It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who casts an eye over the Ramblings that I’m inordinately fond of classic crime fiction. As well as the lovely British Library Crime Classic reissues, authors like Edmund Crispin and Agatha Christie turn up on a regular basis. So when I was approached by Kate from the Cross Examining Crime blog to see if was interested in taking part in her Reprint of the Year Award event, I jumped at the chance!

As well as Cross Examining Crime, Kate is also the author of two Golden Age Crime quizbooks as well as purveyor of marvellous Coffee and Crime boxes (I reviewed one here). You can check out her introductory post about the Award here, and basically a lot of bloggers will be nominating their faves, as will commenters on Kate’s blog. I have settled for a couple of books which were real treats for me this year, and today’s nomination is for “The Corpse in the Waxworks” by John Dickson Carr, which I read back in March of this year.

Carr is the king of the locked room mystery, and his usual detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, However, the BL reprints have focused on his Inspector Bencolin stories and these have been a real treat to read! “Corpse…” is the fourth of the five Bencolin novels; subtitled “A Paris Mystery”, it was first published in 1932 and has also been published as “The Waxworks Murder

As with many of Carr’s stories, this one takes place in slightly macabre, melodramatic locked-room mystery territory! The action is centred around the Musee Augustin Waxworks in Paris, and as the story opens Mlle Duchene, a young society woman, has been found dead in the Seine. She was last seen the night before, heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the waxworks; and shortly afterwards another young woman, a friend of Odette Duchene, is found brutally murdered in the waxworks itself. Odette’s fiance is distraught; her friend Claudine Martel’s parents likewise; and Bencolin begins to investigate. He’s joined by his usual sidekick, the young American Jeff Marle, who is also our narrator; and soon the men begin to suspect there is much more to this affair than simple nasty murder.

As in previous books, Bencolin is pitted against an old adversary; in this case, one Etienne Galant, a grotesque and arrogant man who owes part of his unpleasant appearance to a previous run-in with Bencolin. Galant declares he has no connection with any murders, and indeed has a perfect alibi for the time concerned (part of which includes being seen by Bencolin and Marle in a club!) However, behind the seemingly civilised surface of Paris there is the presence of Club of Coloured Masks where the demi-monde spend much of their time, and innocents can easily be lured to depravity. Does Galant have any connection with the club (which, conveniently, is right next to the waxworks)? How did the girls die, and why? Does their other female friend, Gina Prevost, have anything to do with the mystery? And is Mlle Augustin, daughter of the waxworks’ owner, as innocent as she seems? It will take all of Bencolin’s intelligence and Marle’s reckless courage to find out the solution!

British Library Crime Classics are the perfect escapist reading, and the Bencolin mysteries are particularly satisfying. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Carr’s prose and storytelling is wonderfully over-the-top, and he always manages to mix in so many spooky elements that I sometimes get a bit twitchy reading his books at night! There are plenty of creepy bits in this one, and the gruesome waxworks, with their rumours of moving figures in the dark, add to that aspect of the story. There are plenty of impossible crime elements, with locked doors, no exits and obscure motives. There’s also often a sense of real peril; Carr is very good at creating threatening villains and dangerous situations where we really fear for our protagonists’ safety. Jeff Marle, in particular, often seems to be setting himself up for a fall, and has many a narrow escape by the skin of his teeth. As for the mystery and its solution, well that again was very satisfying but not easily solvable, at least for me!

It was very hot in here, though electric fans tore blotches and rifts in the smoke. A blue spotlight played over the tangled shadows of dancers in darkness; it made ghastly a rouged face which appeared, dipped, an then was swallowed by the heaving mass. Moving in rhythm with a long-drawn bray and thud, the orchestra pounded slowly through a tango – that music which rips the bowels from a concertina and then sinks to whisper of brass. Another brassy cry of horns, another rise, stamp, and fall, and the murmuring dancers swished in time, the shadows reeling on the blue-lit walls.

So why have I picked this as my first nomination? Well, I’ve found the Bencolin stories to be a real discovery, as I’d only ever read Carr’s Gideon Fell mysteries. The melodrama, the slightly creepy feelings, the purple prose and the sinister villains are wonderfully distracting. But one of the things I particularly love about JDC’s Bencolin books are the strong sense of place you get. Here, Paris comes alive most vividly, with its grand boulevards and seedy backstreets. In a way reading these books is a form of travel in time *and* place, with the descriptive passages particularly evocative, and this was the perfect distraction and escapism during another difficult pandemic year. Vintage crime is a wonderful coping mechanism at the best of times, and it’s come into its own this year.

As a bonus, the book contains a short story featuring Bencolin, one of four Carr produced. “The Murder in Number Four”, is set aboard a train travelling to Paris, and involves smugglers, murder and Sir John Landervorne, Bencolin’s old friend and colleague. This is a very ingenious locked-room mystery, with an unexpected solution – one which is perhaps slightly unfair, as I don’t think the reader could be expected to get it! Enjoyable, nevertheless, and a welcome addition to the volume.

So I nominate and highly recommend “The Corpse in the Waxworks” for Reprint of the Year; it’s dark, atmospheric, dramatic, clever and wonderfully vivid and would be ideal reading for this time of year too! Check out Kate’s blog for updates re other suggested books and watch this space for my next nomination!