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.

1 comment:

  1. This is the only Bencolin I have read, so I may not be able to join you for the others! This one has atmosphere up the wazoo! I'm no prude, but I was kind of shocked at how lurid and sexual an author could get in 1930! Unfortunately - and maybe it's because I've studied Christie for so long - the actual misdirection at the start didn't work for me. I merely asked the question, "Could this be fakery of some sort?" and I had my killer. Of course, I didn't have any of the rest of the solution, so it was fun taking a ride with Bencolin. I do agree that Jeff Marle is a worthless sort of Watson. At least Hastings, stupid as he is, is a loyal soldier to Poirot!