The stories in Carr have their part of great importance: very often serve as testing of forms, and it is not improper to say that if it is true that some novels are absolute masterpieces, for example. "The Three Coffins" or " The Crooked Hinge" or " He Who Whispers" or "The Bourning Court ", it is equally true that many of his stories and radio-plays are just masterpieces ( The Crime in Nobody's Room, in which a crime happens in a second floor apartment that should not exist, or the classic Radio play, Cabin B-13 with the two spouses Richard and Anne Brewster boarding the steamer Maurevania, for their Honeymoon, and then later in the story, vanishes a cabin, the B-13, and the bridegroom with it) .Very often the stories in Carr's novels are nothing more than (very often with locked rooms, impossible crimes, unexplained disappearances, sinister atmospheres) .. concentrates. That is because it is also important to examine them and try to find within them, elements that justify the existence and the enthusiastic judgment of critics and readers, thing not common. Carr collected together his stories in some series: in one of them, "The Door to Doom and Other Detections", there are 4 emblematic stories belonging to the first carrian production, starring Henri Bencolin. We talk about the period in which Carr is close to France: France and Paris in particular, are imaginary places, come down to us unchanged, with their load of mystery and fascination, as he had read in the novels of cloak and dagger of which he was nurtured still young. And is the Paris by Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Victor Hugo, not that by Zola, with its social contrasts, with its processes. The protagonist is Bencolin, the first of the carrian characters, interpreter of five novels. The stories in the order they are: The Shadow of the Goat (1926), The Fourth Suspect (1927,January), The Ends of Justice (1927, May), The Murder in Number Four (1928); and a short novel: Grand Guignol (1929).
About the short novel, T. J. Yoshi, at his essay “John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study”, says:
“In 1928 Carr’s parent sent him to the Sorbonne in Paris for further study; but Carr spent all his time writing, and here produced the short novel Grand Guignol, an early version of his first novel, It Walks by Night (1930); it was published in The Haverfordian in the issues for March and April 1929. In 1929 he expanded Grand Guignol into it Walks by Night, and it was prompty bought by Harper & Brothers…When the novel was published, Harper unprecedentely advertised it in a full-page ad in the New York Times, and it ultimately sold 15.000 copies. Carr’s career as mystery novelist was launched… Grand Guignol, the early version of It Walks by Night, allows us to examine carefully the early growth of Carr the detective writer. Grand Guignol, at 25.000 words, is a substantial novelette or short novel…probably written in 1928, is set in 1927, as is It walks by Night; the mechanics of the principal crime – a “locked room” murder – do not differ appreciably, although events following this crime are elaborated at considerable length in the novel” (pages. 14-15, Yoshi’s essay).
If at It Walks by Night we find the Bencolin’s description: “Then you studied the face, turned partly sideways—the droop of the eyelids, at once quizzical and tolerant, under hooked eyebrows, and the dark veiled light of the eyes themselves. The nose was thin and aquiline, with deep lines running down past his mouth. A faint smile was lost in a small moustache and pointed black beard—the black hair, parted in the middle and twirled up like horns, had begun to turn grey. Over the white tie and white shirtfront, it was a head from the renaissance in the low light of the lamps. He rarely gestured when he spoke, except to shrug his shoulders, and he never raised his voice…The twirled hair, the pointed beard, the wrinkled eyes, and the inscrutable smile were known”, at the short novel, we find the definition more effective and withering of his character, a real photo:
“He rose and began to pace about, hands clasped behind his back, head bent forward. Mephistopheles smoking a cigar, several of him reflected in the mirrors around the walls as he passed up and down; a queer and absurd little figure in motion, but Pari’s avenger of broken laws. “Mephistopheles smoking a cigar”: there is more to this soubriquet, we are given to understand, than merely a description of Bencolin’s moustache and goatee” (Yoshi’s Essay, page 10)
But why Mephistopheles?
One of the four stories comes to help us, the second for the accuracy, The Fourth Suspect. Another Adventure of M.. Henri Bencolin. When Bencolin is to the presence of Villon (in that time, he is the Chief of Police), Carr provides a framework for the figure:
“The little detective came shambling in with his rather apologetic air. Bencolin’s eyes were kindly and squinting; Villon could picture the stooped figure, black beard, high nose, all redolent of cigar smoke, even with closed eyes: Bencolin had a top hat stuck rather rakishly on his head; his cloak sagged after him when he advanced to the desk”. In short, a man not nice, but a character, however, what we would call a "type". But Carr, before this description, he told us, as to prepare a description of a physical certainly not by Adonis, that in Bencolin: “..the innate sentimentality of the man worked against him; at odd moments he might be found dreaming at the opera, or buying wine for Bohemian friends on the left bank, or consorting with beggars whose obviously false tales drew large sums of money from him”.
His nickname of Mephistopheles, is definitely connected to his profession, as he can transform into a merciless judge; but also undoubtedly to his appearance. Interesting is what Gil Bethune says in Deadly Hall, the penultimate novel published by Carr: “Uncle Gil ..Momentarily Had Looked like less amiable, beardless like Mephistopheles than a Grand Inquisitor preparing to order torture”.
To whom is he referring? T. J. Yoshi believes that the reference to Mephistopheles, is linked to the figure of Bencolin, and that the parallel is intentional as the story of the novel precedes by a few days the first big event of Bencolin remembered it It Walks by Night: in fact, the date that is framed at the beginning of Deadly Hall, is April 19, 1927, while the story of It Walks by Night, begins April 23 1927, but Yoshi stops here. Instead I would say much more.
First, the appearance: we refer to Mephistophelean expression and even more so to Bencolin’s eyebrows. The expression refers aspect of Gilbert Bethune. Carr when describes his appearance, says that to Bethune hair blacks were streaked by grey: this expression is too similar to the citation or to the reference contained in the famous description of the appearance of Bencolin contained in It Walks by Night, " the black hair, parted in the middle and twirled up like horns, had begun to turn grey ": it is as if Carr had wanted to pay tribute to his early years, to Bencolin, who was the symbol of his early successes. Both names of the two characters starting with "Be", both serve two substantially similar professions (Investigating Judge and the Chief of Police, Bencolin; District Attorney, Bethune); both smoke cigars; both have mephistophelean eyebrows that is arched; both novels are set at a distance of a few days in 1927; both have a young man who is as if he acted as an assistant (the situation of Watson): Jeff Marle in the case of Bencolin, Caldwell said Jeffrey "Jeff" in the case of Bethune, and both names begin with “Je”. Too many coincidences to not be instead of wanted citations. Carr wanted say that Deadly Hall is like another novel with Bencolin (situations, times, and in different ways)?
And to Bencolin always we think, in the case of his last novel, Hungry Goblin: Carr in fact, just in The Lost Gallows, in the short span of a few pages – as Don D'Ammassa says quite rightly – had cited the terms that would later become the titles of his works: "... Carr mentions three terms that would later figure in the titles of novels - Punch and Judy, the Red Widow, and the Hungry Goblin." But how does change the representation and the figure of Bencolin, with the description that is given us at It Walks By Night, compared to the previous offer in "The Fourth Suspect" ? There we see him elegant (here, he is not), sliced, broken (here is not), a person of a certain standard even social: Bencolin is no longer one of the many 86 Prefects, but he is "Juge d'Instruction" : investigating judge, counselor of the Supreme Court and the chief of police. He is changed: he is no longer so "human", he has become harder, even ruthless, implacable judge with the transgressors: it’s the life which has made him such!
We can also see here a substantial difference with the other figures of investigators: Fell is a character that has nothing to do with the police, while Merrivale while belonging to military intelligence (he is even the head of counterintelligence), the figure is not comparable to a policeman, while Bencolin, he is. And if It Walks by Night is the grand entrance of Carr, on the stage of the crime in the genre of the novel, with the virtuosity of staging and characterizations of Grand Guignol, typical of the early novels, especially of the bencolinian cycle, it is equally important to emphasize the extraordinary importance of the earliest stories, the ones with Bencolin young, as already contain all the characters and characterizations of the next Carr, of the great successes. In particular, we can safely say that many of the ideas that will be developed later in the great novels, are already here completed.
The first in order of time of the tales is The Shadow of the Goat: it was written in November-December 1926 We find for the first time represented, not one but three of the most recurring characters of better identification of Carr: a man disappears from a hermetically sealed room – we would say "vanished into thin air"; a murder at a Locked Room, an attempted impossible murder, with another disappearance can not be explained except by supernatural events. There's the bet, which is a prelude to the disappearance impossible, that it will be resumed in The Three Coffins (between Grimaud and Pierre Fley), but there is also the first disappearance: a man, Cyril Merton, locked in a room with stone walls, in which the only exit is the door , guarded at sight, vanishes in thin air without leave traces, at the expected hour; the murder of another in a home, as the witnesses tell, in which has not joined anyone, and there are two people of the servants who swear that is exactly what happened (and who does not swear falsely): the only person who would been there, Garrick, the nephew of the victim, could not be there because he was committed to guard the door of the room, from which there was the disappearance of Merton: two facts undeniably linked, but unexplained. The important thing is that Jules Fragneau has been killed. Finally, the grandson of Fragneau is attacked by someone who hurts him, and who hurts him, by assertion of Bencolin, is a dead man. Three inexplicable facts, resolved with iron logic: the result is a solution absolutely spectacular.
Another feature of this first and surprising story with Bencolin, whom many consider a masterpiece (and it is easy to confirm it, reading it), is the supernatural atmosphere that you breathe, another characteristic of the carrian works (ghosts, demons, impossible disappearances , gloomy atmospheres), who could remember us an English specialized in ghost literature, Montague Rhodes James, but that, according to Douglas G. Greene, it is characteristic of certain works by Anne Katherine Green for example: he claimed to be even similarities of the plot at the carrian story The Gentleman from Paris and the story by Green, The Leavenworth Case (1878), as well as between the radio play Cabin B-13 and Room 3 of 1909 by Green. It will not be difficult to recall the atmosphere of The Three Coffins when before Grimaud and his friends converse in front the fire, and then in the eerie and sinister tale, the unknown Pierre Fley fits, who threatens Grimaud to intervene in his place, his brother. So much so that some critic says that this story “contains the seeds of two of his best later novels, The Three Coffins and The Nine Wrong Answers” .
And we notice another detail, which also occurs in the other 3 short stories: Bencolin is not alone. With him there is another protagonist in the novels that disappears, and is replaced in the first four novels by Jeff Marle: namely Sir John Landevorne. Yes, that Sir John Landervorne that will appear again for the last time, in that masterpiece of the first production of bencolinian cycle romance that’s The Lost Gallows.
If there was not Watson or another “shoulder”, Holmes certainly would not have had the worldwide success: Watson is the soul of Holmes, his conscience, humanity gruff of a doctor, as opposed to the superlative intelligence, aseptic and sometimes irritating the detective who knows everything. It’s'from this moment that the pairs of investigators will be remembered with greater kindness than the lone investigator: John Dickson Carr also conforms to this trend (such as the CID Inspectors opposed to Fell or Merrivale) but not so much with the pair Henri Bencolin / John Landevorne, as with that Bencolin / Marle: already from It Walks by Night, Landevorne (which appears in all of the first 4 stories with Bencolin) disappears, giving way to Jeff Marle, the narrator , a disciple of Bencolin: a character then places in a different location from the first, more subaltern.
John Landevorne appears for the last time in The Lost Gallows (not to appear anymore). The fact that Carr, from the first of the novels published with Bencolin, decides to take him out, testifies to me the new professional and social status achieved by Bencolin, “Juge d'Instruction” while Landevorne, is in essence, now, an ex-police officer of Scotland Yard: “Sir John Landevorne had once come from that vague section of London known as Whitehall, and he had been possibly the only man in the city who might have given police orders to Scotland Yard. If M. Henri Bencolin was only one of France’s eighty-six prefects of police, he was not the least important of them”.
If you see well, Jeff Marle, who plays the part of Watson's situation, it is not in a position of parity, which is essentially what is observed in the case of Landevorne in the first four stories (even if the true deus ex machina is always Bencolin) and the Lost Gallows, but despite being an acquaintance of Bencolin (Bencolin and his brother Jeff were friends) is still in a more secluded location, however, and does not share the center stage. And 'he, the famous French policeman at the center of the lights, it is he who dictates the action detective, there is no one who can try to steal the limelight. It is as if Bencolin destroying the image of her mate once, destroyed part of his past, a part of consciousness that no longer wants to be considered. It’s to say, however, that, despite apparently after The Corpse in the Waxworks (1931), Jeff Marle disappears (in fact, the last novel with Bencolin, The Four False Weapons (1937), he is not one of the characters), in reality Carr gave him the chance of dying in beauty, having the spotlight all to himself, without recurring character in a novel, Poison in Jest, a novel of 1932, which is a bencolinian novel without Bencolin.
However, to explain what is happening in The Lost Gallows, Carr says that Landevorne was changed having lost a son tragically (hung himself): since in none of the four stories of the youth of Bencolin, it hints at possible dates which they connect, ie not is specified the period of time, from what Carr says in The Lost Gallows, one could argue that they have been placed in a time that comes before the outbreak of the First World War. This would also explain how from the end of the fourth short story to the first novel, when in the actual time pass a few months, in the imaginary and literary, more than ten years spend, at which Bencolin passes from office of Prefect, one of many, that of Chief of Police, to Advisor to the Supreme Court and the Investigating Judge, ousting that Villon who appears in two among the four stories: in the second and in the fourth.
Bencolin, unlike Merrivale and Fell, works better when he has an opponent who is opposed: betrays his romantic originates. It's like a knight who reacts to affront suffered immediately, and reacts much more vehemently than who opposes is big and smart as he is. In The Fourth Suspect, is Count Villon, his superior, who asks for his help while contesting the fact that Bencolin can find the key to the problem (he hates, for the extraordinary ability to Bencolin have everything under control and to solve the most complex skeins): the spy LaGarde was killed in front of the eyes of the same Villon and the agent of the secret service Riordan, who heard the shot: they broke down the door, without having seen anyone leave a hermetically sealed room, and they were in front of the only exit. LaGarde is still dressed in the style of the masquerade ball held in his house, and on his face is a mask. On his face, there are three holes: two for the eyes (in the mask), and the third in the forehead, from which comes out a trickle of blood, before their eyes. Once again a locked room absolutely extraordinary, once again resolved with skill.
Also this second story sowings the seeds that will be developed elsewhere: the victim is dressed in a bizarre manner (Hogenauer, in The Magic Lantern Murders, is found dead, with a smile twisted into a sneer for strychnine poisoning, and a turkish fez on head; Penderel with the cylinder, a long coat, an ancient evening dress, a fake black beard already on the chin come off , a Persian dagger planted in his chest and the "manual of homemade recipes of Mrs. Eltridge" , in The Arabian Nights Murder; Dwight Stanhope wearing a gold mask, in The Gilded Man, with the white wig, limbs askew, a mask on your face and a smoking cigarette in his hand; there is still a murderer "vanished into thin air", and a murder very similar to the second of The Hollow Man : also there, a man is murdered, and three witnesses (two passers-by and a policeman) swear that no one has approached the victim: conclusion? Crime impossible.
The murder takes place before their eyes, but both swear that no one was there except of course the victim, as in the novel of 1937, Peacock Feather Murders (also The Ten Teacups), where Vance Keating that "she is wearing a hat that is obviously not his size" is entered in a penthouse apartment, closing the door behind him, while both the window and the door only, are guarded outside by the police is murdered with two bullets, and the gun, an old revolver, is found on the floor, and no trace of the killer .For more, The Four Suspect, is the first of his writings in which he elaborates the theme of the object (the weapon, but also other), which disappears after a crime, from a Locked Room and the seeds sown here, will bear fruit elsewhere: first, the weapon that disappears in Till Death Do Us Part; many wads of cash, vanished in a room, Hot Money (short story included in the collection The Department of Queer Complaints); the testament that disappears from a locked room, which has heavily barred the window while the door is guarded, in The Gentleman from Paris (story taken from the collection "The Third Bullet and Other Stories").
The third story is even more remarkable. The End of Justice once again the theme of the challenge that Bencolin accepts: this time, there’s a man whom Bencolin respects, Follewes, who has spent all his money to charity, to be sentenced to death for the murder of his cousin Darworth. The murder is still a Locked Room: Fellowes was seen entering at the victim's home, knock on the door, announce himself, be let in, and lock the door. Then, was found killed the brother, known spiritualist, shackled at the hands and feet to a chair with a knife in his heart: there is no one in the room of course! Fellowes seems to have disappeared, evaporated, especially as the only window is open, yes, but on the edge of the sill and on the lawn below is a white expanse of snow without a single footprint, immaculate and perfect. How did the alleged murderer to escape, more that he didn’t move from his house? Who was the real murderer? Bencolin succeed even in this case to solve the mystery, but he will not save his friend, who will be hanged unjustly, a few minutes before be instead discovered the real culprit.
This story provides, along with the first examined, several ideas for The Three Coffins. In addition, the theme of the snow-covered expanse in which you do not see footprints or you see them but they do not belong to the victim, will be repeated with endless variations from the same Carr (and others, his posterity): The Footprints in the Sky(1940), story in which Carr as usually will not save himself and he will invent a kind of broader Locked Room, the snow-covered lawn, with a solution to truly leave you speechless; the expanse of snow at The White Priory Murders; the snow coming down and the absence of footprints by the killer of Grimaud at The Hollow Man; also at The Gilded Man.
Another issue present here, that of ventriloquism, will be promptly revived with rest of his career as a writer of Carr, in 1935, in the series with HM with which Carr is signed for editorial reasons under the pseudonym Carter Dickson, will see the light novel The Red Widow Murders, which sees The Grand Old Man in the throes of one of his best and most intricate exploits, where one among the characters is ventriloquist. The story seems to me somewhat unbalanced as a solution: imagine that Darworth found handcuffed to the chair, while accustomed to seances biased, having had the strength, even after he has chained ankles to stab to the heart, and after he has handcuffed himself, seems to me a colossal bluster. This young Carr is much more extreme bully and Carr's more mature, more thoughtful, balanced and perfect in his reconstructions: in his desire to impress with a sham really the limit, he climbs on the mirrors in order to refute what would seem the only possible solution, as in turn impossible. It almost seems like the very first Paul Halter de The Curse of Barbarossa. I could understand if he had inflicted stab in the stomach and then he bled to death, but imagine to hit the heart (and the death is almost instantaneous) and then have the strength to handcuff himself, would reveal in the victim not a man but a demigod. One thing a bit difficult to digest .At last there’s the last story, The Murder in Number Four.
It’s a locked room very suggestive: this time it's in a compartment of a train. Mercier, diamond smuggler, was found strangled in a compartment, closed with deadbolt from the inside, and a opened window has a space across which would not pass even a dwarf. The solution is again suggestive, and indeed the only one possible, if you do not want to admit the fact that Mercier has been strangled by a ghost. The vital clue that leads Bencolin to identify the murderess is a ticket.
However, the story, even though it offers a spectacular solution, is the least original of the four: it has a direct subsidiary in The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill. It’s, however, to be noted how in this story, Carr explores for the first time the technique of solving a problem, discussing not so much about the technique of the locked room, but how the detective can and should work to solve happily a case of detection . Here is the first part of the dissertation, between Sir John Landevorne and Bencolin who in the course of the story, fiercely, says: “…I am Bencolin, Prefect of Police in Paris”. I omit the second part because it refers clearly to the resolution of the case in question:
"A pretty enough chessboard, isn't it?" he remarked after a while. "A chess game can be a terrible and enthralling thing, when you play it backwards and blindfolded. Your adversary starts out with his king in check, and tries to move his pieces back to where they were at first; that's why you can't apply rules or mathematical laws to crime. The great chess player is the one who can visualize the board as it will be after his move. The great detective is the one who can visualize the board as it has been when he finds the pieces jumbled. He must have the imagination to see the opportunities that the criminal saw, and act as the criminal would act. It's a great, ugly, terrific play of opposite imaginations. Nobody is more apt than a detective to say a lot of windy, fancy things about reasoning and deduction, and logic. He too frequently says 'reason' when he means `imagination.' I object to having a cheap, strait-laced pedantry like reason confused with a far greater thing."
"But look here," said Sir John, "suppose you take this business tonight. You gave a reconstruction of that crime, all right, and perhaps that was imagination. But you didn't tell us how you knew that was the way it happened. Reason told you that. Didn't it? How did you get on to the murder, anyhow?'
"It's an example of what I was trying to say. There is so much elaborate hocus-pocus around the whole matter of criminal detection that it makes a detective wonder why people think he acts that way. The fiction writers want to call it a science, and attach blood pressure instruments to people's arms, and give them Freud tests—they forget that your innocent man is always nervous, and acts more like a guilty one than the criminal himself, even his insides. They forget that these machines are operated by the most cantankerous one of all, the human machine. And your psychological detective wants to pick out the kind of man who committed a crime; after which he hunts around till he finds one and says, 'Behold the murderer,' whether the evidence supports him or not. I hope you'll permit me to say damned nonsense_ There is no man who is incapable of a crime under any circumstances; to say that a daring crime was necessarily committed by a daring person is to argue that a drunken author can write on the subject of nothing but liquor, or that an atheistical artist could not paint the Crucifixion. It is frequently the tippler who writes the best temperance eassay, and the atheist who finds the most convincing arguments for religion.
A script that defines once for all the importance of these stories, a true summa of Bencolin, a mine of situations and ploys that Carr will then use in his career as a writer: among other things, I like mention here, that in The Lost Gallows, the novel he sees for the last time together Landevorne and Bencolin, which in some ways is one of the most romantic novels by Carr, a very dark romance, is evident throughout the Mephistophelean nature of Bencolin , more than perhaps happens in It Walks by Night, ruthless, sardonic, which in the four stories perhaps reveals itself almost never.
At the end of Paragraph 5 of The Ends of Justice, Bencolin asks the bishop Wolfe to delay as much as possible the execution of Fellowes, because he and Landevorne can save him, but the bishop refuses to cooperate: “You’re insane!”, the bishop said. “I refuse to be party”. They stood up, opposite each other, clergyman and detective, each vaguely visible, but the hatred that sprang between them lit each face like fire.“Bishop Wolfe” Bencolin said quietly, “Pilate was more merciful than you”.
Here it is useful to comment on how Bencolin appears much more human than the bishop and much less ruthless and hard, and even less cynical as it will appear in later novels: the Church (Anglican because the action takes place in London), named heir, would gain a lot of money by the death of Fellowes, and the bishop Wolfe helped solve the case. I note only as once again the use of the names is characteristic: the bishop is called Wolf(e) as the beast. I do not think a random choice for a cleric who despite not having spotted the crime, seeing that through the arrest of Fellowes would have earned much money, he offered himself to help the police to arrest Fellowes.
Bencolin is human with the honest and meek, cynical with profiteers, terrible with the killers.
In the final pages of The Lost Gallows, Bencolin reminds to El Moulk that he is saving him from death by hanging, to which had been intended by ****, just because he want to see him climb the scaffold at dawn and wants to see how The Red Widow caresses the neck.
And in the epilogue of the story, when everyone are speechless from horror, Bencolin..sings a cheerful ditty: Bencolin, implacable judge, he would see guillotined El Moulk who had been the cause of a tragic event, but he accepts the fate : God struck the wicked, and he did justice.
And everything can end well.
Pietro De Palma