I have something different to offer today. On a comment on my first reading of a book by John Dickson Carr, a plan was struck to read and discuss this particular reprint and below is the result. It was great fun and this is way more detailed than something I could put together by myself but it has honed my senses for future reads.
Case for Three Detectives: Anjana, Kate and Laurie Discuss John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull (1931)
Today’s review is no ordinary one, as we’re doing a group discussion of the latest John Dickson Carr title to be reprinted by the British Library. Castle Skull is the third novel to feature Henri Bencolin and as usual Jeff Marle is narrating the tale. This time around Bencolin is asked to investigate the murder of Myron Alison; an actor who co-inherited Castle Skull, which is situated on the Rhine; (a place Carr spent some time in during his 1930 European holiday). His body was seen to be running along the battlements whilst on fire, having been shot three times first. The inheritance came from a magician called Maleger. The other inheritor of the castle was Jerome D’Aunay, a rich Belgian who has hired Bencolin to solve the mystery. The castle is appropriately and gothically skull shaped and is not for the faint hearted. Like Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Links, Bencolin has a sleuthing rival to contend with, Baron Sigmund von Arnheim, a chief Inspector in the Berlin police force. This reprint edition also includes the short story, ‘The Fourth Suspect,’ (1927) which was originally published in The Haverfordian.
What is great with this approach is that we all came with different ideas and experiences, from relative newcomer to Carr’s work to hardcore fan *cough* Laurie *cough*.
Laurie: I prefer the term fangirl—thank you very much!
To get the ball rolling we decided to open with some general comments on how we found the novel…
Anjana: So I liked the book, it made me want to read more of the author’s works. In common lingo, I’d say 4 stars. What about both of you?
Laurie: I’m rather torn on this one. I’d like to give it a 4, but because of the exuberant over the top nature of Carr here, I’ll probably downgrade to 3.75.
Kate: Glad I am not the odd one out! I have to admit that I struggled to maintain interest in this book. It didn’t grab my attention as much as I thought it would, given the premise. The action takes place over two days, but it didn’t have the pace of such a tight time frame. The characters didn’t draw me either, and I found the detectives talked a bit too cryptically for my liking, so the ending had less impact than it should have done. The gothic tones fell a bit flat for me as well. My rating would probably be, with the short story in mind, 3.75/5.
Laurie: Yes…spot on! The atmosphere he sought to render was not there. I think, because he pushed it too far. Everything and every character was over-wrought. And it did have the feeling of taking place over a longer time period.
Kate: If we got closer to the key characters, I think the strain of the gothic atmosphere might have come across more effectively.
Anjana: I felt the same over-wrought atmosphere in The Hollow Man, so I just assumed it was a theme and accepted it …The final drinking scenes seemed the most dramatic of the lot!!
Kate: I think this type of gothic atmosphere is quite indicative of much of Carr’s work from the 1930s. It is my impression that it did become more dilute after this, and I feel he can write very well without such an atmosphere. She Died a Lady and The Emperor’s Snuffbox spring to mind.
Our attention then moved to considering the role of the Watson narrator, Jeff Merle…
Anjana: I think what aided this mystery was the supportive role of Jeff Merle, who had several epiphanies which were not negated by following events. This is not always the case for the Watson natator, as usually I feel bad for the ridiculed sidekick.
Kate: Jeff is a good Watson narrator. He is not a complete doormat, even if his retorts are kept merely as thoughts. One of my favourite parts is when D’Aunay says to Jeff’s face that: ‘Mr. Marle is not a detective. Pray excuse me: I do not even think he is gifted with any particular intelligence.’ Jeff’s, albeit mental, retort is quite amusing as he ‘felt inclined to point out to Jerome D’Aunay a suitable jumping-off place. It was damned cheek.’
As our opening remarks imitate, we didn’t feel this was a perfect read and so we decided to discuss some of the areas we were dissatisfied with…
Laurie: I think one of the problems was that the book had too many suspects and no obvious motives…It left me knowing what the final solution had to be.
Kate: I agree. Carr throws a lot of plot elements and tropes at the reader at the start of the book, which pique our interest, but then the subsequent investigation does not deliver on the expectations the opening of the tale raises. I also found it hard to hold on to all of the narrative threads Carr gives us at the beginning of the book. What did everyone else think of the inclusion of the mysterious past death of the sinister magician, Maleger?
Laurie: Carr did introduce a lot of information in that opening chapter. But from the outset it’s apparent he’s trying to direct the reader’s attention toward Maleger. It is the question of Maleger’s death, (rather than Alison’s murder), that draws Bencolin, and this was the driving force behind the story.
Anjana: The magician Maleger is shown to be the larger than life backdrop for everyone’s emotions in this tale, and I am not sure how I felt about it even after the solution was revealed.
Kate: Yeah, I know what you mean, Anjana. Maleger is a tricky character because the majority of our information concerning him is from the memories of other characters. We never see Maleger in his prime, which I think alters matters.
A key component of the story is the rivalry between Bencolin and Von Arnheim, so we decided to take a look at it…
Kate: I think the rivalry between the detectives is well presented but the problem is that the detectives are so keen to avoid their opponent figuring out anything important, that they don’t tend to reveal very much of their thoughts about the case.
Laurie: Did you get the sense that Bencolin had the solution from the beginning…that he was playing with Von Arnheim?
Kate: I think Bencolin has some idea, but his theory did change as he uncovered more facts. Not that we can tell exactly when he arrives at the solution as he keeps his cards so close to his chest. It is interesting that he is prepared to let his rival appear to win in order to achieve his own perception of justice. This is unusual given that there are hints that in the past they have tried to kill each other.
Anjana: The rivalry did add some extra drama to the scenes, with the backdrop of storms raging on the outside!
Naturally our focus then shifted to the ending of the book and how justice is played out…
Anjana: What jarred me the most was the way Bencolin lets it all just go. After all that trouble, the tricks, the drama, he is happy that the truth does not get out.
Laurie: Carr is well known for letting his detectives have justice on their terms.
Kate: I think this is the first story I have read by Carr where the killer gets away with it. Possibly, maybe the second, but I didn’t realise he did it so often. This is something I more readily associate with Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley.
Anjana: Even in the short story, he allows the killer to walk free.
Kate: Yes, that is a theme shared by both stories in this reprint, which surprised me as I didn’t expect him to act in that way.
We also discussed various bits of misdirection, which Carr uses to muddy the investigative waters…
Laurie: Another piece of misdirection was the “attempt” to kill Bencolin at the beginning by D’Aunay. There was no apparently reason for the attempt, or none that we were given. It, along with the mysterious “child” were brought into the story as red herrings, yet Carr never came back around to tie up those loose threads. It was a point of frustration for me.
Kate: Yes, D’Aunay is an odd character. He is set up as the rich businessman who thinks everyone is obtainable at a price: ‘You could feel the man’s tremendous dominance.’ Yet he strangely takes a more back seat role in the book, whilst acting in an incredibly unstable and shifty manner.
Anjana: If I were to count the number of pieces of misdirection put in on purpose, on my hand, I would need both hands. I did get played, every time I thought I was being clever, I definitely was not!
Another character we touched upon was the victim’s sister, Agatha…
Kate: Agatha is a character I really enjoyed but it is a pity we don’t spend much time with her. I liked this description of her: ‘Behind the door of a room at the front of the house I heard voices. Rather I heard a voice, tones resonant, positive and decisive. The voice belonged to a woman, as I discovered when my guide opened the door.’ Agatha is then said to be ‘a Matterhorn in white lace, glaring down over the icy slopes of herself.’
Anjana: I highlighted that too! Normally I get a little put off by descriptions of people’s fatness…but ‘Matterhorn’ and ‘icy slopes’ is another level of awesome!
Kate: Yes they definitely have a more majestic touch to them. After all Agatha is nicknamed the Duchess!
Laurie: Yes, I love that description… But interestingly, the more we get of her character—with the cigars, drinking three bottles of stout before she turns in at night and whatnot—she comes across as almost a female Fell or Merrivale. I can just hear one of them saying the line “Well, well,” she consoled, “you just tell the old Duchess all about it! Plague take me! When all your fancy detectives are stumped, I’m going to take a hand!”
Kate: I did not think of that but now I can totally see it!
The final character we looked at was Bencolin himself…
Kate: Having read It Walks by Night, I found it interesting that again in this story Bencolin is depicted using references to the devil. His hair is said to be ‘parted in the middle and twirled up like horns’ and that he has a ‘devil-face,’ as well as a ‘Mephistophelian profile.’ It’s an unusual frame of reference for a detective, as usually they are seen as the good guy, though perhaps it alludes to his ability to deceptively extract information from suspects. Equally his idea of justice may make him more of an ambiguous figure.
Laurie: This is my first Bencolin novel, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the character. I thought he would be dark, cynical and brooding…but it had a bit of a mischievous twinkle!
Anjana: Definitely! Despite the potential to hold prejudices based on the Great War, he wasn’t obnoxious about it in his interactions with Von Arnheim.
Kate: Yet I also find Bencolin is not larger than life, in the way that Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale can be.
Anjana: Is that a good thing or not in these kinds of books?
Kate: The larger than life elements of Fell and Merrivale can be very enjoyable or they can be very annoying. It depends on which book you read. So I wouldn’t say Bencolin is better or worse. Just different!
As mentioned earlier, at the end of the reprint the short story, ‘The Fourth Suspect,’ is included. Before we conclude our discussion we decided to take a quick look at it…
Kate: I liked the way it provided a variation on the idea Edgar Allan Poe introduced in his story ‘The Purloined Letter,’ showing a different way a piece of paper can be hidden in plain sight, and also destroyed…
Anjana: The ending of the main book was so sudden that I thought I was reading, (having not checked the blurb properly, earlier), the explanation for a thread of misdirection that I really wanted to see the end of! It was interesting but as I mentioned above, the ending did not give me satisfaction!
Laurie: It was obviously written by a younger Carr, but with all of its’ atmosphere, and the impossible nature of the plot, it shows the potential of the writer that is to come.
Finally, we addressed the question of ‘Would we recommend this book?’
Kate: I am somewhat in two minds. On the one hand, I don’t think it is Carr writing at his best and there are other titles I would more readily recommend. But on the other hand, I wondered whether readers new to Carr, without this prior knowledge, may not perceive it as a weaker title. Naturally the committed Carr fan will want to read this, as will those who are fond of a mystery set around a creepy and sinister house, which in true Scooby Doo fashion has a caretaker who vanishes.
Laurie: I’m so torn here. In Castle Skull I found a story that is full of everything I expect, and love, from Carr—with a cherry on top. Everything is embellished with melodrama and the macabre. Details are vivid, at times to the point of garishness, the mood is gothic and brooding, and emotions are chaotic. Simply put, Carr piles it on with relish. Yet there was something quite fun about it all. The exuberance of it all made me feel that Carr was enjoying every word that he wrote. However, while I willingly went along for the ride, by the end, the craziness of it left me needing something more calming and quieter. But instead of a tranquilizer, I read an R. Austin Freeman…that’ll relax anyone! [Kate: To the point of becoming comatose…]
Anyways…Love it, or hate it, this is a definite read for any true Carr fan. But, if the reader happens to be new to Carr, I would wait a bit to read this one. As Kate alludes to, it’s not one of his best works, but with the perspective of some of Carr’s later writing behind you, it will be better appreciated.
Anjana: This is only my second Carr book, and that might be why I liked it more than you two did. I would recommend it to those who find the synopsis, (or this entire review), interesting because I doubt it has the power to put people off.