Saturday, October 7, 2023

Castle Skull, by John Dickson Carr


British Library Crime Classics, 2020
originally published 1931
240 pp

(read in September)

I read this book earlier, and I'm still making my way through the bag of finished books that need posting about.  

 I have three Bencolin books under my belt so far and I'm working on a fourth (The Lost Gallows)  right now.  I've been highly  entertained with the tinge of weirdness each entry has brought with it, as well as the uncoventional and out-there crimes that need solving.  So far It Walks by Night offered more than a touch of Grand Guignol,  The Corpse in the Waxworks, which I read out of series order,  leans into the grotesque, and the book on offer today,  Castle Skull, comes with more than a hint of the Gothic.  While it seems like he might be heading into supernatural territory with his plots or his titles, the books don't actually go there, something  I admit to being happy about.

Book number two of five in the Bencolin series begins with dinner for three at a restaurant on the Champs Elysées.   At the table are "Belgian financier" Jerôme D'Aunay, "one of the richest men in the world,"  the Inspector and Jeff Marle.  D'Aunay is there with a proposition for Bencolin:  he wants him to solve the murder of  English actor Myron Alison, whose "blazing body" had been seen running on the battlements of Schloss Schadel or Castle Skull eight days earlier.    Once the property of famous magician Maleger, who had mysteriously disappeared on a train from Mainz to Coblenz and somehow wound up dead, its  name is "not a fancy,
"Its central portion is so weirdly constructed that the entire façade resembles a great death's head, with eyes, nose, and ragged jaw. But there are two towers, one on each side of the skull, which are rather like huge ears; so that the devilish thing, while it smiles, seems also to be listening.  It is set high on a crag, with its face thrust out of the black pines."

Below the castle is the Rhine, and it is a "sheer drop" from castle to river.   

1947 Pocket Books cover from Thriftbooks

Alison, it seems, was shot three times, but still managed to run even after his killer had doused him in kerosene and set him on fire.  D'Aunay believes that Alison's death is somehow connected to Maleger's  strange demise and he wants to hire Bencolin to investigate, for "not one sou," believing that the Inspector will take on, as he says to the detective, "the strangest affair you have ever handled."  All of the people present at the time of Alison's death are at Alison's summer home, and an investigation is already in progress under the auspices of the Coblenz police.   Bencolin takes up D'Aunay's offer, and he and Marle make their way to the scene of the crime.  But once they arrive, strange things start to happen, and Bencolin finds himself in a literal  competition with an old acquaintance, chief inspector of the Berlin police Herr Baron Signfried von Arnheim.  

 1964 Berkeley Medallion edition, ebay

Strange deaths, bizarre occurrences and above all the setting of the old castle all provide nonstop atmosphere, which I easily fell into from the beginning.  More than a few startling discoveries are made along the way, and I couldn't help rooting for Bencolin against von Arnheim as in their battle of wits, even though each was nearly equally as verbose as the other.  

1957 -- from ebay

Once again, I did not guess the solution (yay!)  and once again, I offer a tip o' my hat to anyone who did.  It's so bizarre and so unexpected that  I have to wonder if anyone has ever guessed the solution, going back to the days of its first appearance as a Harper Sealed Mystery.  At the point of the seal inviting readers to solve the case without going any further, as Martin Edwards notes in his introduction, the publishers' blurb says the following:
"Surely never was there more fantastic, hideous gaiety than at this banquet.  The guests of honor are Death and his henchman Murder.  The fearful climax is approaching. Will Von Arnheim win? Will Bencolin? What fiend in human form will be revealed as the murderer?"

Above all, even though a bit on the verbose side (a standard Carr trait, evidently), Castle Skull is a fun read.  If you're looking for something out of the ordinary in your crime/mystery reading,  or in your  crime/mystery reading particularly from this era, you can't go wrong with this series.   The three I've now read were simply unputdownable, and I'm finding the same to be true with the fourth.  

Friday, October 6, 2023

A Woman Possessed/Prime Sucker, by Harry Whittington


Stark House, 2023
216 pp

paperback (my copy from Stark House -- thanks!)

It's  Booker Prize season, which has nothing at all to do with this section of my reading journal, but I've been reading some pretty heavy hitters lately, and I've taken a few badly-needed brain breaks in between.  Crime fiction from yesteryear has been the ticket, and I don't mean country house murders.  The author of both tales in this book is Harry Whittington (no, not the guy who Dick Cheney shot in the face back in 2006), and according to the bibliography of his work at the end of this volume, to say that he was a prolific author is an understatement.  Sheesh! I gave up counting after a while.  There is a brief bio of this writer included in the informative introduction written by Cullen Gallagher; there's also a longer essay that you can read online by Woody Haut at his blog.  

 Originally published in 1961,  A Woman Possessed was published under one of Whittington's many psedonyms, Whit Harrison.  The original cover touts "strange lusts, ... wild desire, ... sadistic excesses," and all of those are definitely included here.  When it comes right down to it though, this is a story about revenge, sweet and otherwise. 

original 1961 Beacon edition, from Amazon

Dan Ferrel is working with fellow prisoners in a road gang alongside the highway in the midst of "slash pine and cabbage palmetto country."  He's tense -- the blue car that's he's been anxiously awaiting is late.  It's the vehicle that's going to take him away from prison  and he knows that if his escape doesn't  go as planned, "he would never get another chance."   It's a huge risk, for sure:  Hawkins, one of the guards overseeing the prison crew  has "an itch to pull down on his gun and shoot a man... so bad it's killing him."   His sadistic impulses are kept in check only by the fact that ten convicts are currently involved in "civil rights trials," testifying about the "inhuman treatment" they'd received from six prison guards and the powers that be given orders for the guards to "Walk easy with these cons."  Like Hawkins, Ferrel is also a man with an itch ... as one of his fellow inmates notes, he "ain't got the itch to kill," but "you just got an itch."  He really needs to get away because he urgently has to see his brother Paul, who, as rumor has it, is about to quit med school because he'd become involved in "chasing a dame, wrecking his life," and Dan knows all about the woman, most especially that she's bad news.    Keeping Paul on the straight and narrow is Dan's raison d'être;  Dan may have "fouled up, but Paul was not going to, not as long as Ferell was breathing."  Needless to say, there wouldn't much to talk about here without success on Dan's part, at which point the story takes more than a few unexpected turns before heading straight into revenge territory.  It's an awesome and action-packed read; as Gallagher describes the book in his introduction, it's "Sweaty, grimy and relentless," and it kept me turning pages.  A Woman Posessed is my first foray into the world of Harry Whittington, and despite the often cringeworthy, eye-roll inducing descriptions of sex, I was hooked for the duration.  

An earlier version of the next novel,  Prime Sucker (which Beacon would publish later in 1960)  had initially appeared in 1952, paired in a Universal Giant edition along with Idabel Williams' The Hussy from 1933.   

 1952 Universal Giant edition; photo from ebay

It seems that in the eight years between 1952 and 1960 (according to the introduction),  Beacon's reprint edition had been "spiced-up" as "...publishers could get away with a lot more lurid passages than in 1952 -- and their audience had come to expect as much."  It looks like even the cover art for this book became more lurid in the intervening years as well.  

Beacon edition, 1960, from Abebooks

Prime Sucker starts with a friendly poker game among work colleagues.  The poker game is hosted by George, who works under Hank Ireland at the Thompson Company.  The author wastes no time letting his readers know that Hank "wanted George's wife. It was like being drunk, the way she made him feel."  He's pretty sure that Amy wants him as well -- that "she wanted whatever he wanted."  In fact, he reads in her eyes that she wants "whatever any man wants. Any man." Between the drinks he's downed, the cigarette haze and the lust oozing out from Amy's eyes, he's distracted and woozy, unable to concentrate on the game.   Feeling sick, he goes into the kitchen for ice water, followed by Amy whose job all night has been to get drinks for the poker players.  He feels sick and knows he should go home,  that he needs to get away from her,   but instead he kisses her.   It's not just any kiss but one that solidifies Hank's feeling that he has to have this woman, and the way she reciprocates lets him know she feels the same way.   And while he doesn't realize it, that kiss is about to change his life completely.    He does the smart thing and goes home to his wife, and although he gets a cold reception there, he makes up his mind the next day that he will never see Amy again.   What he doesn't know is that there are forces at play that conspire to bring the two together.    I really can't reveal more about the plot, except that in this story, at least for the first several chapters,  nothing is as it seems.    It takes a while to get down to the jaw-dropping nuts and bolts of this story, but by that time, Hank is pretty much a lost soul, but a lot of that is his own fault --  he won't even try to save himself, refusing the lifeline time and again. 

 Of the two books I preferred A Woman Possessed -- the story was a bit more straightforward and there was less melodrama involved, whereas I had to wait a lot longer for the payoff in Prime Sucker.   It's also very apparent that both books were written well before #metoo, so reader beware.   The sleaze factor is also high between the two novels but I've read way worse so that wasn't a big issue for me, although it was hard sometimes not to cringe; seriously, if the steam coming off these stories had been  real I would have had to stop and clean my reading glasses many times.  I suppose the big question is whether or not I'd read any more books by this writer and now that I've taken that plunge,  "headfirst and deep down into Whittington's world of warped desires" I'm definitely down for more.   I can't help myself, really.  I love pulp.  Great literature it's not, but who cares -- it's so much fun. 

Once again, my many thanks to Stark House Press, whose books have introduced me to authors I didn't even know existed and who have provided me with hours of great reading.  I've had the privilege to read one of their new books coming out next month, another two-books-in-one edition, this time by another previously-unknown (to me) author, Lionel White: Too Young To Die/The Time of Terror, both of which I sat glued to.  I've also just bought two more of their books, short story collections from Robert Hichens, whose work deserves to be brought back into the light. 

It Walks by Night, by John Dickson Carr

I read this novel some time back, but I seem to be continuously playing catch up with posts.  Better late than never, I guess.  I have a large tote bag filled with finished books, so before I start reading any more, the plan is to whittle down that pile. 

British Library, 2019
259 pp

(read in September)

Published in 1930, It Walks by Night is the first novel in the series featuring Carr's French detective M. Henri Bencolin, "juge d'instruction, the adviser of the courts, and the director of the police."  As revealed by Martin Edwards in his excellent introduction,  it had started out life as a novella entitled "Grand Guignol," anonymously published in 1929 in an issue of The Haverfordian, "Haverford's first literary magazine."  Carr went on to rework his novella into a novel called With Blood Defiled, which Harper & Brothers wanted to publish, changing the title to It Walks by Night for its 1930 publication.   While the title may have changed, there is a sort of Grand Guignol vibe to this book; as a brief paragraph in The Paris Review notes, when ownership of the original Grand Guignol chapel was taken over by Max Maurey in 1897,  he saw it as the perfect venue for "straight-up horror."  Under his leadership, the plays appearing there "began focusing on tales of insanity, hallucination, and above all terror."  Given that bit of history, and after finishing this book, Carr's original title actually makes more than a bit of sense, but renaming it as It Walks by Night was definitely a good move.  

The story here is narrated by Jeff Marle, a young man who has known Bencolin his entire life, since the detective was Marle's father's best friend, having met during college in America.  Marle, who serves in the role of Bencolin's partner in crime solving (akin to Holmes' Watson)  describes Bencolin as having a "thin and aquiline nose,"  a "small moustache and  pointed black beard," and greying black hair, "parted in the middle and twirled up like horns."   As an aside here, just for fun I did an image search on Bencolin and found this one, and I'll be damned if it doesn't fit Marle's description to a T.  


Marle has come to Paris from Nice after receiving a wire from Bencolin, which said that "there was danger ahead," and asking if Marle was interested.   Even though Jeff has no clue as to what's going on, he sends a telegram back saying only "yes."   Once he meets up with Bencolin, he is told that there's a man "in the greatest danger of his life," who has appealed personally to the detective to "oversee his protection."  Naming a certain  Raoul de Saligny, "the athlete, the beau sabreur, the popular idol," at first there is very little conversation except for a strange "reference to danger from werewolves."  As it happens, the reader has already been introduced to the idea of werewolves in a passage from a 15th-century book (opening Chapter One) that  Bencolin had sent Marle describing 
"a certain shape of evil hue which by day may not be recognized, inasmuch as it may be a man of favored looks, or a fair and smiling woman; but by night becomes a misshapen beast with blood-bedabbled claws"

and I have to admit to wondering from the outset if perhaps we were going to be in for a bit o' the  supernatural here, an idea that later seemed to be cemented by more than one mention of Poe, and of course, werewolves. 

From dinner the two move on to the popular Fenelli's, a tourist hotspot featuring dining, dancing and, by invitation only, gambling, while the more covert activities going on there conjures up the era of French decadence.   It is there that Bencolin and Marle position themselves so that they can keep an eye on the Duc de Saligny, who on that very day had married the former Louise Laurent.  Her former husband, Alexandre, had attacked her with a knife and shortly thereafter had been committed to an asylum for the criminally insane.  Unfortunately, after making his escape, he had moved on to Vienna where he'd undergone plastic surgery; after killing the surgeon and cutting off his head, he vanished. His escape, it seems, had coincided with the announcement of his ex-wife's marriage, which she had postponed until such time that Laurent could be captured, but de Saligny did not wish to wait.  As Bencolin relates to Marle, just two days earlier the Duc had  received a letter from Laurent, telling him not to marry Louise, and even creepier, that he is watching and that he has put himself close to de Saligny.  Laurent's plastic surgery may have completely altered his appearance making that possible, but even worse, Laurent is obviously in Paris, and now de Saligny feels his best chance is in "public places" until the police can finally lay their hands on his nemesis.   That may take a while, especially after the bridegroom is discovered not only dead, but decapitated in a room at Fenelli's that was being guarded at the time by one of Bencolin's men.   The crime is definitely one that can be labeled as  "impossible" -- as Bencolin notes after examining the murder scene, 
"... there are no secret entrances; the murderer was not hiding anywhere in the room; he did not go out by the window; he did not go out the salon door under my watching, nor the hall door under François' -- but he was not there when we entered.  Yet a murderer had beheaded his victim there; we know in this case above all others that the dead man did not kill himself." 
 It's difficult enough for  Bencolin and Marle to try to wrap their collective heads around this murder, and when more ghastly crimes follow, Bencolin comes to the realization that they are facing
"a murderer who is utterly cold-blooded and cynical, and who firmly believes that these acts are done justifiably, to avenge wrongs.  The crimes are the means of venting on the world a spite too deep for ordinary expression." 
The armchair detective in me did not solve this crime (did not get anywhere even close), and if there is anyone out there who actually figured out the entire solution ahead of the big reveal, my hat is off to you.  Carr's biographer Douglas G. Greene  said (as quoted in the introduction) that there were "many clues to the solution,"  but evidently I missed a few; I think my jaw dropped down to the floor when all was made known.   Still, as with the best mysteries, it's the getting there that counts, and I did not put this book down until the journey was over.  

I read this book in September, but thematically it also fits into October reading with its emphasis on damaged psyches, the darker side of human nature and of course,  more than one grisly crime.   I've already read books number two and three (Castle Skull -- my thoughts coming soon on that one --  and The Corpse In the Waxworks ) both of which share with this book, as Douglas H. Greene stated, "the art of the magician."   Bencolin (and Carr) can certainly go on and on in some cases so you will need a bit of patience, but I can most certainly recommend It Walks by Night for readers who enjoy impossible crimes and the concomitant piecing together of the puzzle.