Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr – A strong British Library Crime Classic with added elements

Castle Skull Paperback British Library Crime Classic


This is a 1931 novel of murder, mystery and missing people with an intensely frightening atmosphere. It has been recently republished by British Library Crime Classics together with a short story. Both tales feature Inspector Henri Bencolin, the amazingly able detective, and Castle Skull is narrated by Jeff Marle, an associate of Bencolin. It is mostly set on the river Rhine, and features a castle which uses the terrain to resemble a huge human skull. This is especially so at night, when lights gleam through the glass ceiling  of a large room which gives the impression of eye sockets. Even the description of the massive building is enough to scare people, but its recent history as the scene of a spectacular murder adds to its mystery and reputation. Bencolin is summoned to investigate, but he soon discovers that it will not be a solo investigation and that his presence there is not going to be straightforward. 

This is a complicated but fascinating novel, with the elements of a small number of potential suspects in a confined space like a country house mystery. The physical explanations of the murders are also intriguing as they involve a river and much more. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this classic novel.


The novel opens with a visit to Benecolin and Marle by a Belgian, D’Aunay, who requests that they travel to the Rhineland to investigate the murder of flamboyant actor Myron Alsion, whose last appearance was a man on fire on the battlements of the Castle. Although the local police are investigating he has little confidence in their abilities, and urges Bencolin to come to the fortress opposite the Castle, Schloss Schadel, where the people closest to Alison are gathered. There is a disparate group of people present, including a Duchess related to the late actor, a young woman, a musician and D’Aunay and his wife. There are others apart from the servants who may know more than they are willing to reveal. Lurking behind the case in hand is the mysterious disappearance and discovery of the body of a conjuror, Malegar, who had long had a reputation for spectacular illusions. When a second detective, von Arnheim, gets involved in the complex case, an added level of competition to find the guilty party makes this a strong and compelling read.


The book is identified by Martin Edwards in his excellent introduction as showing all the enthusiasm of a young writer in the form of his young narrator. It gathers in gothic, horror and supernatural elements, being far away from the cosy crime prefered by some writers. Further, this was a special book where the publishers offered to refund the purchase price if the reader did not break the seal which prevented the reading of the final section of the book and returned it. That shows how confident the publishers were that the reader would be desperate to discover how the novel worked out. 


This is a novel which lingers in the mind, if only for the huge part the setting plays in the story. It is a strong story with a well drawn set of characters who compliment the complex plot. A worthy reprint in this excellent series, it has all the ingredients of a strong murder mystery.   


This is one of the latest in the series of reprints from the British Library. They have an impressive publishing wing which is producing many books not only based on exhibitions but also on subjects like books and war. I am currently reading a book of short stories from the Second World War produced a few years ago. One of their great strengths is the uniform nature of the books they produce, as well as their good value. I am looking forward to two collections of short stories in the Crime Classics series which I have to read – short stories seem perfect reads for a time while concentration can be tricky. Is anyone else enjoying short stories at the moment?



It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr – a locked room mystery reprinted by the British Library

Image result for it walks by night john dickson carr


In 1930 this book appeared written by a young American set in Paris. It was an early effort by a man who was to go on to specialise in “locked room” mysteries, and adopt Britain as his chosen place to live and write. This book sets up the typical locked room, where the body was found with no apparent way for a murderer to enter or exit. Carr was an expert in this form, and even in this early experiment went beyond a straightforward intellectual puzzle into a rich piece of writing, with details of setting and characterisation, a point well made by Martin Edwards in his informative and appreciative introduction. This novel, together with an early short story “The Shadow of the Goat” features Inspector Henri Bencolin, a thoughtful detective who takes time to thoroughly consider all the angles of the case , all possible culprits, and this is mainly based on the mystery of just how the room had been accessed. Thus it defies straightforward explanation, by defying expectations and questioning everything. 


In order that the reader has opportunity to appreciate all the circumstances of the case, the novel is narrated by one Jeff Marle, a young man set to observe and learn. Thus Parisian night life emerges, in all its delights and dangerous possibilities. In a plot which evolves over days and nights of romance, wealth and dubious pleasures, this novel features at the start a brutal murder which effects many people, and attracts many suspects. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this recent reprint in the British Library Crime Classics series. 


The peculiarities of this case are explained by Bencolin to his colleagues, experts in their respective fields which compliment his detective skills. Alexandre Laurent was a wealthy man, who for obscure reasons one day tried to murder his wife Louise. While she escaped, he was confined to an asylum, from which he managed to abscond. She had in the meantime decided to remarry, a famous sportsman Monsieur le Duc de Saligny, whose wealth and fame meant that the ceremony was to be noticed by many in society. When it became known that Laurent meant to kill this proposed bridegroom, Bencolin set out to not only keep watch but also gather these experts on the case in the place where the wedding was to be celebrated, a club or salon in fashionable Paris. Carr even provides a plan of the building, indicating the room in which a body is found, despite the best efforts of the detective and his associates. 


Carr not only sets up the puzzle, made even more obscure by the proposition that Laurent has changed his appearance by surgery so noone could predict what he truly looked like, but also adds in characters as diverse as women with strong views and men of various nationalities. Red herrings of motives, opportunities and alibis emerge, as do a full supporting cast of servants, police and other minor characters. As Carr throws in all sorts of behaviour for the principals, the narrator and the reader could be left confused. However, even in this early story Carr is able to draw everything together and leave both satisfied by this promising and elegant novel.   


I did enjoy this recent reprint; I have two more in the Crime Classics series from last year, so watch this space for more!