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.  

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