The Lost Gallows (Inspector Bencolin) by John Dickson Carr

Hanging out with Jack Ketch…

😀 😀 😀 😀

M. Henri Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, is visiting London with his young American friend Jeff Marle. They are staying at the notorious Brimstone Club, a gentleman’s club where past members have been reputed not to behave like gentlemen. Anyone can become a member so long as they can afford the fees, and it has seen more than its fair share of shady characters cross its Gothic-like threshold. Bencolin’s old friend Sir John Landervorne, once of Scotland Yard and now retired, lives at the club, and it’s he who tells Bencolin and Marle of the strange occurrence that sets them all on the trail of a murderer who calls himself “Jack Ketch”, a nickname commonly used for the public hangman. One night, lost in a London fog, a young man saw the shadow of a gallows reflected on a wall, and a man climbing the stairs towards the noose. Later that evening, Bencolin and his friends themselves witness something even stranger – a car being driven by a corpse…

This is the third book in Carr’s Bencolin series. (I think – the last one was also billed as the third but is now being called the second, so there’s an extra mystery that remains unsolved! It doesn’t matter though, they all stand alone.) Written when Carr was very young, each of the three I’ve read have a strong horror element to go along with Carr’s trademark “impossible” crime. Bencolin himself is a darkly mysterious detective, brilliant but rather cold. The only things he shows any passion about are catching his villain, and proving his superiority to all other detectives. Marle acts as his unofficial sidekick and narrator of the stories.

Carr makes excellent use of the London fog in this one, and all the stuff about gallows and hangmen is beautifully chilling, especially since the book is set back in the days when hanging was still the punishment for murder. And it soon transpires that Jack Ketch may be seeking revenge for a crime that has gone unpunished by the law. The victim of Jack Ketch’s scheme is an Egyptian, also a member of the Brimstone, who is being terrorised by a series of strange items turning up in his rooms or arriving through the mail – all things that seem to mean something to him and have him fearing for his life. And then he disappears! It’s up to Bencolin to find out the real identity of Jack Ketch before any more murders are done.

John Dickson Carr

I must admit I was a good way into this before I could get my head round the plot at all – there seem to be an awful lot of people and lots of apparently unconnected incidents at first. But it all begins to come together about halfway through, and then moves into a spookily thrilling ending, full of Gothic horrors and an almost, but not quite, supernatural feel to it. I didn’t find the “how” aspects of this one quite as mysterious as usual – I had a reasonably good idea of most of it well before the end – and the motive is never really hidden. But I admit to being totally blind-sided by the “whodunit” solution. I was so sure it was …….. but it turned out it was actually……..! Who’d have guessed?! In truth, I think the rather lacklustre characterisation of everyone except Bencolin and Marle made the guessing quite difficult – this is much more of a puzzle than a character-driven story. When Bencolin explains it all at the end, though, I had to admit it had been fair-play – the clues were all there for those eagle-eyed enough to spot them.

Another entertaining entry in this series, though not perhaps my favourite. The book has the added bonus of a Bencolin short story, The Ends of Justice, which is another “impossible” crime – a distinctly unlikely one, I felt, but that didn’t prevent me enjoying it!

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

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31 thoughts on “The Lost Gallows (Inspector Bencolin) by John Dickson Carr

    • Thank you! The British Library has just published the fourth in the series so I’m hoping they do the fifth and last soon too. Each one is a lovely mix of crime and horror, though never actually going into the supernatural…

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  1. I can just see that opening scene, FictionFan! Spooooky! And it sounds as though this makes for one of those eerie stories that mixes some horror with crime fiction. That’s not easy to do well. It sounds like the sort of story, too, that could only take place in London. It wouldn’t really do as well set anywhere else, if that makes sense.

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    • He is fantastic at merging horror with crime – the corpse driving the car spooked me good and proper!! And since the first two books were set in Paris, it was good to see them in London this time – he used the setting brilliantly. I’m still keen to read some of his non-Bencolin books some time, to see if he keeps that eeriness in them…

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  2. I need to start catching up on the BL titles I already have before adding any others. I’m currently reading The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger. It’s on my kindle, along with several of the mysteries. I only seem to be getting the SF anthologies in “real” form.

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    • I’m doing not too badly with keeping up with the new ones, but there are loads I missed from the early days that I’d like to catch up on. I hope you enjoy The Question Mark – I’ve liked both the Jaeger books they’ve produced so far. How did you get on with the Rosy Thornton book, by the way? I read a collection of her short stories a few years back and thought they were great, but somehow the blurbs of her novels never appeal to me much…

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      • I did enjoy The Question Mark. Made me glad to live in the 21st century, between the two in the book! I read that same Thornton short story collection and loved it. (and the cover!). I did enjoy Ninepins. It’s rather angst filled in places, but I enjoy that occasionally as a respite from my own life. It’s not a fast-paced story and I have a sneaking suspicion it might bore you. 😉. Still, you could start it and see what you think.

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        • Ha, yes, science fiction often makes me glad I live where and when I do! Hmm, not sure Ninepins sounds like my cup of tea, but I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ll keep hoping she brings out one that appeals, or another collection of shorts.

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  3. Love the creepiness factor, here, but I’m put off by the idea of shallow characterization. I think I’d even be happy being able to figure out the “who” if the characters were well drawn. Personal preference, of course.

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    • That’s the problem with the “impossible crime” specialists – they tended to concentrate more on the puzzle than the people. My preference is for more character-driven crime too. But he is brilliant at inserting horror into his crime fiction!

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  4. I want to read more by Carr, but I am not sure this is the best one for me at this stage. The only one I have read is The Emperor’s Snuff Box. Lovely cover though.

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    • So far I’ve only read the Bencolin books, purely because they’re the ones the BL has been publishing, and overall I’ve thought they were great. But I’d really like to read some of his later ones and see how his style developed, so I shall investigate The Emperor’s Snuff Box!

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  5. The Mystery of the Third Book (that must be a book, just waiting to be written!) Sometimes, when the author writes a prequel after having finished the series, there can be confusion about whether the first published book is really the first or the second in the series. I’ve also seen some of the Scandi crime series starting to be translated from book 2 or 3, so what the English speaking world sees as book 1 is really the third book in the series. Anyway…. You do seem to get through a lot of British crime at the moment. So am I as it happens. I downloaded a lot of the old P. D. James books on the audiosale. Admittedly, they are not as good as some of the later books, but still very decent entertainment.

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    • Yes, that often annoys me with Scandi crime – the girlfriend who was murdered in book 1 suddenly reappears alive and well in book 3! I was living on a constant diet of vintage crime at the end of last year when my slump became almost total – happily I seem to be able to read more variety again now, but I still have several vintage reviews pending. I loved PD James back when the books were coming out – she was a buy on publication day author for me for years. I’ve revisited her recently, though, and find they’re awfully class-ridden and very slow – they’ve kinda lost their magic for me, but I’m glad I read them all when I did and I hope you go on enjoying them!

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  6. I like the London fog and the unguessable criminal, but since it’s not available through my usual sources, the story doesn’t feel pressing enough to look further for it or pay for a Kindle download. I’m glad it was worth your while to read it.

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    • I have a feeling the BL has been hit badly by the lockdowns, and aren’t getting paper books distributed as quickly as they used to. Hopefully it’ll settle back to normal soon, and libraries will start getting them soon after publication again!

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  7. It is always a bit disappointing to start with a book and realize that it takes a while to get invested into the story and all the characters. Hopefully you will enjoy the next one more.

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    • Yes, this one was particularly complicated at the beginning – not at all clear where it was heading. But happily it all fell into place as it went on, so that redeemed it! I have the fourth in the series on my TBR, so fingers crossed! 😀

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  8. I love the idea of how gothic this one sounds-was it included in your ‘fog’ anthology from a few weeks ago? Sounds like it should have been if it wasn’t! This idea of a hangman’s noose as a moving shadow on the wall is also quite creepy, it gave me a shiver just reading your review on it 🙂

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