It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr (1930)

Legendary detective Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police has a peculiar case on his hands and summons Jeff Marle to observe his methods. The case involves Alexandre Laurent who, not long after his marriage, attempted to kill his wife Louise with a razor. After his arrest he went on to confess to killing others, just for the “pleasure in seeing blood—the blood of man, woman, or beast.” Sent to a private asylum, he subsequently escaped and made his way to Vienna. There, he placed himself in the care of Dr. Rothswald, a plastic surgeon known to work with criminals. The body of Rothswald has since been found—beheaded. Now Laurent has come to Paris, bent on killing Louise’s new husband, famed athlete Raoul de Saligny. Bencolin now must stop a madman of cunning intelligence who could be anywhere—or anyone. 

This is John Dickson Carr first book, and also his first locked-room mystery. From the very first it was bonkers—incredibly bonkers, wonderfully bonkers. Carr creates a magnificently unsettling atmosphere. The scenes are dark and claustrophobic. Driven by alcohol, drugs, and empty relationships, there is a sense of hopelessness to the characters’ lives. And overlying it, the knowledge of impending horror. 

When that horror comes, it is indeed gruesome. A crowded club filled with “a gaudy crowd, bright of plumage, excitable, and bold-eyed, as though everyone was slightly tipsy…all the house seemed to be stung on thin wires of hysteria.” Saligny steps into an empty card-room, the doors to which are under constant observation. Moments later Bencolin and Co. enter, to find Saligny kneeling on the floor. He has been decapitated, the head “stood in the center of the red carpet, upright on its neck; it showed white eyeballs, and gaped at us with open mouth in the low red light.” 

But that is nothing compared to the cold, creeping of the flesh feeling that comes at the discovery of the second body.

‘How cold your hand is—on my shoulder!’

A faint movement of the lips…the words sank into my mind, repeated themselves with insistence, yet I could not understand. It grew on me, horribly, that my hands were clenched together, before me.”

There is a genuine sense of suspense that is maintained throughout. And when the solution comes it has a wonderful twist. I had an inkling—just an inkling—but of course I missed the important clues and so was still befuddled. Remember, to study the map!! 

It’s apparent that Carr hasn’t yet learned to hold back, as if he is trying to include every idea he can. The narrative often leans a bit to the lurid and the verbose. But still, it’s wonderful to see the origins of Carr’s gothic atmospheres, bizarre crimes and incredible solutions. 

Incredibly ambitious, ingeniously clever, and most certainly entertaining.

My Judgment – 4/5

Prior Rulings – Ben @ The Green CapsuleDead Yesterday, Kate @ Cross Examining Crime, The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery, Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one mystery set anywhere except the U.S. or England

4 thoughts on “It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr (1930)

  1. This book is one of those rare occasions when I was able to identify the killer – though that was more because Carr was heavy handed with his literary allusions, than due to any cleverness on my mind.

  2. This is a great review, and captures the difficulties of this novel very well: it’s Carr and so we expect it to be great, but even Carr had to learn the ropes and so should be allowed some slack. The result is somewhat mired in indecision — undoubtedly good, but howgood? You’ve found the middle way very neatly, acknowledging what he’s going for and holding up what he does well.

    Interesting to reflect, too, that this isn’t the most unsuccessful of the Bencolin novels, but it is possibly the plainest…

    1. Thanks! I wasn’t sure how it would come across, but I’m glad that it was in some way coherent 😳. The best descriptionI cane think of regarding his early books is an over-decorated cake. But once you scrape off all that icing there’s definitely something good to bite into.

  3. Pingback: My Book Notes: It Walks by Night, 1930 (Henri Bencolin, #1) by John Dickson Carr – A Crime is Afoot

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