is not surprised that the Duc becomes a victim, given the retribution promised by his new bride’s former husband who – for good measure – is insane, has escaped from an asylum, has committed murder to do so and is on the loose in Paris. Plus – we can add some plastic surgery into the equation so he could be (within reason) anyone! He’s also a linguist so can probably knock out some decent impersonations. Heaven on wheels – what more can you want in a whodunnit?
I find Carr incredibly easy to read and I’m not sure why as he packs so much description and plot into a “small space”. It must be pacing – or something. Whatever it is, it all flows very nicely. And these characteristics are there even in this, his first detective novel. Amazing.
So this is the first locked room mystery of the greatest exponent of the sub-genre. And it’s a strong start. The solution is at once ingenious yet so incredibly simple. Things are never quite what they seem in Carr’s work and this had me completely baffled. A very subtle feat of misdirection by the master.
This novel seems to occupy a place fairly low in the Carr / Dickson hierarchy with the word “overlooked” often applied to it. This is a measure of the sheer quality of his output that a novel possessing all the essential ingredients of a great mystery is in the third division of output. More sobering is the fact that this new edition has only just been reissued and must have been rather difficult to come by for a considerable period. I find it incredible that so many exceptional works are out of print and difficult to get hold of. With little known authors it is understandable but established and recognised masters such as Carr, Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley etc. suffer from problems with availability of even their most celebrated works. I guess it’s supply and demand. Which is why we need to do as much as we can to publicise the virtues of these golden age classics: in order to create the demand!
And on that note, perhaps I’ve now solved the mystery of the “draft review that is simply a title” that I began this post with as I find I have run out of things to say. In summary – recommended!
Where is that werewolf?