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Thursday, 7 November 2019

‘It Walks by Night’ A Paris Mystery by John Dickson Carr

Published by British Library Publishing,
September 2019. 

ISBN: 978-0-71235264-2 (PB)

It Walks by Night, as the full title suggests, is set mainly in Paris and is a classic “locked room mystery” that baffles everyone with the exception of the Director of Police, Inspector Henri Bencolin.  The investigative prowess of this aloof genius is recorded by his affable, but sometimes naïve, American sidekick Jeff Marle.  

In Chapter 1, Bencolin and Marle visit “Fenelli’s,” a modish salon, complete with jazz band and casino, and where alcohol and drugs are available – for a price.  On their arrival, a party is in full swing to celebrate the marriage of the Duc de Saligny and his beautiful bride, Louise
.  Bencolin seeks out Dr Hugo Grafenstein, an eccentric but renowned psychiatrist.  The detective has invited Grafenstein to discuss a former patient, Alexandre Laurent, who also happens to be the bride’s ex-husband.  The Laurent’s marriage ended a few years earlier when Alexandre attacked his wife with a razor.  Incredibly, she survived and managed to detain her crazed husband until he could be arrested.  Following Grafenstein’s psychiatric assessment,  Laurent was declared criminally insane and incarcerated in a private asylum.  Bencolin tells Grafenstein that, seven months earlier, Laurent had escaped from captivity and that he has used his freedom to change his appearance.  The psychiatrist is even more horrified to learn that Bencolin anticipates that the escapee may turn up at the salon that very evening.

Carr undoubtedly owes a debt to Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, both of whom are cited in the novel, which combines Gothic horror with crime and detection.  He uses imagery to evoke terror and revulsion.  This can be seen, for example, in the relentless employment of red imagery to depict the décor of the murder-room, a technique that highlights the visual horror of the scene. At times the writing shifts into an hypnotic, dreamlike prose that perfectly captures the mood of the Paris salon and its atmosphere of decadent ennui.  The novel’s characters frequently display melodramatic mannerisms, gestures and language reminiscent of the burgeoning melodrama films of the 1920s and 30s.

It Walks by Night was the first of Carr’s novels to be published and is reproduced as part of the British Library Crime Classics series.  Martin Edwards, the series consultant, once more provides a fascinating introduction to the book including some biographical details about the author and an explanation of some of the many literary references included in the narrative.  One such insight explains that the work is a “Harper Sealed Mystery Story.”  All the clues required to solve the mystery were, the publishers claimed, contained in the first twelve chapters and the pages from Chapter 13 onwards were enclosed within a thin seal.  So, if the reader worked out who committed the murder and returned the book with the seal still intact, they were entitled to a refund.  The book is the first work by an American author to be included in this popular British Library series, and includes Carr’s short story, The Shadow of the Goat, in which Inspector Bencolin made his first appearance.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, particularly its surreal descriptions and, in case anyone is wondering, I would not have been able to claim my refund – it kept me guessing to the end!
Reviewer: Dot Marshall-Gent 

John Dickson Carr  (1906-1977) was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1906. Through born in the USA, Carr developed a distinctly British style to his mystery writing from his time living in England and became one of only two Americans ever admitted to the Detection Club. It Walks by Night, his first published detective novel, featuring the Frenchman Henri Bencolin, was published in 1930. Apart from Dr Fell, whose first appearance was in Hag's Nook in 1933, Carr's other series detectives (published under the nom de plume of Carter Dickson) were the barrister Sir Henry Merrivale, who debuted in The Plague Court Murders (1934).

Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.  

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