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.

Amazon UK Link
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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….On the evening of 30 April 1483, London was in holiday mood. The next day, it would erupt in the day-long street party that was the ‘maying’, which, with its associations of anarchy and sex, was one of the more eagerly anticipated feast days. In the early morning, Londoners would walk through the city gates out into the surrounding countryside, bathe their faces in dew, and return with garlands to adorn houses, doorways and churches in preparation of the day’s junketing. In the heart of the city, outside St Andrew Undershaft, stood the great corporate-sponsored maypole from which the church took its name. Each parish, too, had prepared its maypole, its feasts, bonfires, stages and ‘warlike shows’ of archery and gunfire, its batteries of drummers and its pageants that would sway through the streets. At the heart of each pageant were the ‘lord and lady of May’, the young May king and queen. Their procession, a triumph of ‘honour and glory’, marked spring’s conquest over winter whose discord and duplicity, ‘heaviness and trouble’, was replaced by universal peace, the spring flowers of ‘perfect charity’ and the buds of ‘truth and unity’. That year, London’s preparations acquired a particular intensity as, the next day, the city was due to welcome a real May king, the twelve-year-old boy whose choreographed arrival promised a new start for both the city and the country – Edward V.

~The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

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….He was sitting on a bench, inertly watching the devastation wrought by Bendicò in the flowerbeds; every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes towards him as if asking for praise at labour done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation channel blocked. How human!
….“Good Bendicò, come here.” And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work.

~The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

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….A voice came over the speaker system, replacing the electronic alarm.
….“This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test.”
….They paused to look at each other, reading a fresh panic in eyes reflecting their own. Not a test! It had to be a test. Otherwise they’d just lost a thousand million pounds’ worth of tin and plastic. Lost it for how long? Hepton checked his watch. The system had been inoperative for over two minutes. That meant it was really serious. Another minute or so could spell disaster.
….Fagin, the operations manager, had appeared from nowhere and was sprinting from console to console as though taking part in some kind of party game. Two of the brass were in evidence too, looking as though they’d just stepped out of a meeting. They carried files under their arms and stood by the far door, knowing nothing of the system or how to be of help. That was typical. The people who held the purse strings and gave the orders knew nothing about anything.

~Westwind by Ian Rankin

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….He had elevated lust to its most exalted type. It was for the sake of this lust alone that he had married the first time and then for the second. Over the course of time, his conjugal love was affected by calm new elements of affection and familiarity, but in essence it continued to be based on bodily desire. When an emotion is of this type, especially when it has acquired a renewed power and exuberant vitality, it cannot be content with only one form of expression. Thus he had shot off in pursuit of all the varieties of love and passion, like a wild bull. Whenever desire called, he answered, deliriously and enthusiastically. No woman was anything more than a body to him. All the same, he would not bow his head before that body unless he found it truly worthy of being seen, touched, smelled, tasted, and heard. It was lust, yes, but not bestial or blind.

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

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….Gallivan suddenly put his hands flat on the table and leaned forward, staring beyond me down the Rhine. He said, softly: “There she is, Mr. Marle. There’s Castle Skull.”
….It was still far away, but our steamer seemed to sweep with incredible speed now. At first it was a domed blot with two thin towers, swimming in spectral dusk, disembodied high above the pines on the right. Now the river lay dead black. There were white streaks in the grey sky behind the towers, but the dark fleece of thunderheads crawled to blot them out. From the left bank, a few lights ruffled the inky water. It had grown very warm.
….Then Castle Skull grew in size, though it seemed even farther above our heads. Massive walls, battlemented and fully a hundred feet high, were built into the hillside. I bent over the rail and craned my neck to look up. In the centre of the walls, built so that the middle of the battlements constituted the teeth of the death’s head, reared the vast skull of stone. The light was too dim to make out details, but I saw the eyes. I saw the two towers on either side, horribly like ears; I saw the whole thin, rain-blacked, monstrous pile move slowly above our heads.

~Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 226…

Episode 226

No! No, no, no!!! What’s happening to me??? After last week’s ginormous jump, I was so sure the TBR would drop this week, but… it’s up another FOUR to 216! Partly this is because I’m currently reading three longish books so haven’t finished one for days, and partly it’s because I’ve had a couple of unsolicited ones sent by publishers (which is always fun and gets me to read things I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise pick). Then there have been a couple of unmissable Kindle deals. So you see, it’s really not my fault! 

Here are a few I should get to soon…

Fiction

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Mahfouz is a Nobel Prize winner, which ought to be a recommendation but, given my experiences with fellow winners in the past, I view more as a warning. However, it does sound excellent. I’m only planning to read the first in the trilogy, Palace Walk, as a way to visit Egypt for my Around the World challenge. Hopefully I’ll love it enough to want to read the other two later… 

The Blurb says: The Nobel Prize—winning writer’s masterwork is the engrossing story of a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain’s occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The novels of The Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sons–the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination in Palace of Desire, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the aging patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician.

Throughout the trilogy, the family’s trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two World Wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humour, and remarkable insight, The Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.

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Classic English Fiction

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I read this a year or so ago and tragically kept putting off writing a review until it got to the point I no longer felt it was fresh enough in my mind to do so. Fortunately it’s short and I loved it, so it’s no hardship to read it again. This time I’ll take notes! One for the Classics Club. 

The Blurb says: Conrad’s narrator Marlow, a seaman and wanderer, recounts his physical and psychological journey in search of the infamous ivory trader Kurtz: dying, insane, and guilty of unspeakable atrocities. Travelling upriver to the heart of the African continent, he gradually becomes obsessed by this enigmatic, wraith-like figure. Marlow’s discovery of how Kurtz has gained his position of power over the local people involves him in a radical questioning, not only of his own nature and values, but also those of western civilisation. The inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning film Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness is a quintessentially modernist work exploring the limits of human experience and the nightmarish realities of imperialism.

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Thriller

Westwind by Ian Rankin

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. There appears to be a new trend of publishers digging out the early, out of print works of famous authors and re-publishing them, and this is one of those. Sometimes this turns up a hidden gem, other times one feels it would have been kinder to leave them buried in the past. We’ll see which category this one falls into…

The Blurb says: It always starts with a small lie. That’s how you stop noticing the bigger ones.

After his friend suspects something strange going on at the launch facility where they both work – and then goes missing – Martin Hepton doesn’t believe the official line of “long-term sick leave”…

Refusing to stop asking questions, he leaves his old life behind, aware that someone is shadowing his every move. The only hope he has is his ex-girlfriend Jill Watson – the only journalist who will believe his story.

But neither of them can believe the puzzle they’re piecing together – or just how shocking the secret is that everybody wants to stay hidden…

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Vintage Crime

Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library. I absolutely loved It Walks by Night – the first Bencolin and Marle book – so am thrilled that the BL has now followed up with the second. The very title send shivers of pleasurable anticipation down my spine…

The Blurb says: That is the case. Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.

And so a dark shadow looms over the Rhineland where Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle have arrived from Paris. Entreated by the Belgian financier D’Aunay to investigate the gruesome and grimly theatrical death of actor Myron Alison, the pair find themselves at the imposing hilltop fortress Schloss Schädel, in which a small group of suspects are still assembled.

As thunder rolls in the distance, Bencolin and Marle enter a world steeped in macabre legends of murder and magic to catch the killer still walking the maze-like passages and towers of the keep.

This new edition of John Dickson Carrs spirited and deeply atmospheric early novel also features the rare Inspector Bencolin short story ‘The Fourth Suspect’.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?