Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rhineland Romance: Castle Skull (1931), by John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr's first detective series, which chronicled the exploits of French magistrate Henry Bencolin, is a short one, comprised of four novels Carr published from 1930 to 1932, plus a final volume, The Four False Weapons, that appeared in 1937.

Castle Skull (1931) is the third of the Henri Bencolin mysteries.  Like the other early novels in the series (It Walks by Night, The Lost Gallows and The Corpse in the Waxworks), it has  a splendidly lurid title, redolent of exoticism, the outre and horror.  Although Carr continued to employ these elements in many of his books over his long and successful mystery writing career, he toned them down somewhat from the early novels, where the horrific really predominates (as has been observed, I believe, by S. T. Joshi, It Walks by Night might be a pulp horror novel title).

Certainly Castle Skull is steeped in the outre.  To begin with there's the highly Gothic setting, in the German Rhineland.

Many mysteries of the Golden Age take place in country houses, but how many take place in castles?  And what a castle is Castle Skull!  Yes, its highly eccentric owner, the larger than life magician Maleger, deliberately designed it to resemble a skull.  This 1940s Pocket edition captures the castle rather well, I think (except for the lovely sunny sky).  Not only does the castle look like a skull, but it is equipped with all the creepy paraphernalia you could ever ask for in such an abode; and Carr, as was his wont, makes the most of this.

The novel opens with quite a bit of back story.  Maleger, we learn, was murdered some twenty years earlier, his body thrown out of a train carriage into the Rhine.  Somehow this was accomplished even though Maleger's carriage was under observation the whole time and no one else was seen entering it (one of Carr's patented miracle problems, very nicely worked out too).

Maleger's estate was left to two friends, a Belgian banker named D'Aunay and a prominent English stage actor named Myron Alison.  A few weeks before the novel opens, something very bad happened to Myron Alison.  He was shot several times and then for good measure set on fire.  His blazing body was espied on the crazily grinning battlements of Castle Skull.

Bencolin investigates
the dark depths of
Castle Skull
Just imagine what an opening this would make for a film! It strikes me once again what opportunities modern filmmakers are missing in treating John Dickson Carr as mystery's Mr. Cellophane, even as they film the umpteenth version of a Miss Marple mystery (now with rewritten ending!).  Unfortunately Carr himself does not make the most of it, because the the story of the murder is told secondhand to Bencolin and his young Watson, Jeff Marle, rather than being shown directly to the reader.  Obviously, it seems to me, the novel should have opened with the immolation scene.  We know from such later bravura Carr set-pieces as the exploding hot-air balloon sequence in Carr's wonderful historical mystery novel Captain Cut-Throat (1955) that Carr was absolute aces at directly depicting evocative action scenes.  But enough about that--back to further developments at Castle Skull!

Henri Bencolin is brought into the case informally and is soon investigating with good old, forgettable Jeff (first in a long, long line of many writer stand-ins for the author).  Across the river from Castle Skull is the country house of Myron Alison, where a house party was taking place during Myron's murder, conveniently providing us with our suspects.  There's Myron's sister, Agatha, known as "The Duchess"--even though she's not one; a famous violinist; D'Aunay and his wife; a young English gentleman; and a nice young woman, though modern.  There's also a middle-aged journalist hanging about the place, who happily is chock full of nuggets of Maleger-Myron Alison back story.

The mental duel between Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh
and Basil Rathbone's Baron Wolf von Frankenstein
in Son of Frankenstein (1939) is similar to the
 of Bencolin-Von Arnheim in Castle Skull
Soon Bencolin and Jeff are joined by Baron Sigmund von Arnheim, one of those stock monocled, know-it-all Prussian types common to Anglo-American books and films of that era. Von Arnheim and Bencolin are longtime rivals, so the two engage in a competition to solve the case, bandying much surfacely polite, improbably theatrical language with each other, in the highly archaic fashion that Carr, who seems to have wanted to live as an English cavalier in the seventeenth century, so much admired.

Just 25 when this novel was published, Carr handles the solution section of the novel (40 pages!) with laudable dexterity.  Von Arnheim solves the case!  Or does he....

Besides being grippingly narrated, the solution is eminently fair play, I think.  One has to admire not only Carr's ingenuity with murder designs--a skill John Street, for example, had too--but also Carr's admirable clue placement, which at times rivals the great Agatha Christie.  My only complaint (besides the absence of a castle floor plan--but see this extraordinary webpage on this matter) with Castle Skull is that the characters really don't do justice the superb setting.

The two really interesting characters in Castle Skull are Maleger and Myron Alison, both of whom, as murder victims, are off the stage when the novel opens.  As Douglas G. Greene has noted in his superb biography of Carr, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995), Carr somewhat softened Bencolin in Castle Skull, making him "slightly more human," but this softening "doesn't fit the personality that Carr has developed for Bencolin"--it merely makes him duller.  As for the country house crowd, they are sticks, with the exception of Agatha Alison, who is interesting because she is such an outlandish and improbable character.  I would have sworn Carr meant her to be a broad parody of Dorothy L. Sayers, but Carr would not have known Sayers in 1931.

Dorothy L. Sayers
"Duchess" of Deception
Here is Carr's description of the stout, mannish, Duchess (who also smokes cigars, drinks stout and plays poker), which really does seem to foreshadow Sayers at Detection Club meetings in the 1940s and 1950s (judging by the uninhibited recollections of Christianna Brand): "She floundered in, her bulk compressed into a tight black gown which caused startling bulges in extraordinary places."

But it's the way the Duchess talks that's really extraordinary:

"Come right in, young fella-me-lad!  Have a bottle of stout.  Always drink three, myself, before I turn in."

"Well, well, you just tell the old Duchess about it!  Plague take me!  When all your fancy detectives are stumped, I'm going to take a hand!"

"H'm.  Is that so?  Damme!...H'm.  Writer, b'Gad!  Play rugger, don't you?"
"Baseball," I said, "I'm an American."
"You do?  Well, hang me!--And look here, laddie, don't you think that because I'm a bloody Britisher I don't know the outfield from home plate.  Listen.  I saw the whole world series in '09, the year Wild Bill pitched against the Pirates...."

Put Sir Henry Merrivale in a dress
and you get Agatha Alison
And so on.  All this conversation is uttered while Agatha is sitting "behind her table in a flaring negligee, drinking Guinness' stout."  From the words--especially recalling how Carr's later series detective Sir Henry Merrivale loves baseball too--I felt certain the Duchess was really Sir Henry Merrivale in drag, perhaps on a secret undercover mission in this very queer castle.

Heck, even now I still think "she" may have been, although this was one question even the great Henri Bencolin did not resolve!

Well, this finishes for now my Continental tour.  I'm headed back to the States (There's no place like home!), but will be stopping off briefly in a desert clime.  Who will I visit there?  Stop by tomorrow and see!--The Passing Tramp.


  1. Well, Curt, you've intrigued me again. I haven't read this one in a very long time and remember nothing about it...not sure I still have a copy, so I'll have to do some digging...and then add it to my TBR pile. Which becomes increasingly unsteady with every added book...sigh...

  2. Les,

    It's always nice to go back and visit Carr. I don't like the Bencolins as much as the Merrivales or Fells, but they have their points. I like The Corpse in the Waxworks best though.

  3. Absolutely love this book-- and I completely agree about the lack of a film adaptation! I can see an opening scene already, as Myron is set ablaze and as he burns one of the guests fiddles away... It's a mental picture that has haunted me, similar to a finale in a maze in THE SKELETON IN THE CLOCK... Or that eerie voice from nowhere in ALL IN A MAZE...

  4. Am I the only one relieved at the lack of movie/television adaptation of JDC's work? I agree that it would be something special to watch one of his novels unravel on the small screen, but I'm realistic enough to realize that they will probably muck it up and I don't want to trust the work of one of the greatest mystery writers to a two-bit scenarist.

  5. Patrick, TomCat,

    I'd like to see Carr films! Unlike most true detective novelists, Carr wrote books with a lot of flash and excitement (too much for me sometimes--I don't mind a certain level of "dullness" in a detective novel). His books, in other words, have true cinematic qualities. Of course, the filmmakers might well make a hash of it anyway!

  6. Great review Curt and the appalling idea of Merrivale in drag is one that is going to be very hard to shift from the old cerebellum for the rest of the evening probably - if this had been a Philip MacDonald novel you would probably be right at that! Carr was a true master, even in the early Bencolin novels and short stories - he is the reason I became a mystery addict thirty years ago and he's still my favourite all this time. Great to read such a jolly and sensible analysis!

    I would love to see a properly atmospheric film or TV rendition of his Fell or Merricale mysteries - the zoo climax to HE WOULDN;T KILL PATIENCE during a Nazi bombing raid for instance could work brilliantly! Carr of course worked extensively on radio and a lot of his work has transferred very well to that medium so it would be interesting to catch up with some of attempts to transfer his work to the screen. I've not seen any of the TV adaptations made in the UK or Italy (where Adolfo Celi, the villain in THUNDERBALL, played Merrivale) but enjoyed THE MAN IN A CLOAK, from one of his most entertaining short stories, and the two adaptations of CABIN B-13 (DANGEROUS CROSSING and the improved remake, TREACHEROUS CROSSING) are quite good fun. I always thought Timothy West would have made an excellent Merrivale.

  7. Sergio,

    I still think I'm right about Sir Henry, aka Agatha--nothing in the book disproves my theory!

    I first read Carr over twenty years ago and vividly remember it. I've heard some of radio plays too and really admire them. He was a natural for that form. Filmmakers are really missing a golden opportunity with Carr.

  8. Ah, yes, JDC and radio plays. Has there ever been scene broadcast over the air waves as gripping and spellbinding as the one from "The Dead Sleep Lightly," in which a man hears his late wive mutter these words over a dead telephone, "But the dead sleep lightly. And they can be lonely too."

    1. I didn't enjoy this one as much as The Corpse in the Waxworks but I rate it better than It Walks. I still have Four False Weapons and I need to track down The Lost Gallows. I like Bencolin books for the atmosphere but I prefer Fell and Merrivale.

      I love, and routinely listen to, all of the surviving Carr radio plays. And I thought I had a copy of every adaptation except Colonel March but I guess I have to hunt down that Italian Merrivale. I think Carr is ripe for film/tv adaptation but if not by now, then when? Some of his books are very visual. They don't even make Marsh or Sayers stuff anymore, even though they're closest in many ways to the perennially popular Agatha. (Don't get me wrong, I'll always look forward to AC and ACD productions--BBC's recent And Then There Were None was brilliant.)

      Oh, and "Duchess" Agatha in this book definitely reminded me of Merrivale. I think it's the interjections. H'mm!

      I can't believe JDC was so young when he wrote this.

    2. DB, I'm glad it wasn't just my impression with the Duchess, burn me!

      John Dickson Carr has complex plots, but so much of his work is inherently cinematic it seems to me. Such atmosphere!

  9. Dear sir, thank you for an interesting read, dashed thorough, old horse! You slay me, your wit to boot: "The Dutchess is really Sir Henry Merrivale in drag" (can you imagine, Merrivale forgetting himself, like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire when pitching the studio exec dressed in drag and breaking character, Merrivale thunder out load, preceding at the table, giving stately dinner at Castle Skull to the local mayor etc, Masters having come down to lend authority to the ghost-hunt, and getting above himself as usual, putting it to the dinner guests that Merrivale should not see fit to drive the guests home, handbrake in 90 degree angle notwithstanding, Merrivale already on the 24th brandy while still in the h'dourvs, booming put load enough to wake the dead, his voice crashing back and forth in echo throughout the Castle dungeons: "HEYYYY!!!!!! I AM THE OLD QUEEN!!!, YOU KNOW"!!!!!! (say, are you with us on Facebook, at the John Dickson Carr page?)