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
Amazon US Link

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

* * * * *

….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

* * * * *

….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

* * * * *

….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

* * * * *

….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

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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…

* * * * *

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’.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Deliciously decadent…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Jeff Marle has been summoned to Paris by an old friend of his father: the legendary detective Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police. Bencolin has a peculiar case on his hands and feels Jeff may be interested in observing his methods. So Jeff becomes our “Watson”, and it’s through his eyes that we see the great detective at work. The case involves a madman – perhaps these days we would say psychopath – Alexandre Laurent, who was locked up after trying to kill his young and beautiful wife, Louise. That wife, her first marriage annulled, is now about to get married again, to the famous all-round sporting legend, Raoul de Saligny. But Laurent has escaped and rumour has it that he may have visited a plastic surgeon to change his appearance. He has sent a letter warning Raoul not to marry Louise and Bencolin fears that he will turn up in Paris, bent on killing Raoul and possibly Louise too. On the night of their wedding day, Raoul, Louise and the wedding party go to a fashionable gambling house, and Bencolin has his men there in force to guard them. But Laurent has the true cunning intelligence of the madman…

This is Carr’s first mystery novel, and my first introduction to his work. I thought it was totally marvellous! There are a couple of plots weaknesses, some moments where you have to take a deep breath and just let your suspension of disbelief have full rein, and it occasionally goes over the top into high melodrama. But the writing is great, and Carr creates a wonderfully creepy, almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. In fact, it seemed to me draw as much, if not more, on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age.

Published in 1930 and set in Paris, it offers a darker take on the “lost generation” of that time – of those living after one devastating war and seeing the approaching inevitability of another on the horizon. There is a great sense of amorality, of sensuous egoism, of a kind of cruelty of empty friendships and brutal infidelities. Drugs and drink play their part in the glittering hopelessness of the characters’ lives, and even in Jeff’s observations. One scene, where he has dinner with a young woman caught up in the case, is a masterpiece of fear heightened by the befuddling effects of alcohol – Poe-like in its creation of an atmosphere of impending horror. Grand Guignol was in my mind for much of it, since there’s no holding back in the gruesome bloodiness of the crimes, nor the pointless cruelty of them.

John Dickson Carr

As a mystery, I do think it’s just about fair play, although one has to be willing to let one’s imagination run riot a bit. There’s a locked room aspect to it, and as usual I failed to get that at all and frankly felt the solution to that part of the mystery was a bit too contrived. But in terms of the whodunit aspects – in this case, the who-is-Laurent aspect – I spotted several of the clues without realising that that’s what they were; in fact, I had sort of thought they were accidental inconsistencies rather than clues until all was explained at the end. But when the solution comes it’s wonderfully twisted, carrying the atmosphere of decadent horror right through to the end.

I’m aware that part of the reason I loved it so much is because of the horror aspects and that this may not appeal to all Golden Age mystery fans as much as it does to me. But the mystery aspect is good too and while Bencolin can be a bit too full of himself, as many of the great detectives are, Jeff is a wonderfully original creation as Watsons go, becoming deeply involved not just in the investigation but in the characters’ lives and the playing out of the plot. Wonderful stuff, and I can’t wait now to read more Carr – no wonder he’s considered one of the greats.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 221…

Episode 221

Considering my inability to ignore all the political chaos on both sides of the Atlantic – as a spectator sport, it’s all fun so long as you can suspend your disbelief – it’s amazing that my TBR has actually gone down, by 1 to 214! And I’m proud to announce that I survived East of Eden – not unscathed, but ultimately unbowed…

A bumper batch this week, since this will be the last TBR Thursday of the year. Next week I’ll be starting the annual FictionFan Book of the Year posts – get your ballgown ready for the awards ceremony! Meantime, some shorter, lighter reads, mostly vintage crime, to accompany my Dickens book over the festive season… 

Crime

The Mugger by Ed McBain

The second in the long-running 87th Precinct series. I enjoyed many of these back in the day and more recently was impressed by a re-read of the first in the series, Cop Hater

The Blurb says: This mugger is special.

He preys on women, waiting in the darkness…then comes from behind, attacks them, and snatches their purses. He tells them not to scream and as they’re on the ground, reeling with pain and fear, he bows and nonchalantly says, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” But when he puts one victim in the hospital and the next in the morgue, the detectives of the 87th Precinct are not amused and will stop at nothing to bring him to justice.

Dashing young patrolman Bert Kling is always there to help a friend. And when a friend’s sister-in-law is the mugger’s murder victim, Bert’s personal reasons to find the maniacal killer soon become a burning obsession…and it could easily get him killed.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library. I have a feeling I read a few John Dickson Carr novels in my teens, but I fear I don’t remember them. More recently, I’ve come across a few of his short stories in various anthologies and have enjoyed them, so fingers crossed. As I’m sure you’ll agree, nothing says Christmas quite like a beheaded corpse…

The Blurb says: We are thrilled to welcome John Dickson Carr into the Crime Classics series with his first novel, a brooding locked room mystery in the gathering dusk of the French capital.

In the smoke-wreathed gloom of a Parisian salon, Inspector Bencolin has summoned his allies to discuss a peculiar case. A would-be murderer, imprisoned for his attempt to kill his wife, has escaped and is known to have visited a plastic surgeon. His whereabouts remain a mystery, though with his former wife poised to marry another, Bencolin predicts his return.

Sure enough, the Inspector’s worst suspicions are realised when the beheaded body of the new suitor is discovered in a locked room of the salon, with no apparent exit. Bencolin sets off into the Parisian night to unravel the dumbfounding mystery and track down the sadistic killer.

* * * * *

More Vintage Crime

Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Courtesy of the British Library again. Apparently Anthony Gilbert was one of the pen names of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who also wrote as Anne Meredith. So since I enjoyed Anne Meredith’s Portrait of a Murderer, I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: The British Secret Service, working to uncover a large-scale blackmail ring and catch its mysterious mastermind ‘The Spider’, find themselves at the country residence Feltham Abbey, where a fancy dress ball is in full swing.

In the tumult of the revelry, Sir Ralph Feltham is found dead. Not the atmosphere bewildered young lawyer Tony was expecting, he sets out to make sense of the night’s activities and the motives of the other guests. Among them is Hilary, an independently-minded socialite still in her costume of vivid silk pyjamas and accompanying teddy bear…

This classic country house mystery, first published in 1933, contrasts the splendours and frivolities of the English upper classes with the sombre over-hang of the First World War and the irresistible complications of deadly familial relationships – with just the right amount of international intrigue thrown in.

* * * * *

Crime

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I loved the second book about Georges Gorski, The Accident on the A35, actually even more than Burnet’s Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, and have had this first one lingering on the TBR for far too long. (Yes, I know it would have made more sense to read them the other way round… 😉 )

The Blurb says: Manfred Baumann is a loner. Socially awkward and perpetually ill at ease, he spends his evenings quietly drinking and surreptitiously observing Adèle Bedeau, the sullen but alluring waitress at a drab bistro in the unremarkable small French town of Saint-Louis. But one day, she simply vanishes into thin air. When Georges Gorski, a detective haunted by his failure to solve one of his first murder cases, is called in to investigate the girl’s disappearance, Manfred’s repressed world is shaken to its core and he is forced to confront the dark secrets of his past. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is a literary mystery novel that is, at heart, an engrossing psychological portrayal of an outsider pushed to the limit by his own feverish imagination.

* * * * *

Vintage Science Fiction

Courtesy of the British Library again! Another of their fab anthologies, this time on the vexed subject of time travel. As Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager said – or maybe that should be, will say – “Time travel. Since my first day on the job as a Starfleet captain I swore I’d never let myself get caught in one of these godforsaken paradoxes – the future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.” Sometimes headaches can be fun…

The Blurb says: The threads of time run forward, backward, round in circles and side by side in this new anthology of stories from the Golden Age of science fiction. How can you comprehend a newspaper whose current events cover the distant future? How do you escape from a day at the office which cycles, cruelly, endlessly? How do you prevent monks from the future smuggling your revolutionary miracle food into the past?

Charting the chronology of the time travel narrative from the 1880s to the late 1950s, classic tales of trips to the past and their consequences run alongside rare experimental and mind-bending pieces, with paradoxes, philosophical dilemmas and every perplexing strand of time travel unravelled in between.

* * * * *

Even More Vintage Crime

And yet again, courtesy of the British Library! (Clearly we have found the culprit behind my groaning TBR problems…) ECR Lorac is one of my favourite of all the authors the BL has introduced to me, so I’m looking forward to this one hugely…

The Blurb says: First published in 1944 Fell Murder sees E.C.R. Lorac at the height of her considerable powers as a purveyor of well-made, traditional and emphatic detective fiction. The book presents a fascinating ‘return of the prodigal’ mystery set in the later stages of the Second World War amidst the close-knit farmerfolk community of Lancashire s lovely Lune valley.

The Garths had farmed their fertile acres for generations and fine land it was with the towering hills of the Lake Country on the far horizon. Garthmere Hall itself was old before Flodden Field, and here hot-tempered Robert Garth, still hale and hearty at eighty-two, ruled his household with a rod of iron. The peaceful dales and fells of the north country provide the setting for this grim story of a murder, a setting in fact which is one of the attractive features of an unusual and distinctive tale of evil passions and murderous hate in a small rural community.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?