Friday, September 10, 2021

The Corpse in the Waxworks, by John Dickson Carr

"The purpose, the illusion, the spirit of a waxworks. It is an atmosphere of death."


British Library, 2021
originally published 1932
256 pp

(read earlier) 

A quotation from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" serves as one of two epigraphs for this book and as it turns out, it is beyond appropriate.  Words like "grotesque," "phantasm," "delirious fancies," leap out immediately, but it's more Poe's conjuring of 
"much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust" 

that truly fits the atmosphere, the setting, and the overall action in The Corpse in the Waxworks.   

More often than not I tend to forget that John Dickson Carr was an American author since he wrote so many novels set in the UK. He did spend a good twenty years there before returning back to the US, and according to most biographies, was one of only a very few American writers to be admitted into the Detection Club.    The Corpse in the Waxworks throws yet another curveball: it's set in France, and features M. Henri Bencolin, who is described in the book just prior to this one, The Lost Gallows (Poisoned Pen Press, 2021),   as "a tall and lazy Mephisto," as well as  "juge d'instruction of the Seine, the head of the Paris Police  and the most dangerous man in Europe" (4).   In the present book, he is  also noticed as a "man-hunting dandy," with an associate by the name of Jeff Marle who also serves as narrator.   

The "official" blurb for this British Library edition can be found here at the British Library's website; however, the one on the back of my old Collier paperback (1969) edition of this book is much more fun, with a teaser on the front that reads
"A Dead Girl in a Satyr's Arms -- A Club Devoted to Nocturnal Orgies"

 and then on the back the salacious detail of a "notorious club ... whose masked members revel in carefully planned orgies," as well as mentioning "nocturnal debauches."   

Seriously, who could resist?  

The action in this novel begins with the body of a young woman who had been stabbed and then found floating in the Seine.   Mademoiselle Odette Duchêne had last been seen alive going into the Musée Augustin, a wax museum complete with a "Gallery of Horrors."  Her fiancé, a certain Captain Chaumont, had spoken to her the day she went to the museum, when she phoned to cancel a date for tea with him and a friend "giving no reason."  Curious, he went to her home just in time to see her drive away in  a taxi, so he followed until she was let out in front of the museum.  With only half an hour until closing time, he waited, "and she did not come out."  Now she is dead, and he wants answers.  At the museum, Marle makes his way to the Gallery of Horrors, where he comes across the waxwork of a satyr.  After looking at it for a while, he makes his way back to the others who see that he's a bit unnerved, and when asked what's wrong, he tells them that the satyr figure  was "damned good, the whole expression of the satyr, and the woman in his arms."  There's just one problem, as M. Augustin informs him,  "There is no woman in the satyr's arms."  Well, as Bencolin notes, there is one now, "a real woman. And she is dead."  

But what about that club where they go for "carefully planned orgies" and "nocturnal debauches" you might ask, and all I will say is that as the investigation into the body found in the arms of the satyr gets rolling, the connections between the two will make themselves known.  The case begins in earnest with this second death, and the sleuthing begins. In typical Carr fashion, witnesses are discovered, spoken to, bits of information are given out carefully, and there's even a clever prime suspect.  The thing is though that Carr does a bit of sleight of hand here -- just when you believe he's given away the show much too early because there are still several chapters left in the book,  well, trust me, there are still a number of surprises waiting.  

The Corpse in the Waxworks is notable not just for the mystery at hand, but also for the atmosphere that Carr establishes from the beginning.  Marle's initial impressions of his first trip into the Gallery of Horrors are absolutely stunning, including the staircase that suggested "walls pressing in with the terrors so that you might not be able to escape,"  the exhibits imbued with a "pallor on each" face, the soundless terror caught on the faces of a particular group of wax figures,  the ghastliness of the  "shadowy people" who did not move, and the "choking stuffiness of wax and wigs" that left him needing "light and the knowledge of human presence."  But what really sets this book apart is the second half of the story, where pretty much everything that happens is completely unexpected.  And oh, that ending! Whoa! 

Don't miss Martin Edwards' fine introduction, and the added bonus of a short story (also featuring Bencolin), "The Murder in Number Four."  And my many thanks to the British Library for reprinting this novel, since my little Collier paperback is pretty much on its last legs.  Needless to say, I had a great time with this book, and it's one I can definitely recommend. 

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