I finished John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull this evening. It is the second Carr novel that I’ve read and also the second in the series starring Henri Bencolin. It was originally published in 1931; I read the April 1960 Berkley edition with the super-awesome cover artwork.
The previous Bencolin novel that I read was a “locked-room” mystery. It was decent; I gave it three stars. I liked a lot about the novel, but it had some sections that did not work so well. I really wanted to get to this novel sooner, but I ended up waiting until late in December to get to it. The cover artwork really makes me happy and I am glad I have this edition. It reminds me of the first Three Investigators novel and also Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat. I like haunted house mysteries and stories. I would probably get a kick out of those haunted dinner party events. Anyway, I made sure I did not raise my expectations too high prior to reading this novel, so I was ready for anything.
This novel surprised me with how good it ended up being. Two things stand out for me: the juxtaposition of characters is top notch excellent work and the macabre ambiance of the setting is great. The basic storyline is a brutal murder that takes place on the bank of the Rhine River.
The novel begins masterfully: our star characters, Bencolin and Marle, are at a restaurant on the Champs Elysées drinking Vichy water and other things. The first line of the novel is:
D’Aunay talked of murder, castles, and magic.
That is how you start an interesting novel! It seems a bit obvious, I suppose, but on the other hand – the reader must read the next line, just to see what follows that opener. And so on. And through this novel, I have decided that John Dickson Carr certainly knew how to write for his audience. Throughout the novel, there are dozens of paragraphs and lines that jump out at the reader as just really nice pieces of prose. Really effective writing bits. Witty and interesting sentences that make this novel worth every cent.
I really do not want to give away a single tidbit or spoiler or detail that might ruin the reading experience for another reader. So, I am being somewhat careful in what I write in this review. Nevertheless, I can share some basic things. Once again, the story is narrated by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s pal from the first novel. Bencolin himself is aloof, mysterious, and rather arrogant. He’s described by characters as somewhat sinister – but definitely a man’s man. He’s a bigger fellow who can drink folks under the table, match wits in chess, gunplay, and poker. Reminiscent of Christie’s Poirot, Bencolin can be disdainful and he purposely leaves the other characters (and, therefore, the reader) out of his deductive processes. Marle seems a bit more intelligent in this novel than he did in the first. But by no means is he a simpleton in either novel.
The plot pits the murdered character, an actor, against his neighbor and nemesis, a very sinister magician. As Bencolin and Marle arrive at the scene to investigate, another official from the locale arrives. This is a German official who has a long-standing (not always friendly) competition with Bencolin. So, the juxtaposition of these sets of characters is presented and the reader should really appreciate this. At the nearby home of the murdered actor, a group of people is present – kept there by the police during the investigation. These people are a variety of socialite-types who ran in somewhat of the same circle as the actor and his heirs.
There is a flavor, there is an old, dangerous, twilight charm, about the warrior Rhine when it leaves its lush wideness at Bingen. Thence it seems to grow darker. The green deepens almost to black, grey rock replaces vineyards, on the hills which close it in. Narrow and widening now, a frothy olive-green, it rushes through a world of ghosts. – pg 12, Chapter 2
I’ve mentioned that the setting is awesome in this novel. And I mean so, even if I think it could have been utilized even more. Maybe this is the sort of thing we expect Orson Welles and Hitchcock to collaborate on. A castle that looks like a skull – on the deep-rooted heritage of the Rhine river – amidst difficult and steep terrain – with tumultuous weather patterns… this novel has setting galore. But it is not just dark and evil – there is also the brilliant juxtaposition of the two “houses.” Like the actor vs. magician and detective vs. inspector, there is also the house vs. house conflict.
All of the characters have intense personalities. Sometimes, I did think that they may all be too melodramatic – but then, that’s why I read novels – not for banal and mundane characters! There is a character in this novel, though, that is one of those super-memorable characters that the reader won’t forget anytime soon. It is a little significant to remember this novel was published in 1931 and then to place these characters in that time period. I say this because one of the characters would have an overwhelmingly potent personality in contemporary society – back then, this character would have been shocking. Literally: a real scream! A hoot! An undeniably hysterical classic! A cigar-smoking, Poker-playing, cocktail-drinking larger than life character! Reading just to meet this character (if not also for the mystery) is worthwhile.
I like the overall plot and throughout the novel there are a number of red herrings, diversions, and intrigues subsidiary to the actual crime that bulk out the plot. Some of these are interesting, some are a bit stereotypical. But all in all, they are interesting and valuable to an entertaining story. The “active” parts of the investigation are well written and the macabre setting is not overdone. Marle is a good narrator. The reveal of the deduction is shocking and graphic (a bit gory, even). It’s really not for the tame. But the last chapter of the story is also surprising and left me with a “ha! how about that!” sort of feeling.
I definitely recommend this novel. It is not a speedy read, but it is not laborious. Readers of vintage things, mystery fans, and fans of Clue should all enjoy this one.