It Walks by Night was first published in 1930 by John Dickson Carr (1906 – 1977). Carr also wrote under a number of pen names including Carter Dickson. This novel is likely one of his first (if not his first) published novels. It is also the first in the novel series starring detective/magistrate Henri Bencolin.
I read this novel in the end of October and beginning of November while traveling. This means it saw use in the car and in hotel rooms. Strangely, it was a fast read – but still took too long for its mere 176 pages. That’s my copy in the picture – the Avon 1970 edition. Avon published a number of mystery/thrillers in this same cover design (which I think is hideous).
My first impression after reading this novel is that it is such an oddly written novel. At several points I felt that it was not a very good novel. However, there are other parts where the writing is really quite impressive. So, I guess if this is such an early work by Carr, one hopes he improved. Not that this is a bad novel – but there are sections that are not where one wishes they were.
This is a locked-room mystery, although I did not love the resolution. The setup up is quite interesting. The story is told from the perspective of Jeff Marle (though you would miss this name if you were not specifically watching for it). For some reason, Henri Bencolin decides to have an audience to “help him” solve the murder. So, we are just stuffed with a few characters for the sake of characters. (Dr. Hugo Grafenstein is one such.) The Duc de Saligny has been murdered in a “locked-room” at a nightclub.
I say this is an odd, odd little book for a number of reasons. One, I feel Bencolin is patterned a little on Sherlock and Poirot (aren’t they all?) but we really do not know much about him. In fact, though he’s the mastermind and brilliant detective, he mainly feels like a supporting character. Two, there are long chapters which involve the romantic (not erotic) evenings of Marle. And perhaps this is to setup a false lead for the reader, or maybe for the reader to get to know Marle. Either way, it seems just very odd. In fact a number of characters in this story are just odd. If you read about this story in the news, it would definitely be one of those “wow, weird things go on in our town” news items.
Marle is prone to mentally breaking into poetry or song when the moment strikes him. It is somewhat disjointed when it happens. Again, is this to show that Marle is a cultured chap? Or is he really suffering A.D.D. or what? Anyway, I did not really know the referent for most of these poems/songs. However, the references to Poe I managed to catch! See, I’m not senile, yet!
But there are whole passages where Carr displays that rare, old-fashioned classic style of writing that blends beauty and wit. And these are really good passages. Carr cannot consistently keep this up, though, and there are also long sections which are not expertly written. At one point it seemed we had totally forgotten the actual murder and had moved into a different storyline. Also, it ends really abruptly and oddly, too. Certainly not a drawn out ending.
In the words of Marle, there is a particularly fun line in chapter ten:
Now the moment anybody mentions the word “Victorian,” you can take it for granted that the conversation is going to become artificial, and that the person who says it is avoiding all pretensions to frank discourse.
Surprising lines like that make this book easier to read than maybe it should be. It is sometimes confusing (lots of characters) and sometimes tedious (why did we spend three chapters with this?), but it does have a unique feel and a dose of charm that make it worthwhile. I would not recommend this novel for everyone. I think there are “better” mysteries out there. However, if you want to read something that is older and classic, without reading Agatha, then this is one for you. I do intend to read more by this author, though he’s a bit of a pain to find around.