Title: Castle Skull (Henri Bencolin #2)
Author: John Dickson Carr
First published in 1931; republished by BL_Publishing on 10th Jan 2020
Genre: Mystery and Thrillers (Golden Age)
Actor Myron Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull. D’Aunay asks Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle to investigate the murder. The thunderstorm along with the creepy-looking Castle Skull creates quite an eerie atmosphere. Mazes, secret passages and a gothic castle, Bencolin faces some competition from another detective von Arnheim. Who will solve the case first?
I know the blurb sounds pretty uninteresting. I can’t help it, though! As my first Dickson Carr read, I kept my expectations high (a few of my blog buddies have praised his locked room mysteries) and ended up being disappointed.
The story starts on an interesting note. In fact, I felt this could make a good Halloween read. Spooky castle, thunderstorm, secret passages and a ‘notorious’ magician, this book is somewhat similar to a gothic mystery.
The characters are well portrayed. The female characters play a major role in the story – Sally Reine, Agatha Alison and Isobel D’Aunay. The male characters are not very friendly – or at least, the reader is made to believe so. The exciting part about the story is the competition between two ‘greatest’ detectives. Herr Baron Sigmund von Arnheim (quite a mouthful!) v/s Henri Bencolin. Their sneering and snide remarks were sarcastically humorous. As the story picked up the pace, I was curious to know who would catch the killer first.
The clues are not made readily available to the reader. The story is as narrated by Marle so I suppose it is obvious – similar to a Hastings-Poirot story (Hastings hardly has a clue as to what is going on!). Bencolin was being secretive – very secretive. As von Arnheim reveals he’s going to catch the killer soon, Bencolin is silent. The killer is identified all right, but who won? von Arnheim? Or, Bencolin?
There is an interesting fact about this story that I want to share with you all. When the first edition was published (in the 1930s), the readers were offered a refund from their bookseller for returning the book without having broken the seal. What seal am I talking about here? Just before the denouement, the final pages of the story were sealed. If the reader is able to guess the identity of the killer with the clues so far, they do not break the seal.
The ending was okay. Unexpected revelation but it was not all that bad. If you are new to Dickson Carr’s works, do not start with this book.
The three Bencolin books I’ve read are all Poe-influenced with more than a nod toward horror. I agree that this is not the ideal place to start with Carr. The narrative is a bit wonky and not everything pays off. I still enjoyed it a lot. That final dinner party is pure madness and (as you say) the rivalry between the detectives is a highlight.
I’d highly recommend It Walks By Night. Even though it’s his first book, IWbN is nearly perfect, much stronger and scarier than CS.
As for the rest of Carr, you’ve got a lot of good times ahead. The Problem With the Green Capsule (AKA The Black Spectacles) is probably the best of the lot.
Thank you for the recommendations, James 🙂 I have heard a lot about Carr but I am still stuck with reading the British crime reprints. Hopefully, I will get to read a few of Carr’s by the end of this year.🤞
Polygon have also reprinted a number of titles by Carr, some of which I recommended to you on twitter. They sometimes appear on netgalley.
Is it? Let me check. The thing with NetGalley is, some publishers do not accept requests from non-US and UK readers.
Ah! I hadn’t thought of that.
Don’t give up on Carr yet. And The Problem of the Green Capsule would be the perfect one to read after a disappoint one. It has a deceptively simple mystery, humor and romance. What more could you ask for 😜?
Um… hot chocolate with marshmallows?🤪
Well yeah that would just be the cherry on top…unfortunately not going to happen😁
Castle Skull is very different than your standard Carr novel, so I wouldn’t set my expectations based on this. This one by far has the most absurd setting (although it is fun in a campy way) and the bonkers ending is not what you’d typically get from Carr. This was his third novel, which is part of a four book run featuring Bencolin as the detective (Bencolin would appear one last time in the excellent The Four False Weapons years later), and these first four books, while being enjoyable, are different than what would come next.
Not to spout off your typical “top Carr” list, but I suggest seeking out The Problem of the Green Capsule, Hag’s Nook, Till Death Do Us Part, He Who Whispers, Death Watch, The Burning Court, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, The Crooked Hinge… shoot, I’m getting carried away.
Thank you for the recommendations 🙂 I should have started with one of Carr’s locked room mysteries. Maybe I would have liked it better than Castle Skull.