Thursday, November 2, 2023

The Lost Gallows, by John Dickson Carr


British Library, 2020
256 pp


(read earlier)

In this installment of the Bencolin series, Carr offers up a bit of detective fun that blends British lore, a bit of  Egyptian flair and an intriguing mystery from the past, all of which together make for a crafty whodunit.   

Bencolin and Marle are in London to see a play, and there they are staying with one of Bencolin's old friends, Sir John Landervorne, the former assistant police commissioner of the Metropolitan police.  Landervorne lives at the Brimstone Club (which right away brought to mind the legendary Hellfire Club ) and our two friends are his guests there.   Over tea hanging becomes the topic of conversation, as Bencolin recalls a story about the "odd murder" of a man discovered by the Paris police  "dressed in the sandals and gold robes of an Egyptian  noble of four thousand years ago," who'd been shot in the head."   The sequel, Bencolin notes, was that while in a French prison, an "Englishman" had hanged himself, using the sheets of his bed."  From there, Landervorne launches into his own hanging story, about a man who recently had become involved in "some queer business" after having had one too many and getting lost in the fog.  It seems that the man had seen "the shadow of a gallows and a rope," and that "the shadow of Jack Ketch was walking up the steps to adjust the rope."  Sir John dismisses it  as a "cock-and-bull" story, but Bencolin wants to know more.  Just as Bencolin is remarking the strangeness of seeing a gibbet "under one's own window,"  Sir John calls his attention to a chair in the room, on which a model of one sits:

"no more than eight inches high ... made of cedar wood painted black. Thirteen steps led up to the platform, to a trap held in place by tiny hinges and a rod. From the crossbeam dangled a small noose of twine."  
The lounge steward identifies it as belonging to another resident of the Brimstone Club, a certain Nazem El Moulk,  who had received it earlier that day in the mail.   

The core mystery of this book actually begins after Bencolin, Marle and Landervorne leave the play and Marle is nearly run down by a limo driven by a dead man, whose throat had been cut "ear to ear."  Marle realizes that the limo belongs to El Moulk, and that his chaffeur is the unfortunate driver.  Back to the Brimstone they go, just in time to see the car come to a stop. Although Marle had seen El Moulk get into the car and be driven away, he is nowhere to be seen.   When the police arrive, the inspector reveals that earlier that evening, a call had come in reporting that "Nezam El Moulk has been hanged on the gallows in Ruination Street."   The problem is that there is no such place in the city -- so where is El Moulk?   As they head out into the dark city streets to try to find him, Bencolin and Marle find themselves in a race against time and a modern-day, would-be Jack Ketch intent on upping the body count.

1947 Pocket Books edition, from AbeBooks

As with the other books I've read in this short series,  The Lost Gallows narrowly skirts the supernatural without actually going there.   Carr does a great job of enticing the reader into the story pretty much right away, raising the tension and darkening the atmosphere little by little as the investigation goes on. There's also a bit of meta going on here, as the author delves into the subject of writing crime fiction and the pitfalls faced by writers in the genre when it comes to pleasing their audiences.   Once again, I didn't guess the who, which made me a very happy camper, but I did enjoy the journey, and spent quite a bit of time down the rabbit of hole of researching Jack Ketch and the history of British executions in general.   While modern readers may find these books a bit on the tedious side, I never get tired of them ... I've grown used to Carr's long-winded style by now, and quite honestly, I'm always impressed with the way in which he puts his mysteries together.   And, as I've said before about this series, the books are just plain fun and provide solid entertainment for a few hours when I need an escape.  

Recommended for diehard readers of mysteries of this period, as well as for fans of the British Library Crime Classics series, which is absolutely awesome.  

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