Friday, October 6, 2023

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.  

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