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

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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!