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.
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.