Castle Skull (1931): John Dickson Carr

★★★

Henri Bencolin: Book 2

The British Library Crime Classics series doesn’t just embrace British writers. Castle Skull is positively international: the work of the American crime novelist John Dickson Carr, set in Germany, with the Parisian detective Bencolin as its protagonist. It’s one of Carr’s earlier works, published in 1931, and he seems to have thrown everything at it in an excess of exuberance. A mystery, but also a macabre piece of Grand Guignol, this story takes us deep into the dark gorges of the Rhineland, and to the eponymous Castle Skull, former home of the magician Maleger. This extravagant folly was left jointly in his will to his friends Jerome d’Aunay, the Belgian financier, and Myron Alison, the British actor. But now d’Aunay has come to Paris in search of Bencolin’s brilliant mind, for there has been a horrific death, and the castle has seen blood spilled upon its walls: ‘Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’ It’s definitely one of the more ‘what the…?!’ opening gambits in detective fiction. A blazing body; a castle shaped like a skull; a whole treasure trove of dark secrets… Bencolin can’t resist and, along with his friend (and the book’s narrator) Jeff Marle, he heads for the Rhineland to discover the full sinister history of Castle Skull.

On some levels, this is a standard murder mystery. We have the murder, the household full of suspects waiting to be questioned, and the predictable cat-and-mouse game between witnesses and detective, to unearth the truth. But Carr’s novel is quite different from any other Golden Age mystery that I’ve read so far, because it relishes every possible occasion for the melodramatic. Even his hero Bencolin has positively satanic looks, which suit the theatrical weirdness of this particular adventure. Carr describes:

The black hair, parted in the middle and twirled up like horns. The long inscrutable eyes, with hooked brows drawn down. The high cheekbones, the aquiline nose. The slow smile, stirring between small moustache and black pointed beard.

At the Alison villa, tucked into a wooded hillside across the Rhine from the looming (and unoccupied) Castle Skull, Bencolin and Marle meet the possible suspects. This is, essentially, a country-house-weekend murder, with a typically diverse selection of guests: the lively party-girl Sally Reine, with her square-cut black bob and flapper manners; the bumbling young Englishman Sir Marshall Dunstan; Jerome d’Aunay himself, and his English wife Isobel; and the virtuoso violinist Levasseur. Even minor characters are gifted with elaborate descriptions, though Carr’s similies are sometimes unexpected, as in this case of Hoffman the butler: ‘with his pale eyebrows under a bulging forehead, his round blue eyes, snub nose, and drooping mouth, he looked rather like a middle-aged kewpie doll‘. At the head of the household is Alison’s middle-aged sister Agatha, known by all as the Duchess, who rules her guests with bluff, roaring good humour and the regular application of glasses of stout (‘a veritable wild-woman, who smokes cigars, swears, and plays poker all night… a massive woman, a Matterhorn in white lace‘). There’s one more character to take into account: Brian Gallivan, a journalist and collector of ghost-stories, who knows more about the magician Maleger than first appears.

And, for a dead man, Maleger casts a long shadow over this household. Gifted with a demonic and malevolent imagination, he spent his life creating terrifying theatrical illusions: a fascination which carried through to his restoration of Castle Skull: ‘He spent a year transforming that weird ruin into a place of the nightmare… every trick of his ingenuity was expended on devices to make the average man fear for his wits.’ The castle grew into its name, with a great dome between two towers evoking the curve of a skull; vast oval windows added for eyes; and an arched gallery suggesting a row of cadaverous teeth. It was the stuff of nightmares and Maleger himself, its baleful architect, was no better: Carr describes his ‘terrible and sinister force… his uncanny penetrating look of dark eyes, and his great skull with its plumes of reddish hair‘. Carr is strangely fascinated by characters who have large skulls: the motif comes up several times, as if he can’t quite shake off the shadow of the towering anthropomorphic fortress on its precipitous crag. And there’s something unsettling about Maleger even in death, because the manner of that death was so unconventional – vanishing from a locked, otherwise empty train carriage during the course of a journey, only to be fished out of the Rhine several days later. Even now, years later, when another death is at the front of everyone’s mind, people are still haunted by Maleger. Was it suicide? Murder? Did the great showman fake his own demise?

As you can see, Bencolin has plenty to disentangle. Unlike most detectives, however, he doesn’t have time to pore over his various ideas, because he isn’t the only investigator working on the case. The local police, frustrated at the arrival of a Parisian on their patch, have called for reinforcements. These take the form of Herr Baron Sigmund von Arnheim, Chief Inspector of the Berlin police and Bencolin’s nemesis, whose arrival lifts the game to a new level and introduces an element of personal rivalry. I hope there’s some background on their enmity in the first Bencolin novel, It Walks By Night, because Carr, via Marle, hints at all manner of wonderful stories: ‘I had heard tales of the time, years before, when he and Bencolin had played the tangled game of “I spy” across half Europe, and moved pieces on a deadly board behind the guns‘. Now the First World War is over, these two masters of espionage have been reduced to pitting their wits against one another in detective cases. Like all worthy enemies, they treat one another with the exquisite manners of true gentlemen. Bencolin explains, nonchalantly:

“I have felt a positive affection for him ever since we exchanged revolver-shots during a little informal gunplay in Constantinople. I regret, of course, the instance in which cyanide was dropped in my brandy during dinner with one of his secret agents; but I feel sure the good baron had ordered nothing more than knockout drops. This error I pointed out to him, in a polite note, and he promised to censure his careless operative most severely.”

There is drama everywhere here: in the murder, in the setting, in the reactions of the suspects, and even in the competition between two rival detectives. Some people might, reasonably, feel that Carr is over-egging the pudding, cranking the melodrama up to eleven simply to whip the reader’s nerves into a frenzy. Yet there’s something rather fun about abandoning oneself to the ride, because Carr is palpably enjoying himself so much. Even inconsequential moments, such as the initial journey to Coblenz, are heavy with portent and pathetic fallacy (‘the dull clouds were shot with low streaks of red. They lit the dark, jagged line of trees, they trembled in weird dapplings on the mysterious water‘); and, when Marle arrives at the Alison villa, his forebodings leap into overdrive with ‘that sense of an approaching evil, which was not only formless, but topsy-turvy and mad!‘ It all has a rather breathless quality: again, that Grand Guignol flair mixed with a kind of Boy’s Own adventure, all unfolding in a setting that revels in its eerily dark legends. One of the loveliest passages of writing comes when Carr conjures up the wild beauty of the river at the very beginning, luring us into the heightened flavour of his world:

There is an old, dangerous twilight charm about the warrior Rhine when it leaves its lush wideness at Bingen. Thence it seems to grow darker. The green deepens almost to black, grey rock replaces vineyards on the hills which close it in. Narrow and winding now, a frothy olive-green, it rushes through a world of ghosts.

I won’t go into any detail about the solution to the murder, but it is predictably complicated and sensational. This is pure, unapologetic pulp fiction, so hammy that you could stuff it between two slices of bread and make a jolly good sandwich. But this sort of thing is perfect for a day when you want the book to do all the work for you, and you just want to sit back and be entertained. A fair summary might be ‘tasty but not very nourishing’, in an assessment invented some years ago by Heloise. Those who are used to the more refined mysteries of Agatha Christie might find this a little over-done for their tastes, but if you’re willing to take a brief walk on the wild side, and to throw yourself into the spirit of the novel, it makes for a delicious excursion into the macabre.

Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder whether Castle Skull was the inspiration for Castle Greyskull of He-Man fame. When I was searching for cover images for Castle Skull (see below), I found some art of Castle Greyskull as well, and was struck by how closely it sticks to the description of our Rhineland fortress: the two towers on either side, for example, though of course the skull element has been made more explicit, as befits a fantasy stronghold. Does anyone know how the Greyskull design was conceived? It’d be rather funny if a pulpy 1930s detective novel inspired a pulpy 1980s fantasy series.

A final ‘logistical’ comment. This is the second novel featuring Henri Bencolin, after It Walks by Night (1930), which is also published in the British Library Crime Classics series). The third novel, The Lost Gallows (1931), will be published by them in November 2020. At present the fourth novel, The Waxworks Murder (1932), isn’t available for Kindle and is out of print, but there is a Kindle version of the fifth and last novel, The Four False Weapons (1937). There are also four Bencolin short stories: ‘The Fourth Suspect’, which is printed at the end of Castle Skull in this volume, and three others: ‘The Shadow of the Goat’, ‘The End of Justice’ and ‘The Murder in Number Four’.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

As you can imagine, Castle Skull has stimulated the imagination of its cover designers and there are some fun variations to be found. Here’s a selection

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