Category Archives: Dickson Carr John

Castle Skull: John Dickson Carr (1931)

John Dickson Carr’s moody crime novel Castle Skull, as its title indicates, has an extraordinary setting. It’s an extremely visual novel which creates a doom-laden atmosphere even before we see the first corpse. The novel features the author’s series character, Henri Bencolin while the book’s splendid narrator is Bencolin’s friend, writer Jeff Marle. It’s largely thanks to the strong narration and Marle’s canny observations, that the story succeeds so well. The intro from Martin Edwards mentions that the creepy Castle Skull may be based on the twin castles “The Hostile Brothers,” in Germany’s Rhine Valley.

Castle skull

The book opens in a Paris restaurant where the wealthy Belgian financier Jérôme D’Aunay meets Henri Bencolin. Also at the memorable meeting is the narrator Jeff Marle. Marle recounts the meeting in retrospect, and we know from hints dropped, that death awaits D’Aunay. The meeting, set against the light, noise and life of a busy restaurant, is the last glimpse we see of normality, for after this everything sinks into the dark macabre. 

D’Aunay requested the meeting with “the celebrated juge d’instruction of the Seine” with employment in mind. D’Aunay explains that the task, if Bencolin accepts (and how can he resist?) “will be the strangest affair you have ever handled.” D’Aunay explains that his friend, the wealthy magician, Maleger, owner of the Castle Skull (Schloss Schadel) died while traveling on the train from Mainz to Coblenz. He was alone in a first-class compartment, and somehow his body ended up in the Rhine. Although there was “no possibility of foul play,” how Maleger fell from the train cannot be adequately explained.

But the plot thickens: Maleger’s heirs are D’Aunay and another friend, English actor Myron Alison. But now Myron is dead: shot three times in the chest, doused in gasoline and then ignited. His blazing body was seen running about on the battlements of Castle Skull.

So now D’Aunay is the sole heir, and he’s understandably nervous. He invites Bencolin (Jeff Marle goes along for the ride) to Myron Alison’s home, now occupied by his sister “the Duchess.” Myron’s home faces Castle Skull. Bencolin’s task is to discover who murdered Myron Alison

“I couldn’t refuse this case, Jeff,” he observed. “It’s bad. That’s the point: it’s worse than anybody suspects. You heard what he said about the body of Maleger–does it mean anything to you?”

I said, “There’s the obvious theory that Maleger’s death was a fake, arranged by himself.”

“Yes.” Still he stood motionless, staring after the car. “I only wish it were as simple as that. No; I think it’s worse than that, Jeff, and more devilish. More devilish…”

Castle Skull is dreadful, imposing and memorable. It’s the perfect home for someone who dabbled in the macabre.

The name is not a fancy. Its central portion is so weirdly constructed that the entire facade resembles a great death’s head, with eyes, nose, and ragged jaw, But there are two towers, one on each side of the skull, which are rather like huge ears; so that the devilish thing, while it smiles, seems also to be listening, It is set high on a crag, with its face thrust out of the black pines. Below it is a sheer drop to the waters of the river.

There’s a lively set of characters here–some of whom seem immediately suspicious, and the unusual setting adds a great deal to the plot. There’s the typical long explanation at the end which is common with the genre, but it is darker than most I’ve read from this period. 

Review copy

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Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

till-death-do-us-part

The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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