Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Vintage Mystery Challenge: CASTLE SKULL (1931) by John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr (1906 - 1977) was and continues to be the master of the locked room mystery. When you think 'locked room school of mystery', his is the name that automatically pops up. Either as Carter Dickson or John Dickson Carr, he created some of the best murder puzzles ever written. His mysteries are ingenious whodunits with seemingly impossible scenarios, clever casts of often peculiar characters and a wealth of misleading clues meant to confuse the reader and lead him or her totally astray. I'd say he doesn't play fair with the reader, but it really doesn't matter. That's not why you go to Dickson Carr. Or at least not why I've always liked his books.

I began reading John Dickson Carr /Carter Dickson as a very young woman and liked them best because they were so different (I was purposely looking for something a little different) from all my favorite Agatha Christies. In comparison, they are darkly involving books, meant to draw the reader away from the light. These are not 'happy' mysteries. They are mostly gloomy and tortuous and even in the end sometimes, after the explanation, the reader still goes 'huh'? But to me, that's part of the fun. How often can I be fooled? Plenty of times, it seems. Needless to say, none of these convoluted solutions to the crime have anything to do with 'real life', but, in a way, that's part of their charm.

While his two major detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are similar in corpulence and brain power (Merrivale more physically active than Fell), the Merrivale books bear the author name of Carter Dickson and the Fell books were published under John Dickson Carr. Whenever I think of Gideon Fell I can't help thinking of the old nursery school rhyme:

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell
the reason why I cannot tell.
But this I know and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

But in truth, neither of Carr's creations are especially likable, they are not meant to be. They are eccentric thinking machines, pure and simple. (If they remind me of anyone, it's often Dr. Samuel Johnson.) It is within the cast of zany characters that you must look to find someone to like or sympathize with. Perhaps this is the reason why John Dickson Carr's mysteries are not more well known or more widely read today. But the books are so inventive and so craftily written, that I don't really count this as a fault.

CASTLE SKULL is one of the few puzzlers written by John Dickson Carr which features another of his detective creations, the Frenchman Henri Bencolin. (There are five in this series.)
When I first read this particular book many years ago, I thought then as I do now, that it would make a wonderful film. It's amazing to me that no one has ever tried it.

Bencolin is a brilliant detective mastermind. In appearance he is tall, thin and devilish. He has black brilliantined hair, pointy mustaches and the smile of a satyr. And of course, in dress he is impeccable. He relishes the difficult and the theatrical. No run-of-the-mill cases for him. And in CASTLE SKULL, we are as far from run-of-the-mill as you can get.

This book is all about the atmosphere of setting: an eerie castle on the Rhine river. An edifice meant to resemble the shape of a skull, it fires the imagination and casts a dark spell over boaters up and down the river. There are wild improbable tales of hauntings and mysterious doings, of course. The castle was originally owned by the famed and darkly malevolent magician Maleger, a man who, seventeen years before, went to his own unsolved death, disappearing from a railroad car, his body found downriver, bashed against the rocks. Okay, I know what you're thinking, but you have to wait to find out. Is it a red herring? Only time and Bencolin's machinations will tell.

At present, Bencolin and his 'Watson' and general dogsbody, Jeff Marle who tells the tale in first person, are visiting across the river within view of the ominous castle. Bencolin has been asked to solve the murder of famed actor Myron Alison whose grisly death seems incomprehensible to one and all. Alison was the current owner of Castle Skull, though he and his sister and assorted family lived across the river in a rather more comfortable setting -the castle inhabited lately only by a caretaker, most of the building being left to nature's harsh devices.

On the night of the murder, a rainy, storm tossed night (of course), those in the house were horrified by the vision of a man on fire running along the dark battlements of the castle before collapsing and dying in the shadows. That man was Myron Alison.

The local constabulary has called in the famed German detective and wily rival to Bencolin, Herr von Arnheim. Bencolin has been called in by Monsier Jerome D'Aunay, a troubled, wealthy business man who happened to be visiting with the Alisons at the time of the murder. The two detectives are not only jealous of each other's abilities, but enthusiastically enter into competition to see who can solve the murder first.

There are assorted doings and happenings, secret passageways, boat trips across the Rhine, mostly taking place in a rain-soaked atmosphere full of shadows and dark imaginings. Fun stuff. The castle itself serves as a major character in the story. I'm fond of that sort of thing.

The final denouement, of course, will take place at a mad, high-spirited cocktail party given in the ruins of Castle Skull itself. An occasion in which all will be revealed.

Please check out this website for a list of John Dickson Carr's books, all of which make for great and atmospheric reading but perhaps, not on a rainy night.

It was a breathtaking sight to see Castle Skull illuminated in that fashion and I have no doubt that night-travellers on the Rhine gaped up at it. The vast death's head lifted itself to stare with light. The eyes were enormous oval windows of violet-colored glass! the nose was triangular and yellow, as were also the arches forming the teeth; and all of them shone out in a devilish and sardonic blaze. As the lights moved or fluttered in the least, different expressions played over the face of the skull.

Great spot for a murder - huh? Or, at the very least, a cocktail party.

More flights of steps, past another floor where the dining room was located, and we emerged in the room which made up the entire crown of the skull. Noise rushed out at us; noise buffetted the ear-drums, swirled you again into that half-sick tensity of waiting. I saw that the roof was of glass in the shape of a dome. There were carven pillars of ebony soaring to support it. The floor seemed to be of black-and-gold mosaic in circular patterns of zodiac symbols, but I could not see what symbols because it was strewn with animal-skin rugs...and the animal-heads opened white-fanged jaws like an uncanny dead menagerie. People were tripping over them in all directions. Four immense crowns of candles hanging from the roof gave a fiery glow to the mosaic floor, but even so, the room was not well lighted. I could make out no details; shadow lay everywhere outside the candlelight.

It is in this melodramatic atmosphere that another death will occur and a murderer revealed. It's a kind of mish-mash of an ending, but in this book, it's the route to that ending that counts.
This review is an entry in the Vintage Mystery Challenge hosted by Bev at My Readers Block blog.


  1. ohhhhhhhhhhhhh this looks like a good book to read and I did go to the website.. Going to look him up at the library!! stay warm and safe.. Judy

  2. Thanks, Judy! Snow on the ground here and cold. Perfect weather for a good mystery.

  3. My father liked John Dickson Carr's mysteries, as he liked good puzzles to figure out (he was a math and crossword puzzle doer), as my 90-year-old uncle reminded me recently--he likes them, too.

    So I must read some of them--depending on what my library has which circulates. Some of the classics do not circulate in the library system, to my disappointment.

  4. Long live Carr! One of my favorite mystery writers. The Bencolin books are Carr at his most Gothic. And I'd say Castle Skull is probably his most gruesome book. Murder by immolation - doesn't get more nasty than that!

    There is a brilliant floor plan and 2D rendering of Castle Skull designed by a fanatical Carr reader that is posted here. Check it out!

  5. Kathy: I hope you can find some of Carr's books, Kathy. They are are lot of fun. Yes, and very puzzling!

  6. J.F. Norris: Yeah, not to mention the whole prisoner in the dungeon thing. Gothic with a capital G. (Am I giving too much away?) VERY gruesome. This is also one of those 'least likely person done it' mysteries.

    But wouldn't this make a great movie?

    Thanks for link, J.F.

  7. J.F. Norris: I've just seen the link. WOW! Yes, that's how I pictured it except less neat. Imagine all this in the dark and pouring rain. It is amazing what a true fan will get up to when it comes to a favorite book. :)

  8. FYI, Yvette, Rue Morgue Press currently has three Carr mysteries in print. "The Case of the Constant Suicides" features Dr. Fell, as does "The Crooked Hinge" (though I've never been really happy with the solution of the latter). "The Judas Window" features Sir Henry Merrivale, and was written as "Carter Dickson" - and it's another one where the solution is downright brilliant. Always glad to find others who enjoy Carr - he had no equal in the locked room/impossible crime genre!

  9. I'm not one for gruesome or gory, am a pacificist at heart, who likes murder whodunnits.

    Any suggestions for the less gruesome books which still have brilliant solutions?

  10. I've been waiting for your review for a while now ever since I noticed the book cover in your currently reading spot. I must say that I've never heard of the author but I absolutely need to find some of his books to read. You already have me hooked and even if the book is only half as good as you've made it sound, I'll love it.

  11. Les: Very good news! I remember once upon a time going through a Henry Merrivale phase and reading up all those books. Can't remember any of the stories now, though. They've disappeared from my memory...

  12. Kathy, I'm not sure, since I don't actually remember any of the books. I read them when I was very young and I'm afraid they're gone from my memory. I just remember that I enjoyed them very much. So, in a way, I'm reading them again for the first time.

    For less gruesome Vintage mysteries, you can always go to Agatha Christie's books. Brilliant but not overly bloody. Also Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books are excellent and not, if I remember correctly, overly violent at all.

  13. Ryan: You definitely will love them. They are ingenious and often mind-bogglingly good. I'm glad you liked my review - thanks! I don't hold back when I love a book, that's for sure. ;)

    Rememeber that John Dickson Carr also wrote as Carter Dickson.

  14. I do so enjoy the locked room mysteries and I've not read this one. Have you read Gaston Leroux’s “The Mystery of the Yellow Room”? Carr called it the greatest of the locked room mysteries.

  15. Linda: That's a new one on me, Linda! I'll add it to my ever-expanding TBR list. Thanks! While Carr was the known for his 'locked room' mysteries, CASTLE SKULL is not, technically one except for...well, I'll let you find out. :)

  16. Hmm, might pick up a copy of this if I see one on my travels. Sounds as though it could be quite entertaining in a hammer horror sort of way! In terms of 'locked room' mysteries, there is a TV detective over here (not sure if it has shown in the States) called Jonathan Creek. Written for TV by David Renwick who is a comedy writer with a keen sense of the surreal and macarbe. I'd recommend a watch if you get the chance.

  17. Any ideas of books by John Dickson Carr or Carter Dicksen that aren't gruesome?

    I'd like to read some of it, but dungeons and torture are not my cup of tea--or piece of bread either.

  18. Miss Lemon: No, I've never heard of this series - JONATHAN CREEK. I'll see if Netflix might have a copy. Thanks for the tip.

  19. Kathy; I'm sorry but I don't remember much about the books themselves - I read them MANY years ago. My only memory is that I enjoyed them. :)

  20. Kathy - the best of JD Carr (without the torture, dungeons, and bizarre murders):

    by John Dickson Carr
    THE THREE COFFINS (with the famous "locked room lecture")
    THE CROOKED HINGE (though this gets very, very weird in the end)

    by Carter Dickson
    THE PUNCH & JUDY MURDERS (very funny, too)

    He also wrote a lot of historical detective fiction set in 18th & 19th century England, and 19th century America. None of those have a series character. Since I have never read any of those yet I can't recommend any.


  21. Thanks, so much, John. I'm sure Kathy will love this list. I do too, since I don't remember anything about these books except that, once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I read them. ;)


Your comment will appear after I take a look.