To finish off the Tuesday Night Blogger’s month long look at the work of John Dickson Carr I have decided to read It Walks by Night (1930), Carr’s first detective novel which is also his first novel featuring Parisian director of the police Henri Bencolin and also my first experience of this fictional sleuth (so a lot of firsts all round). As well as giving my thoughts on the novel I am also going to take a look Bencolin, a detective who superficially seems very different from Carr’s more famous creations Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but who underneath does have some similarities.
It Walks by Night is set in Paris, 1927 and is narrated by Jeff Marle, who is an American friend of Bencolin’s and Bencolin in fact knew Marle’s father. Like Doctor Watson, Bencolin invites him into an unusual case in terms which feel reminiscent of Holmes: ‘I had come up from Nice in response to a wire from Bencolin saying merely that there was danger ahead, and was I interested?’ Having a Watson figure is not something Carr frequently used in his novels, though the use of one did help Carr in his debut effort to delay the revelation of important information, which would have come out much sooner if for instance Bencolin had been narrating the story. The case Bencolin is involved in centres around an athlete of legendary proportions called Raoul de Saligny. He has just that day married Louise, but her first husband, Alexandre Laurent was committed to an asylum as a criminally insane murderer after he tried to attack his wife with a razor. This insanity is not necessarily visible from his appearance and in fact he is an accomplished linguist. 10 months previously he escaped from his asylum and Bencolin is aware of his visit to the plastic surgeon, Dr Rothswold, who was found murdered a month ago. Laurent is now believed to be in Paris and prior to Raoul’s wedding he is sent a threatening letter urging him not to marry Louise and disturbingly intimating that Laurent is already close to them but unrecognisable.
Bencolin amongst others head to a gambling establishment, providing police protection as Raoul and Louise attend there, joined with a few friends including Edouard Vautrelle. Louise has already had a terrifying moment earlier in the day when she swears she saw Laurent in her bathroom, dropping a trowel, which shows from the very start that Carr enjoyed including bizarre and odd details into events. This novel also shows Carr’s initial grappling with locked room and impossible crime subgenre as within an hour of arriving at the gambling joint, a waiter finds Raoul dead in the unused card room, his head decapitated. The murder weapon is not hard to discover, it being one of the large swords hanging on the wall – but due to the position of the body how did the murderer get Raoul to bend his head so willingly? Clearly someone he knew but with the window inaccessible and both doors being watched how did the murderer enter or leave the room? This scene is brilliantly capped off with a drunken American named Sid Golton, who due to his drunkenness can get away with saying the most awkward and embarrassing of things – only someone drunk could congratulate a woman on her marriage as she looks at her husband’s dead body and then commiserate with Vautrelle for missing his chance with her.
Further tantalising pieces of information are to follow such as the mysterious person Raoul was supposed to meet at 11:30pm and the leaving behind of a copy of Alice in Wonderland. It is not surprising that Bencolin says:
‘Messieurs, the fates are intoxicated. They are throwing custard pies. They are splitting their celestial sides with mirth at the spectacle of one man who pays a visit in order to drop trowels on the floor, another who leaves a copy of Alice in Wonderland in a gambling casino, and still a third who placidly reads the book while a murderer prepares a feast of blood in the next room. There must be some sanity to the play somewhere…’
Moreover, early on there are discrepancies in key witness statements and Raoul and Louise’s drug taking habits also become apparent. Marle, investigating some of the floors above the crime scene comes across another piece of the puzzle when he finds Sharon Grey, who it seems was having affair with Raoul and had an appointment to meet him at 11pm. She too had had a creepy experience when a mysterious figure in the dark tells her that Raoul won’t be coming as he has ‘another appointment with the worms.’ Sparks of a quarrelling and romantic nature pass between Marle and Sharon who invites him to dinner, something which riles Vautrelle who is also supposed to have an understanding with her. It is at this dinner where the second death occurs and the way the body is discovered is a brilliant piece of chilling writing, with just a hint of dark humour at the grotesque.
The solution is startling in one respect and has a very impressive first impact. However, as the other parts of the solution are revealed, some doubts do creep in. Bencolin does allay some of these queries, but there is still one niggle I have with it. One problem I had with the second part of the solution was that a significant amount of forensic evidence is withheld from the reader. Obviously this is to stop the identity of the killer being revealed too soon, but on the other hand it diminishes the impressiveness of how Bencolin found out who the killer was. Although developed much more in later Carr novels, Carr’s first novel already shows Carr’s interest in portraying the ambiguity of the moral characters of the guilty and the victims, with the distinctions between good and bad being blurred. There feels like there is a thread of madness which runs through the story and culminates in the final sentence which is ambiguous in its openness.
In this first novel, Carr alludes to a number of different literary texts, some from within the mystery genre such as Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and some which are not such as Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. His use of these allusions reflects his newness to the task of writing a mystery as I think he reveals a lot through them, depending on how familiar the reader is with the texts. Being very familiar with one of them I was able to pick out the killer, though this did not enable me to place this killer within the full context of the solution. Although on the other hand the references to Poe did work atmospherically due to the story being situated within Paris. In his later works Carr does still include literary allusions but I think he is more adept at how he uses them so they add to the puzzle without revealing too much about the central mystery.
Overall I found Bencolin an enjoyable detective and I liked how he was not this larger than life character and nor was he an excessive maverick like Dr Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale. I think Carr tries to give him a sense of Parisian charm saying that his:
‘twirled hair, the pointed beard, the wrinkled eyes, and the inscrutable smile were known wherever he chose to go; whatever happened, his expression was always that of one meditating over a glass of wine.’
Moreover, Bencolin does seem to fulfil the Holmesian role coming across as infinitely more intelligent than his friend Marle, which Marle himself acknowledges when he says that Bencolin ‘continued patiently, as though he were explaining it to children.’ Although it does seem to me that a key part of Bencolin’s detecting skills is earwigging. However, like Carr’s other serial sleuths Bencolin prefers to rely on himself and withhold his theories until the end when he can impress those around him, which Marle points out when he says that Bencolin ‘was playing his own dark game, and playing… a lone hand.’
One thing that did strike me when I was reading this novel was how Bencolin is aligned with the devil in some of Marle’s descriptions of him. For example Marle says that Bencolin’s ‘face had the terrible triumph of Satan beholding at last the weakness in the armour of Michael, and the dart of his eyes was like the lunge of a conquering spear.’ I thought this was an unusual biblical allusion to make as normally detectives are seen as the heroes or the good guys, yet in this allusion Bencolin is being linked to Satan. One reading of this could be that in the interactions between the Archangel Michael and Satan in the Bible, especially in their fight mentioned in the book of Revelations, Michael comes out victorious. This allusion is placed at the start of the novel when Bencolin is unsure what to make of the case so when he suddenly gets some inspiration as to the solution it could be argued that his sense of triumph is akin to how Satan would feel if he managed to reverse the outcome of his fight with the Archangel Michael. This reading is perhaps also supported by a later description of Bencolin when it is said that ‘on his face was a devilish smile of triumph.’
An aspect I did not appreciate in Bencolin (though was thankfully limited to one place in the book) was his advocating of short term relationships and flings, advising Marle that ‘each dawn [he should] find a new nymph beside… [him].’ Part of me did wonder whether this was included in Bencolin’s character due to Carr’s own impression of how the French view relationships. Though on the subject of national character I did find it interesting that Carr does not present his homeland or its inhabitants that favourably in the story, such as Bencolin typifying American police work as being completed using ‘stool pigeon[s]’ and the ‘third degree.’
Overall I did enjoy this book, despite some qualms and I thought considering Carr often gets criticised for his characterisation skills, he actually did a good job in my opinion in describing his characters in this book with many an enjoyable phrase. This was also an interesting book to read in regards to examining which particular features Carr would go on to develop such as his use of the gothic and magical and the bizarreness of his crimes and solutions and which aspects he would let go such as the use of the Watson narrator. A line which caught my eye was when Marle was dressing for dinner with Grey and he says he was ‘fighting a dress tie before a mirror which on that magic night reflected my image as I should have liked it to be, for all the world like an author reflected in his book.’ It is a line which still puzzles as it leaves me wondering how much Carr is reflected in his first detective novel.
4.5/ 5 Narrative style and characterisation + one half of solution
3/5 for lack of impressiveness in Bencolin’s discovery of who the killer is.