January 16, 2019

La ruelle fantôme - Paul Halter (2005; tr. 2012)



“‘Whole streets disappearing, people babbling incomprehensibly about fountains, serpents and who knows what else; visions of murders; moustached men whistling while clutching photos of the tower of Pisa…’”


A street from the past, appearing as if by magic on foggy London nights. A madman speaking in riddles. A lady in red, a blind fruit seller. A house. An unsteady corridor. A floor that seems to expand into a void, and up ahead, seemingly both close and far, a lighted window provides a glimpse into strange and sordid affairs. Not all return, but those who do, tell of these strange happenings and more on Kraken Street, which cannot be found on any map, and which vanishes the second one departs from it.

“‘But it’s impossible!… A passageway cannot disappear in space and time!’”


The setup is audaciously imaginative, which is characteristic of French impossible-crime-master Paul Halter. This, approximately his thirtieth book, was published in English in 2012 as The Phantom Passage by the estimable John Pugmire of LRI (which version I read for this review). I have a special affection for Halter since his collection Night of the Wolf served as my introduction to this genre back around 2010. Counting that, this book is the 8th Halter I've read, but the first since inaugurating this blog. I must confess I've had my eye on it for some time, and with a street-themed impossible crime blog, it seemed fitting to finally jump in. 


What I like about this mystery is that it's built not simply around an impossible murder or series of murders, but an entirely impossible event. Besides the appearing and disappearing street, whose corner is marked by a particular triangulation of a billboard, a pub, and a fountain opposite which cannot be identified anywhere in the vicinity reported by the street's hapless victims. Moreover, the scenes glimpsed in the window turn out to allude to both situations which occurred as far as twenty years in the past, as well as one situation which occurs subsequent to its being played out, while in all instances there should have been no way for anyone to witness the situations as they occurred. Add to this the fact that the victims seem random and unconnected, yet some of them turn up dead after attempted to revisit the street and disappearing, and we have a thoroughly perplexing situation that has all the characteristics of a nightmare.



“The strange disappearance took place in a famously haunted area traversed by the sinister Kraken Street, a passageway with strange powers… Some compared it to a monstrous serpent—which could explain its name—a creature straight from hell, coiling itself between houses and only appearing when it was in search of a victim.” 



Our detective here is Owen Burns, assisted by Achilles Stock who also narrates. They are introduced to the strange events by Ralph Tierney, an American diplomat and old acquaintance of Owen's who, after being mistaken for a notorious wanted criminal and fleeing from the police, ends up falling victim to the nightmarish street and escaping to tell about it. Incidentally, I can't help but wonder whether Halter, consciously or not, took inspiration for this book from Carr's radio play A Razor in Fleet Street. In that play we have Bill Lesley, also an American diplomat in London, being warned that he resembles a wanted criminal, running from police when he is accosted on the street without papers, and then ending up in a strange barbershop on the second floor of a London tenement. 


“'I have a horror of simple solutions and preconceived ideas. I am rigorously opposed to the straight line.'"

While I found myself loving this setup and the various twists and turns the story takes, I could not help but feel that there was no way Halter would be able to provide convincing explanations for these events. In the end, though, I was more satisfied than I thought I would be. The actual mechanics of the missing street and the scenario that repeats on it strike me as workable if improbable (which is ok - I maintain that mysteries of this sort must be allowed to straddle the bounds of the real and the fantastic), but the motive and certain tangential elements (particularly aspects of the visions that play out in the room, as well as the identities of those involved) stretched my credibility to a fair degree. Nonetheless, this book is great fun, and required reading for anyone looking for a fantastically audacious and competently-wrought impossible narrative. 


“But Obscurity, of course. That black leper which descends on us every night; that dark enabler of crime and all forms of depravity. She’s the perfect accomplice of evil, the sworn enemy of light and truth. And, for some reason, she seems more impenetrable in London than anywhere else.”

December 10, 2018

Carr Broken Down #2 - The Lost Gallows (1931)


“Common things are made alluring by being blurred... or made terrifying because we see them out of their proper places.”


Let me start out by saying I love the idea of this novel, the residue of impressions it leaves behind after finishing it. Certain scenes and images are quite engaging, and of course I’ve titled this blog and dramatized its About page under the influence of (my hazy recollection of) an episode in this book - albeit without the disorienting fog that envelops the original scenario. The setup to the mystery is also compelling, the plot neatly constructed, and the final scene deliciously dark. So… what do I find lacking here? It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I suspect it has to do with the feeling that the impossible aspects, though largely tangential to the central mystery, nonetheless aren’t played to their full potential. But it is perhaps unfair to criticize the book for this, since the primary concern here is rather on the machinations and identity of an elusive, seemingly omnipresent “supercriminal” unfurling a meticulous and obsessive plan of revenge.


“‘[T]he supercriminal… The blind, mad little brain which buzzes forever round in its own conceit. That is why it is mad, in its own way, because it thinks about itself all the time.’”

Here in Carr’s second novel we transition from the lurid gambling-halls of Paris to fog-drenched London, and the Brimstone Club with its seedy history and “staircase which seems exactly suited for bringing coffins down,” where a strange and terrifying drama is about to play out. Someone has been sending Nazem El Moulk threatening tokens alluding to a duel he was believed to have instigated a decade earlier in Paris. A Frenchman was killed, and the British aviator charged with his murder maintained his innocence until finally hanging himself in prison. Now someone referring to himself by the moniker of legendary British executioner Jack Ketch has put in motion a plan for revenge, targeting both Nezam and his sort-of lover-associate, Colette Laverne.


On the night Jeff Marle, Bencolin, and ex-Scotland Yard inspector Sir John Landervorne venture out to see Vautrelle’s murder play “The Silver Mask,” (see It Walks by Night), Jack Ketch makes his move. A limo which had been previously seen to pick up el Moulk outside of the Brimstone Club roars past the trio as they exit the theatre, with Marle observing no one inside but the blatantly dead body of El Moulk’s chauffeur. The car races back to the club, and when the door is opened, the man is indeed dead, and no one else is found inside. El Moulk’s gloves and cane are found on the seat, along with a box containing a corsage. Later it emerges that the local police precinct received a call stating that “Nazem El Moulk has been hung on the gallows at Ruination Street.”


“It was not until then that the ultimate madness of the thing took hold of me: this comedy of lunacy in which we pursued a dead man on his joy ride through London. We were flying in pursuit of a corpse.”
This is a great setup, but here we come to my minor squabbles. The dead-man-driving bit has potential as a compelling impossibility, but it isn’t quite treated as one. Rather, it is suggested almost immediately that someone could have escaped into the heavy fog right as the car came to a stop, and there is little debate about this. Moreover, while Bencolin muses on the implications of this Ruination Street, and one Dallings has a strange experience of seeing the shadow of a gallows in some unknown place we might imagine as Ruination Street, it’s never quite built up as a true “vanishing” or “hidden” location. Indeed, the repeated insistence of investigators that there is no such street in the whole of London, as well as the name itself, makes it pretty clear that we are supposed to understand this as a figurative place. All it tells us is that El Moulk was kidnapped and carted away somewhere, where he may have been killed.
What we have here, then, is a kidnapping with some borderline-not-quite impossible aspects. A third one of these involves objects being placed on a table in El Moulk’s rooms, usually appearing suddenly while others are in the room and no one was seen to go in or out. We learn about this from a somewhat questionable source, however, and later learn there is a back door to his rooms which, while kept locked, isn’t necessarily impregnable. But this situation is perhaps the most significant impossible aspect since, while it isn’t quite played to its potential, it does have a significant bearing on the solution to the mystery.

“‘Why is a book like a piece of rope? Why is a model of a gallows like a pair of toy pistols? Answer me, and you have Jack Ketch’s secret.’”

The perplexing and sinister nature of these events is framed by Marle as the operation of “little blind gods” manipulating the persons involved and “disposing them mirthfully. Not a spinning, not a design, not an intricate doll-dance, but a cataract--blind like themselves, and roaring. The rush of waters had caught us all.” Later, however, this metaphor is modified to offer a semblance of, if not design, at least intentional agency when Marle speaks of “The blind gods weaving!” It is fitting that Marle voices this perspective, as one lacking an investigative instinct, and therefore overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of the events and unable to detect an orderly pattern or orchestrating mind underlying the events. Bencolin, however, is not prone to such befuddlement, suggests that the events are being perpetrated by a “supercriminal.” The image of the wooden figure being hung on the toy gallows echoes this notion of a god-like figure manipulating the persons in the drama like so many playthings. The subject of puppetry is also touched upon by the rather interesting Dr. Pilgrim, who muses about “‘those inexpressibly dreadful… Punch and Judy shows,’” and how “‘[e]ven the faces are hideous on those murderous dolls.’” Obviously Carr will revisit this in The Punch and Judy Murders (1936). Carr seems to have found dolls, mannequins and other figures that lifelessly mimic the human form especially unnerving. We are also made to dwell on the face of the sarcophagus in El Moulk’s rooms, which sports a face similar to that man’s, but with its brown eyes “painted in rings of black” and wearing a “fixity of blank idiocy, like those faces which are so horrible when they bend over us in the grey corridors of nightmare.” Tangentially, I laughed out loud at the section where Carr, to explain the details of the surrounding Egyptian artwork, has to filter a bit of Egyptological knowledge through our normally transparent recorder Marle: “I judged [the vases], from an imperfect knowledge of Egyptian pottery, to be of the second Theban dynasty.” Can’t do any better than a 30-year time frame, eh, Jeff? Amateur!


Carr has Bencolin criticize another aspect of Marle’s shallow thinking in a way that is quite clearly meant to defend his own writing. Bencolin is reading a fictional detective novel, The Murders at Whispering House by J.J. Ackroyd, and defends this activity as “‘the only way in which an intelligent man can find diversion in this eminently dull world.’” When Marle ventures the trite aphorism “Truth is stranger than fiction,” Bencolin attacks this as “only paradox which unimaginative people ever succeeded in inventing,” and goes on to voice what must have been a nagging point of contention for Carr: “‘We taunt fiction writers with that obscene jeer-- and then we fall into a great state of rage when they write something strange to answer us… We think it very bad, by some twisted process of logic, that fiction should fulfill its manifest purpose. By the use of the word “improbable” we try to scare away writers from any dangerous use of their imaginations.’” I am unaware if Carr felt the need to defend himself against anyone in particular, though in his biography, Douglas Greene notes that some reviewers criticized It Walks by Night for its various failures of verisimilitude, including one Arnold Bennett who “judged it not as fantasy but as an approximation to reality, on which grounds the book fails totally” (73).


“‘There is one man I know, jus’ one, I was afraid of. You wouldn’ know him. His name it is Bencolin… He laugh and laugh all the time. He don’ believe nothing at all.’”


A minor qualm I have with this novel is the irritating speech quirks of certain characters. Both El Moulk and the Frenchwoman Colette apparently speak with the same unrealistic foreign accent (neither an Arab nor Frenchwoman nor any nationality I know of would say “the” as “t’e,” however Carr expects that to be heard). Other characters, like the drunk Graffin and dim-witted boy Teddy, are endowed with equally annoying manners of diction. I think it’s fair to say that Carr doesn’t usually excel at rendering idiosyncratic or non-standard speech in dialogue, but I think he manages especially poorly here.
Despite the various small criticisms I’ve leveled at it, the novel does succeed admirably well as a whodunnit, with a genuinely surprising culprit and a believable motive, if packaged with a rather excessively drawn-out execution which even Bencolin calls “‘so elaborate it becomes comical.’” Even so, and notwithstanding (or perhaps, because of) the fact that Carr “sometimes remained at the typewriter for thirty-six hours straight, without sleep or food” when writing this book (Greene 75), this book feels both tighter and more complex than its predecessor. So, despite the lack of a great impossibility, I still think I’d place this slightly higher than It Walks by Night and give it a rating of 3.8/5.


Let us examine the solution.


Click here to show the solution breakdown. Full spoilers ahead.

Warning to mobile users! The following section contains spoilers. If you have not read The Lost Gallows, read no further!


So first, the true events of the episode in Paris ten years prior. A wealthy man, El Moulk employs Colette Laverne as well as De Lavateur and the mysterious Keane in some kind of unclear assistant-type capacity. Following a lavish Egyptian-themed party, El Moulk apparently encourages the two drunken men to fight a duel, and proceeds to kill De Lavateur with Keane’s gun and then frame him for the murder. We learn that the dead man was found in the woods wearing Egyptian robes and sandals, no doubt the garb he had donned at the party. The motive for this crime is never explicitly given, but we can infer it from the bit of faux-papyrus text found in this J.L. Keane’s book Tales of the Lost Land, which tells of “Uba-Aner...a captain of war,” friend to one Nezam Kha.em.uast, who is in love with a beautiful woman from Thebes. That woman, however, only has eyes for Uba-Aner, and so the jealous Nezam “accused him, saying that he had performed treachery against the King…[w]herefore he was tried by justice… [and] suffered death.” It seems pretty clear that Nezam is, well, Nezam El Moulk, Uba-Aner is to be understood as the aviator Keane, and Colette Laverne as the woman of Thebes. Colette does tell us in her initial narrative of the events in Chapter 6 that, “‘He thought De Lavateur and Keane were favourites of mine, instead of him.’” So, El Moulk orchestrated this duel in order to get both love rivals out of the way at once. We learn later, rather unconvincingly I think, that Graffin has managed to supply an envelope with proof of Nezam’s guilt in this matter, including a photograph. El Moulk apparently has convinced Teddy to burn this envelope prior to the climax, however.


Perhaps El Moulk was unaware of this tale upon first undertaking his scheme, or he might have balked given the bleak fate of his allegorical double. Following this unjust action, Ra’s vengeance is awakened against Nezam Kha.em.uast, who walks in Ruination Street, the Street of Traitors, trailed serpent-like by “a leathern bow-string, which no man moved by his hands,” and which coils about his neck and kills him. I particularly liked the ending, as I mentioned in my review, as the careless El Moulk falls through the trap with the steel coil around his neck in the midst of a frenetic celebration at his perceived escape from the judgements of the “dead” Egyptian gods.


It is convenient that this Keane has decided to venture around in Paris under an assumed name, and it able to keep his name so concealed that even the courts of justice cannot pry it out of him. For, had he gone by his true name of Landervorne, we would not have much of a mystery here. Marle reminds us in Chapter 6 that Bencolin had, in Chapter 1, mentioned the dead man in Egyptian robes with a bullet through his head. There, he calls it “one of the strangest crimes” he ever knew. We are given an early indication of Sir John’s relation to the matter when, after Bencolin mentions the subsequent suicide of the Englishman, a “flush” rises under Sir John’s cheekbones and he sits “curiously rigid,” an obvious sign of discomfort. But of course then, we take it as stiff Anglo-Saxon discomfort toward indulging in the lurid details of the crime (in the context of their conversation just prior comparing Anglo and Gallic types).


In the shocking reveal at the end of Chapter XVII, we learn that Sir John Landervorne himself is the elusive Jack Ketch, calculated terrorizer of Nezam El Moulk for his having, as revealed by the blackmailing attendant Graffin, framed this Keane fellow who was actually Landervorne’s son. He has managed to pull of his elaborate scheme with the assistance of the diminutive halfwit and general errand-boy at the Brimstone Club, Teddy. Of course, what makes this shocking is that the reader has the general feeling that Landervorne, besides being “formerly assistant commissioner of the metropolitan police,” has generally been present on the investigation side, with no time to be cavorting about as this sinister and always vaguely attested tall man, stringing together his elaborate hangman’s rope. So how was this double-dealing accomplished?


First, the sort-of-impossible dead man joyride through London. This is one of those things where, if the observed “driver” is indeed dead, there can’t possibly be any solution other than, somebody else was driving, but their size and/or poor viewing conditions prevented witnesses from seeing them. No mechanical means were possible here, because the car was steered and directed in a conscious manner, and the 1930s offers no conceivable means for a self-driving vehicle. I was hoping it would be some miraculous left-field solution, but alas, it was as suggested: Teddy was driving, squished in beside the corpse of the massive ex-boxer chauffeur, invisible due to the foggy night and his own small frame. The method, but not the culprit, is pretty much explained less than halfway through the book, in Chapter 8. We learn later that he was supposed to abandon the car somewhere out in the country, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to drive it around himself, finally returning to the one place with which he was familiar. I only find it damn well unbelievable that he managed to open the driver’s side door, scramble out over the large body, close the driver’s side door, and disappear presumably into the street when the car finally comes to a stop outside the Brimstone Club. Yes, it is dark and foggy, but the taxi carrying our investigators pulls up directly behind as the vehicle stops, they get out of the car straightaway, and when Bencolin opens the driver’s side door, the chauffeur’s corpse falls right out onto the pavement. Not quite a cheat, I guess, but Carr sets up more than he can deliver with this one. Although I must say it is a nice touch with the dead man’s buttons and gilt tassels being cut off his coat, and his finger nearly hacked off for a ring; as Bencolin points out later, these actions are incommensurate with the calculated methods and seemingly non-pecuniary motive of Jack Ketch, and thus implicate an immature and incompetent accomplice. Our discovery of Teddy’s involvement also recasts his apprehension when we first encounter him, as it emerges he was unnerved by a promo photo of Smail as a boxer, which he encountered in El Moulk’s desk when returning the items he stole at Sir John’s behest (though there doesn’t appear to have been any reason for him to do this).


This episode begins the misdirection which forces us to look away from Sir John, because he was at the theatre and obviously could not have been kidnapping El Moulk and setting off corpses on cruise control. But an early indicator of his possible involvement is something I myself found curious upon first reading: the toy gallows that the trio are discussing in the first chapter, and Bencolin stows away in a cabinet, is found after El Moulk’s disappearance out on the table with the little wooden man hung from it. Only Bencolin, Marle and Sir John had known where the gallows was hidden. Granted, anyone could find it, but it seems unlikely some external person would have. One never knows whether small details such as this one are intended to be glossed over by the author, but of course we should expect more from Carr, and he doesn’t fail us here. Later, Bencolin manages to deduce from the black stain on El Moulk’s gloves, left on the passenger seat of the limo along with his sword-walking-stick and boxed corsage that he must have simply gotten into the limo and been driven around to the back entrance to his rooms, soiling his glove with the grime on the handrail (which somehow itself bore visible evidence of this disturbance). El Moulk was tricked into this plot by Sir John, who approached him privately and claimed he had a plan to trap Jack Ketch, if only the man would pretend to leave and then accompany Sir John up to the secret rooms on the top floor (which he may have known about due to his long tenure as a police officer, or because Teddy told him of them). In reality, his took this opportunity to detain El Moulk with a steel cord around his neck. He then killed the chauffeur Smail, since the man was a witness to El Moulk’s actual whereabouts, sent him off with Teddy. All this within about a half an hour, after which he met Marle and Bencolin for dinner prior to their attending the theatre.


As I have quoted above, Bencolin draws our attention to the importance of the means of delivery for the various objects of menace Landervorne employs, later making clear that only non-fragile objects such as the book, the rope and the wooden figure “appeared” on the desk in El Moulk’s rooms, while the more fragile objects (model gallows, glass dueling pistols, funerary urn) were sent through the post. This is because the former items were dropped from above by way of an inconspicuous trap door set in the ceiling which later becomes El Moulk’s impromptu hanging platform. I suspect Landervorne’s plan was to drop him from there at the appointed time. We are also introduced by Bencolin to the idea of a secret room in which El Moulk has actually been hidden inside the Brimstone Club around Chapter 15, but it is still unclear exactly where this might be situated. Another interesting, subtle point indicating Sir John as the culprit is that when the chief inspector at the local Vine Street station, Talbot, reports that a caller “insisted” on speaking to him to relay the message that “Nezam El Moulk has been hung…”. We aren’t actually told that Talbot was asked for by name, but it is later implied to be the case as Bencolin points out that it would be unusual for some local person to know the name of the inspector in charge of their district, and that Sir John did know this name since he suggests calling Talbot following the murder of the chauffeur.


The whole business with the corsage was meant to suggest that El Moulk planned to go out that evening with Colette Laverne, who herself is later targeted by Sir John due to her involvement in the Paris events. In this scene, he rather surprisingly murders a police officer guarding her building and manages to coax her out by claiming that he is from Scotland Yard, and that her pursuer has been found. A call from El Moulk, prompted by Sir John, further helps to lower her guard. This also explains why Sharon mentions her laughing in the street, along with the man who takes her away - because she is relieved that her troubles are over. However, one point I couldn’t get around in this episode is, how did Colette not notice the dead cop in the stairwell, when she must have passed him to get downstairs? I can’t detect any effort to explain this; it is simply glossed over. Another thing I disliked is that Jack Ketch appears in one or two places, for example, inquiring whether El Moulk is in, or outside on the street after sweeping away Colette Laverne, but his face is not noticed or recognized by apparent sheer luck.


The episode where Dallings ends up ostensibly in “Ruination Street” with the shadow of the gallows cast on the wall is explained by his being confused about his actual whereabouts after Colette deserts him in the cab, which is clued in a way that would be difficult for the reader to deduce on his own. Bencolin determines that, since it took Dallings only a certain time to reach a particular street, he could not have been near where he believes he was, but rather must have been in the street behind the Brimstone Club. The shadow he saw was of the gallows on Sir John’s desk, backlit and projected through the window on the opposite wall as, brooding over his plan of vengeance, he toys around with hanging the wooden figure upon it.


Yes, yes, I know, fiction stranger than truth, and so forth - but I cannot resist pointing out that Sir John sabotages himself with this extremely elaborate scheme. It is one thing to draw out a reign of terror for several months on some folks you really want to take vengeance on, but why involve the police by sending them cryptic messages? And why pull off the stunt when Bencolin is not only in town, but lodged in the building which lies at the very center of the events? It seems silly to ask questions such as these, but to me, it is worth nitpicking if only so that one can set standards that will define really superior, pinnacle-of-the-art mysteries, wherein every miniscule element may find a place, and even the most outlandish elements be justified within the parameters defined by the narrative. This novel is not perfect in every regard, but it is nicely clued and pretty tightly constructed. Although, I must say I appreciated it more after writing this solution analysis than I did directly upon finishing. I think going forward, I will write my little review-rundown after I spend some time considering the novel’s mystery mechanics.

November 16, 2018

Carr Broken Down #1 - It Walks by Night (1930)


“There must be sanity to the play somewhere; if there is no meaning in any of these incidents, there is no meaning in all the world…” 

In a glowing 1968 review of the generally lambasted late Carr novel Papa Lá-Bas, Allen J. Hubin hearkens back to the first offering of the master thirty-eight years earlier: "How many reviewers in that year, having read It Walks by Night, consulted their crystal balls and saw even a measure of the heights John Dickson Carr would climb in succeeding decades?" I would imagine there to have been more than a few, as this is really a fine debut blending creativity and tautness of plotting with a strong impossibility and at times dreamlike sensibility, all rendered in a lurid Grand Guignol style. 

If I had acquired the book on the basis of its first edition covers, I might have been a bit disappointed. The title and hairy-hand image, along with a fictional preface referring to "a misshapen beast with blood-bedabbled claws" suggest the presence of a werewolf or supernatural monster, while the real suspect is rather a refined and stealthy human killer who boasts that he has "ways of getting into houses" that no one knows of but himself. Still cool, but not appropriately indicated by these things. 

“‘That night I tapped on the windowpane and beckoned to this woman, but she refused to come out; I think she was frightened by the blood on my mouth.’”


The plot concerns the murder of the Duc Raoul de Saligny, a famous athlete found beheaded in the card room of Paris gaming house Fenelli's with an ornamental sword. Witnesses stationed at both exits swear that no person left the room during the ten minutes between when Raoul was seen to enter and a waiter discovered the body, but no killer can be found. The partially-open window in the room is found to have undisturbed dust on the outer sill, and to offer no means of maneuvering up or down the exterior wall. So, how did the killer escape? 

It is assumed from the start that the murderer is Alexandre Laurent, ex-husband of Madame Louise de Saligny whose wedding to Raoul had taken place that very day. A Poe-obsessed aesthete and sociopath with a lust for blood, he had been committed to an asylum the year prior after attacking his then-wife with a razor, but managed to escape and eventually return to Paris. Just prior to the wedding date he had sent a note threatening Raoul not to go through with the marriage, and had, according to Madame Louise, appeared before her in a washroom where he cryptically dropped a trowel on the floor before vanishing. Finding Laurent is no simple matter, however, since besides escaping the crime scene with virtually no trace (his fingerprints are later confirmed to be found on the window), he underwent plastic surgery to alter his face prior to leaving Vienna, and ensured the surgeon's eternal silence with a sharp blade and a cranium-sized jar of alcohol...


“Ambergris for passion; bright star-points for romance, and downstairs a severed head grinning at the dark…”

The Mephistophelian juge d'instruction Henri Bencolin leads the investigation, eventually managing to draw out both method and culprit simply by way of the details at hand, though forensic evidence is appealed to in order to solidify a case. His approach to investigation is unadorned and coldly professional. He views his role as to logically work out the truth of the situation, as well as collect forensic evidence to help prove it in court. He does not sleep when working on a case, instead moving about collecting information and aided by his talents of stealthy observation and eavesdropping. He also pays heed to the psychological aspects of crime, in this case even being attended by the Viennese alienist Grafenstein, who had once studied Laurente himself. There is really no humor whatsoever in Bencolin ("'...I usually find that the ridiculous is not very far removed from black fear'"), and he gives off quite a different feel than his successors Fell and Merrivale. 

“The light over him turned his face to a devilish and inhuman mask. The black eyebrows slanted and hooked down over gleaming eyes; the thin, cruel lines going down from shadowed cheek-bones past small moustache and pointed beard, the parted hair twirled up like horns…”

Jeff Marle, our narrator, is only loosely associated with the actual investigation, and in fact is rather incompetent as a sleuth himself, repeatedly overlooking or forgetting what turn out to be pertinent clues (and getting chided by Bencolin for it). Part of this owes to his distracting attraction to Sharon Gray, a young American woman of questionable repute who frequents the seedier third floor of Fenelli's. There is a sensuality and sort of opium-induced haze surrounding Sharon which draws Marle in, adding a dimension of sensual bewilderment which is in stark contrast to the cold rationality of detection. Marle’s ostensible attempts to "question" her lead him further into a sort of anti-deductive bewilderment, the effect of awkward romantic attraction that precludes investigative speech: “We spoke in commonplaces; in fact, I do not remember what we spoke about at all. Conversation was halting, in that groping, that sense of a barrier never referred to, which could be broken in an instant, but was not broken by either.” Indeed, it is suggested that Marle's susceptibility to these influences accounts for his ratiocinative shortcomings, such as where he describes his final impression of her upon leaving after their first meeting, when “stars and orchid light, dark-gold hair and amber eyes poised in motionless fragile beauty, were shut back into the night by the closing door. I realized, wryly, that I should never make a detective.”

“‘But—did you ever have a premonition—like—the fear of death—hollowing out the inside of your heart—with a cold hook?’”

Carr draws a fine balance here between the fantastic and irrational, and the razor's edge of reason as the entirety of the events are explained by Bencolin across some 40 pages. Even though this is his first novel, there is nothing of the amateur here; Carr's writing is brisk and self-assured, delving by turns into lurid grotesquerie and impassioned reverie. The solution is fairly clued, workable (though of course with a heavy dose of improbability), and involves a fine bit of misdirection as well as a bit of ingenious detail involving the reason Saligny was kneeling when he was killed. If Carr had written no further novels after this one (quelle horreur!), I think this would still be lauded as a mystery-horror classic. In the context of his overall body of work, however, it may be easily overshadowed by perhaps a dozen greater titles, if not more. Still an accomplished work, and worth reading for anyone interested in mystery novels with a darker tinge. 

Rating: 3.7/5

If you've read this book, have a look at my solution breakdown below!

Click here to show the solution breakdown. Full spoilers ahead.

Warning to mobile users! The following section contains spoilers. If you have not read It Walks by Night, read no further!

The first component of the solution is that the person we believe to be the murdered Saligny is actually Laurent, the person presumed to have murdered him. This accounts for Laurent’s fingerprints having been on the window of the room. Bencolin explains that Laurent, having undergone plastic surgery to make his features match Saligny’s, then killed Saligny sometime in Vienna with a blow to the back of the head, transported his body back to France in the man’s own luggage, and then bricked him up in the wine cellar of his own house à la “Cask of Amontillado.”


So, let us examine the cluing behind this aspect. A curious thing that stood out to me was the discrepancy in accounts of Saligny’s English ability. Vautrelle, a close friend, scoffs at the idea that the man knows more than a few words of English, but the non-francophone Sid Golton has clearly conversed with Saligny in English, and Sharon Grey mentions Saligny quoting poetry to her. Unless we take Vautrelle to be lying, we must feel that there is some impersonation trickery going on. "The Cask of Amontillado" is itself referenced earlier in the novel, as is Laurent’s fondness for Poe, Laurent-as-Saligny’s uncharacteristically covetous handling of the wine cellar key, and we have of course Madame Louise’s account of Laurent’s sinister dropping of the trowel in the bathroom. It is not uncommon in this genre for some kind of impersonation to factor in to a solution, but the situation here stretches credibility to the extreme, requiring a loosening of any standards of verisimilitude. Although, Carr tries to support this element in several ways to make it more palatable. For example, Saligny’s falling from a horse could account for changes in behavior and even taste, if we accept a mild brain injury. Likewise, Saligny's close friend Vautrelle rather quickly sees through the façade, though he doesn’t let on to it (Per Bencolin, “‘He [Laurent] fancies that he can deceive one of Raoul’s friends, which, you will admit, is a ridiculous idea.’”); Laurent hires a new valet, who has never known the old Saligny; and he generally attempts to hide from any former acquaintances. He is able to deceive the estimable old M. Kilard, because that man was primarily a friend of his father and did not known the younger Saligny very well. We are also told that Laurent is a gifted mimic.


But overall, the idea of a man like Laurent, a non-athlete who presumably would have a different gait, body type, and voice than Saligny, same eye and hair color notwithstanding, being able to pass during any interaction for the latter man is indeed preposterous, especially when it comes to that man’s fiancée. Carr has Bencolin engage in a rather unconvincing disquisition about how we tend to recognize our friends more by their mannerisms, and that Madame Louise was attracted to Saligny because he somewhat resembled Laurent, and that when Laurent-as-Saligny appeared, she was so used to ‘seeing’ Laurent in Saligny that, “Paradoxically, the only one who might have found him out was the only one who could not possibly do so [e.g. Madame herself].” These details are not wholly satisfying, but must be taken for what they are. Ultimately it seems to have been Vautrelle who drew Madame’s attention to the impersonation.
Let us address motive. Laurent’s reason for killing Saligny appears to be a mixture of jealousy over his marrying Madame Louise, Laurent’s ex-wife, and Laurent’s deranged affinity for murderous behavior. Bencolin determines that Laurent had planned to dramatically unveil Saligny’s body to Madame Louise, kill her as well, and then abscond with the million francs he withdrew for their honeymoon. Madame Louise is easily induced to kill Laurent-as-Saligny, for numerous reasons: he has harmed her in the past, he has (presumably, as she couldn’t have known this) killed her fiancé, and she has fallen in love with Vautrelle. She then kills Vautrelle later because he was an accessory to her murder of Laurent-as-Saligny, and he had gotten her addicted to drugs and then profited financially from it, and lastly, he had been using this money to seduce Sharon Gray. His ultimate goal was to marry Madame Louise after the death of her “husband,” so that he could have access to her money. Madame Louise also serves as an early example of Carr’s fascination with the theme of a lust for murder lying dormant, or perhaps concealed, within the heart of a woman: as Marle listens to her describe how, instead of splitting his face in two as she had planned, she rather cut his head clean off, he thinks “of those women of the renaissance, who derive a part of their very fascination from the poisoned cruelty of their beauty, and their moist lips whose charm blots out the dagger behind the back.”


The actual murderer is, of course, a real shock, even though there are few other persons it could have been. This is because of the misdirection whereby we believe Madame Louise to be with Bencolin et. al. when Saligny (or whoever it could be) enters the card room. The glaring clue that hints at the murder time being earlier than 11:30 is given in the timetable, which shows that Laurent-as-Saligny’s movements could not be accounted for for a whopping thirty-five minutes. This caught my attention while reading, and I came to suspect some jiggery-pokery regarding the time of the murder. A very fine clue, and one that I found very intriguing during my first reading, was the fact that Laurent-as-Saligny had been down on one knee when he was decapitated. It is obviously unthinkable that an athletic sportsman (assuming as we do at first that Saligny was the victim) would humbly submit himself to the blade in this fashion, but it is eminently reasonable to suppose he might assume that position in some gesture of respect to a woman. Of course, the truth is that he was buckling Madame Louise’s shoe, a wonderfully ingenious explanation for this bit, as I noted in my review above. I really like when small discrepancies like this have neat explanation; I am reminded, for example, of reviews I’ve read of Paul Halter’s The Madman’s Room, in which mysterious puddles of water factor in. I have not yet read it, but I am enticed by how that may be accounted for.

A peculiar challenge of any impossible crime narrative is to justify the often elaborate lengths taken by the murderer(s) in order to conceal the means or method of the crime. Here, Carr handles it by making Vautrelle an aspiring playwright interested in crime, who has applied his artistry in the orchestration of an actual murder, while also being fueled by mixed motives of revenge and desire for financial gain.


After killing Laurent, Madame Louise exits through the hall door, then goes back into the roulette room to join Bencolin, Marle and Grafenstein. Vautrelle enters the card-room via the roulette room, having a profile similar to Laurent-Saligny, and Madame’s assertion that he is Raoul is sufficient to make it appear so. He then rings the bell (explaining that point, which had previously served to emphasize the fact that the killer had to have been in the room at 11:30) and, taking twelve seconds total, walks straight out through the hall door and directly into “the projection of the smoking room.” Things become a bit muddy here, and a floor plan is necessary. My 1941 Pocket Books edition lacks one, but I must thank the proprietor of the TYKIWDBI blog for posting one from his edition here. I reproduce it below:




From here, we can tell that Vautrelle exits the card room into the hall and immediately turns left and enters the smoking room, then veers right and exits from the alternate door into the hall, directly where François is standing. The latter’s initial position, of course, prevented him from seeing anyone exit the card room, though this seems a rather glaring blind-spot. Nonetheless, Vautrelle’s alibi is established by his asking François the time nearly exactly when Saligny supposedly would have first entered the card room.


Sticking points:
  • Why would Madame Louise make up the detail about Laurent dropping a trowel on the floor when he appears in the bathroom? There is no suggestion that she knew Saligny’s body had been bricked into the wall.
  • How could Laurent reasonably ship a decomposing body from Vienna to France without anyone detecting a stench, even if he had Saligny’s immunity from luggage searches?
  • Related to the above: we are told that Laurent left plastic surgeon Dr. Rothswold’s house in Vienna “carrying two valises,” after which police found that man’s head in a jar of alcohol, “but there was no trace of his body.” What happened to it then? Are we to assume it was also in the valises? This point, though tangential, is never explained.
  • How would no one in this busy gaming house happen to venture into the card-room, even just for a smoke or some idle talk, for approximately forty minutes while the murder was committed and the corpse lying there? Especially considering it is an easy shortcut between the parlor and the smoking room?


I welcome any comments discussing the sticking points or any other aspects I may have omitted from consideration. Of course, please mark any comments discussing the solution with a spoiler warning.


October 31, 2018

The Red Right Hand (1945) - Joel Townsley Rogers


“‘This is definitely a surrealistic murder. It is the murder of a genius. It has symbolism. […] You, Dr. Riddle, are too pragmatic and unimaginative to understand it. What you need is to believe with all your soul in phantasms which cannot possibly exist.’”

Joel Townsley Rogers was a prolific short story writer beginning in the 1920s, writing adventure and weird menace stories. He wrote four novels but this one, his second, is undoubtedly his most successful.

That is because this book is fantastic (in every sense of the term)!

The New York Times blurb for this book when it was released on May 11, 1945 read simply: "A Detective Story." But this really isn't one. Rather, it is a relentlessly dark horror-noir-puzzler with moments of absurd humor, whose resolution comes about from the narrator, a doctor, reasoning his way through the events. Two days later a review by Isaac Anderson aptly concludes: "It is a strange and terrifying story, and the solution to the mystery, while perfectly logical, is not at all what one is led to suspect."

The plot involves the murder of the young bridegroom Inis St. Irme, who is heading to the house of an acquaintance from New York City to Vermont in order to marry his girlfriend. Along the way, they pick up a thoroughly repulsive and oddly-dressed vagrant, referred to as Corkscrew or Doc, who ambushes them after stopping at a nearby lake, chases Inis and then, after wounding or killing him, speeds off in his car on a mad tear through the countryside. He races down a local road, hitting and killing a dog as well as another man. Then he turns down the Swamp Road, abandons the car, and disappears along with Inis.

At the same time as this is going on, our narrator, Dr. Harry Riddle, Jr., is motoring back to New York City from Vermont when he breaks down on the Swamp Road near the entrance, partially blocking the street. Despite being at the car for about an hour, exactly during the time Corkscrew would have roared directly past him, he could reliably swear that he did not hear or see any car pass by. And herein lies the first impossibility: how could the killer’s car have passed Dr. Riddle without his noticing it?


Various local people along with a police lieutenant become aware of what happened and try to locate Corkscrew and St. Irme. A search party eventually fans out in the countryside and finds the latter’s body crammed into the swamp. His face has been nearly defleshed, and his right hand is missing. But Corkscrew remains elusive. A second impossible aspect emerges later when it appears that the man Corkscrew hits and kills with his car had been seen by Dr. Riddle walking further down along the road, after the time he was supposedly hit.


“The problem is not of the phantasm of a man I saw who did not exist, however. The problem is of a murder car I did not see, which did.”


Now, all this makes the novel sound interesting enough. But there is another, less tangible aspect that adds another dimension to the narrative, something we might consider a third impossibility. It wouldn’t exactly be a spoiler to recount it here, as it is something any reader would pick up on, but the narrative has a subtle way of revealing it so that some may grasp it earlier than others. Dr. Riddle himself conveys it, though he is not aware of it. Rather than being a particular event or orchestration, it involves the suggestion of a particular relationship between two characters, and leads the reader to suspect a particular outcome that, given the facts, seems impossible. Another dimension is added to the reading as you begin to look for clues and small details further validating the connection.

Besides the intricate and intensely imaginative plot, the book is rather experimental in form, with the narrative proceeding non-linearly from Dr. Riddle's reflections about the scenario as Corkscrew still remains to be found. As a rational man of medicine, he feels himself caught up in a nightmare but nonetheless cannot stop trying to make sense of it, and so he alternates among discussing what happened, what might have happened and what is currently happening. This has a disorienting effect on the reader, leading to cases where, for example, people who are suggested to have been dead are talking and doing things in subsequent sections (there are no chapter breaks, just occasional paragraph breaks). Adding to the unease are recurrent motifs related to death, decay and madness, and certain expert moments of tension which take on a new reading once the full details are known. 

I consider this book not just a great mystery, but a beautifully grim and dark piece of literature. 

The solution is, so far as I can tell, fairly clued, and most of the plot elements accounted for. The plot is so nuanced and convoluted that one almost expects any explanation to be inadequate - but one would be wrong. There do remain certain coincidences and one or two other situations that, while not critical components of the central mystery, might have benefited from some kind of cursory rationalization. However, I am willing to admit the novel certain pockets of open-endedness, since I burned through this book fairly quickly and could have missed something, and (this being the paramount reason) the story intentionally proceeds according to a sort of nightmare logic that perhaps cannot, by design, wholly be reasoned away. One day I hope to re-read this book and discuss the solution!

A nightmare road. I might have dreamed it, from the time that I had turned off onto it at sunset, and with a splitting head. Phantasms and eyeless houses and a red-eyed rattlesnake and a crazy hat of mine; and old Adam MacComerou staring at me through the garden dusk as I appeared, as if he couldn’t believe that I was real; and then a dead man in the ditch…”