My second nomination for Reprint of the Year (The ROY) is Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr. Originally published in 1931, it was reprinted in 2020 by British Library Publishing as part of their Crime Classics series.
Henri Bencolin, juge d’instruction of the Seine, travels to Schloss Schadel—Castle Skull—a castle on the Rhine River, and home to the world-famous magician Maleger, until his death.
“‘You have heard, of course, of the magician Maleger?’”
“…Maleger was not one of your genial, smiling conjurors…”
Maleger died many years earlier under mysterious circumstances. He boarded a train, unaccompanied. He was never seen to leave it, yet when the train reaches its destination he has disappeared. Days later his body is pulled from the Rhine.
But it is another death which draws Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle, for at his death Maleger bequeathed the Castle Skull jointly to his friends, financier Jérôme D’Aunay and the Shakespearean actor Myron Alison. Alison has been murdered in the castle. Shot three times, then drenched in kerosene and set alight, only to rise and stagger in flames along the battlements of the castle before he fell dead.
This was the first of the Bencolin series that I’d read, and while I’d heard much about them, I consciously avoided reading any reviews until after I’d finished reading it and was therefore unsure of what to expect—other than spooky atmosphere and possibly, strange murders.
What I found was a story that is full of everything I expect from Carr—with a cherry on top. The exuberance of it of it all made it apparent that Carr was enjoying every word that he wrote—and I was right there with him. Everything is embellished with melodrama and the macabre. Details are vivid, at times to the point of garishness. Emotions are chaotic, running the gamut from lethargic unconcern to frenzied agitation. The mood is gothic, ominous, and filled with brooding menace.
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 winding now, a frothy olive-green, it rushes through a world of ghosts.”
The characters are just as vivid as the scenes, and make for some very interesting suspects. Agatha, the sister of the victim, is a cigar-smoking, poker-playing, cocktail-drinking whirlwind known as “The Duchess”, two “Bright Young Things”, Sir Marshall Dunstan and the young Sally Reine, the financier D’Aunay and his very lovely—and very sad wife Isobel, and enigmatic concert violinist Émile Levasseur. There’s also an old adversary for Bencolin to match wits with. Baron von Arnheim, chief of the Berlin police, brought in to solve the crime, and someone who, according to Bencolin, has no imagination.
The crimes, both past and present, can’t really be seen as “impossible”. But fear not, because the build-up to the solution is one magnificent, complicated, sensational trip. This is simply a fun entertaining read. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
Now, the most important point. You really need to vote for this one. Why? Because you don’t want to be on Santa’s naughty list…do you?