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