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.