Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Gothic mystery on the Rhine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Rich financier Jérôme D’Aunay begs Inspector Henri Bencolin to investigate the death of his friend, Myron Alison. Alison died in Castle Skull, last seen running ablaze about the battlements. When his body is examined it transpires he had been shot before having kerosene poured over him and being set alight. Castle Skull belonged to the famous stage magician Maleger, whose own death many years earlier was somewhat mysterious – he disappeared from the carriage of a train in motion and was found in a river below the tracks. Did he fall or was he pushed? Or did he jump? He bequeathed the spooky Castle Skull jointly to his friends, D’Aunay and the actor Myron Alison and it has been empty except for an old caretaker ever since. Situated on the other side of the Rhine from Alison’s own house, the castle is built in the shape of a death’s-head gazing out over the river, windows placed to look like eyes, and the battlements resembling the teeth of the skull. But why was Alison there, and who killed him? D’Aunay doesn’t have faith in the local police, hence his request to the famous Parisian detective. But the local police have also called in an expert – von Arnheim of the German police, an old adversary of Bencolin’s when they were on opposite sides during the war…

The story is told by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s young American friend who acts as his sidekick. When they arrive at Alison’s house, they find an assorted bunch of people in residence – Alison’s hearty poker-playing sister Agatha, concert violinist Émile Levasseur, modern youngsters Sally Reine and Sir Marshall Dunstan who may or may not be in love, and D’Aunay and his beautiful but unhappy wife Isobel. Bencolin and von Arnheim are soon in more or less friendly competition to find the solution to the mystery, but there’s never any doubt in Jeff’s or the reader’s mind as to who will win out in the end. After all, it’s 1931 and we couldn’t have the German win, now could we?

This is the third book in the Bencolin and Marle series, written when Carr was a young man still learning his craft. Like the first, It Walks by Night, this is as much horror as mystery, although the decadence of It Walks by Night has given way to a rather more Gothic feel in this one. There is the same almost hallucinatory air to some passages, brought on by the constant consumption of vast quantities of alcohol – there’s almost a “lost generation” feel, especially to the younger characters: Sally, Dunstan and Jeff himself. Bencolin is frequently described as Mephistophelian, both in his appearance and in his almost supernatural ability to intuit the truth. Maleger’s magic was of the scary kind – Jeff saw him once when he was a boy and found his act terrifying – and it appears he liked to be just as mysterious and frightening off-stage. And the castle itself is the ultimate in Gothic – ancient, deserted, filled with hidden passages and secret chambers, and deliciously spooky.

John Dickson Carr

The plot veers into high melodrama – perhaps a little too high. I felt at points that Carr was trying too hard, piling horror on grisly horror, with a Poe-esque feel of madness underlying the whole thing. However, it’s very effective and the evil motivating the plot matches the wonderful setting of the castle perfectly, as it gradually builds towards a tense and atmospheric climax with some truly horrifying imagery. Jeff is an appealing narrator who gets involved with the characters rather than simply observing Bencolin’s methods. I didn’t get anywhere close to working it out – looking back perhaps it’s fair play, but I reckon you’d have to have a pretty fiendish mind to solve it from the clues given. Fortunately, Bencolin has just such a fiendish mind…

Marginally, I preferred It Walks by Night, but both are excellent, and in both the horror aspects arise out of purely human evil – no supernatural elements required. I don’t know whether Carr continued with the horror theme in his later work or went down a more traditional mystery route, but the strength of his writing and plotting suggests to me that he could have done either with equal success. I’m looking forward to finding out…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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16 thoughts on “Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

  1. It’s so interesting to see how Carr developed as a writer, isn’t it, FictionFan? For instance, his books featuring Dr. Gideon Fell aren’t nearly as grisly and horroresque as this series is. That said, though, you can see even in those early years that he had a knack for crafting atmosphere, and a solid ability to create a puzzle. Of course, he was awfully prolific, so getting through his whole list would be a task in and of itself. Still, even with a few examples, I like seeing how he developed.

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    • The name Gideon Fell rings a definite bell – it’s possible I read one or two of them back in my youth. And I believe I read a couple of Carter Dickson books too – all these nom-de-plumes make things very confusing! These one have surprised me with the strong horror content – I wasn’t expecting that and he does it really well. I’m looking forward to investigating him further. I’m sure one at least of his books is part of my Martin Edwards challenge.

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    • Yes but I’m a wimp too, so lots of people probably wouldn’t think these were too grisly! I’ve been surprised at the strong horror content in them though – wasn’t what I was expecting from him at all!

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  2. Grisly and horror aren’t always for me (particularly in modern film), but I think I might enjoy it in vintage crime/horror like this. Anything with “skull” in the title has to be pretty good. 😉

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    • I’m not into modern horror much at all, so anything that’s OK for me is probably pretty mild for hard-core horror fans. The good thing about vintage horror and/or crime is that it rarely goes too far. Ha yes, the title’s great as is the idea of a castle with teeth! 😱

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  3. Horror certainly isn’t my go-to genre, but I’m glad you enjoyed this one. You’ve done an excellent job piquing my interest by dropping hints here and there but never fully disclosing the story though. And I love ending the week on a five-star review!

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    • Strictly speaking these get billed as crime, but I’ve been surprised at how string the horror aspect of them is – they could just as easily sit on the horror shelf, I think. So many great vintage crime books coming out now – perfect for weekend reading! 😀

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  4. I’m not too sure whether I would dash to read this one right now, I need to be in the mood for Gothic horror, but the characterisation sounds good, so maybe some day.

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    • I’ve been surprised at how strong the horror element has been in the two books of his the BL has published so far – I’d always thought he was a straight crime writer, and I think for the most part he was, but both of these could fit into wither genre comfortably, I think. I hope the BL publish some of his later stuff at some point…

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