Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

As I stated on Twitter recently, during this scary situation in which we find ourselves, “it may have to be classic crime”. Always a go-to for me in times of stress, I’m even more well served than ever before. In the past I would wallow in Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers to take me away from the real world; but nowadays the riches of the British Library’s Crime Classics are always on hand for instant relief, and fortunately I still have many unread. John Dickson Carr is a particular favourite, creating some of the best locked-room mysteries which often feature his famous detective Dr. Gideon Fell. However, early in his career he also created a wonderfully idiosyncratic investigator in the shape of Inspector Bencolin, and I reviewed his first case “It Walks By Night” for the #1930Club. Alas, there is no 1920 volume for our forthcoming club, but the British Library have just released another Bencolin case and it sounded just the thing to take me away from the everyday.

“Castle Skull” is subtitled “A Rhineland Mystery” and does indeed take place in Germany on the banks of the Rhine. The book was published in 1931, so in what was a troubling decade for that country; and indeed there are undercurrents in the book of national uncertainty. The adventure is once again narrated by Bencolin’s Watson, the young American Jeff Marle. The Belgian financier D’Aunay has persuaded them to travel to the dramatic location of Castle Skull (a journey which nearly kills Bencolin when the car crashes) to investigate the gruesome death of Myron Alison, an actor somewhat past his prime. The actor was seen on the battlement of the castle in flames, before plunging into the river below; and fortunately the cast of suspects has been persuaded to stay on. There’s Myron’s sister Agatha, a formidable women who can drink and gamble with the best of them; Sir Marshall Dunstan, a young nobleman; Levasseur the violinist; D’Aunay and his beautiful wife; and young Sally Reine.

Needless to say, this being a John Dickson Carr, there are all manner of motives, a surfeit of alibis and no way at all that the crime could have been committed (does this count perhaps as a Locked Castle mystery?) However, as with “It Walks…” there is a wonderfully dark atmosphere to the book; Carr was no stranger to sticking into his books hints of the supernatural and elements that give a shiver down the spine, but he excels himself here! There are twists and turns aplenty, thwarted lovers, wicked deeds and unpleasant people in the past and, rather entertainingly, a rival for Bencolin in the form of the chief inspector of the Berlin police, the most wonderfully named Herr Baron Sigmund von Arnheim. The duel between the two detectives to see who will solve the puzzle and find the culprit is excellent, and not without any number of twists right up to the end of the book. I’m afraid I was completely bamboozled and had no idea who had done what; in fact, Carr obviously anticipated that most readers would come to one particular conclusion about a character and their abili, and neatly subverted it, reminding both characters and readers how impossible that specific option was – I shall say no more! 😀

Looking back over the events of that night, there is only one thing I cannot understand. That is the mad gaiety with which we were all imbued. Throughout the evening – from the time the hangman’s cake was baked to that final terrifying scene in the room with the glass ceiling – we were possessed of a reckless and hilarious mood which was all the more appropriate for being grotesque. It struck us simultaneously. Our separate humours were such that we could plunge in with abandon, even though Death sat in a high-backed chair at the queerest dinner we had ever attended. But he was suave Death, rather like von Arnheim I fancied, with monocle and evening clothes, and he made a good dinner guest.

As Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, Carr was still in the early stages of his authorial career and the writing *is* sometimes a little over-the-top and melodramatic. Nevertheless, it makes for a gripping, absorbing, sometimes macabre and always entertaining read; I mean, how can you not love an author who says of one character “He was dressed offensively in a mottled golfing suit, with stockings of loud red and green.” Bencolin is a memorable detective, Marle a pleasant Watson and the solution of this one was most satisfying. The book comes with a rare early (1927) short story about Bencolin, “the Fourth Suspect” which is set in Paris and pays tribute to the works of Poe; once again I failed to guess whodunnit!

High up burned the lamps that night on the Quai d’Orsay, over the black Seine, the tracery of lights, the singing lights of Paris, as murmurous as an old waltz. Like all good Frenchman, Bencolin loved his Paris. He loved the pink and white flower trees, the hurdy-gurdies, the gaiety that is almost sadness.

So another winner from John Dickson Carr and from the British Library Crime Classics series. They’re a joy at the best of times, but at the moment are proving to be completely essential. I’m glad to see the Bencolin books coming back into print and let’s hope there are more in the wings!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!