Perhaps it’s a bit foolish of me to shun my New Horizons project for more than one book in a row, since I fully well know that if I want to keep up the pace to finish it in time I need to read two books by new-to-me authors each month, with three for one month. But what can I say… I love me some John Dickson Carr. If it’s not clear from the fact that I’ve reviewed more Carr novels than any other single author, he is my favorite GAD author besides Agatha Christie. Honestly, they might be tied for me. The only reason my Christie levels aren’t as high as Carr’s is because I’ve already read all her novels! Not only did Carr’s mysteries make me love the impossible crime, but his prose style, atmosphere, and ability to clue surprising murderers and complex plots are what draw me to him so much. I figured, then, that since it was a new year of discovering new favorite Carrs for me, I may as well start with the very first one. And I’m glad this was my first Carr of the year. It Walks by Night represents a young and inexperienced Carr, but it still contains the atmospheric writing and ingenious impossible crime plotting which Carr would perfect by the end of the decade and through WWII.
Carr has a knack for starting his novels with suspense and mystery, but this one may take the cake for the craziest so far. We meet Henri Bencolin, the juge d’insturction of Paris, along with his Watson, Jeff Marle, and Dr. Grafenstein, a visiting psychologist. Bencolin explains the story of Alexandre Laurent. Laurent was a seemingly normal man, interested in linguistics and happily married – until he tried to slit his wife’s throat with a razor. As he explained to Grafenstein before he was locked away in asylum, he had a n insatiable bloodthirstiness that contrasted with the rest of his apparently sound mind. Laurent was locked up and all was happy, until his wife Louise decided to marry again, this time to the Duc de Saligny, a dashing Parisian athlete. Now Laurent has escaped, gotten facial reconstruction from a crooked surgeon in Vienna, decapitated said surgeon, and come back to Paris. A frightened Saligny has come to Bencolin for help, because Laurent has sent a threatening letter that with his new face, he has planted himself in Saligny’s circle of friends. Despite Bencolin’s best efforts, Saligny can’t be saved – he is decapitated in the card room of a salon with both doors watched by either Bencolin or a trusted policeman, an undisturbed window, and no secret passages whatsoever.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to Chapter Three.
While the pure energy of those first two chapters is never really met again in the rest of the novel, it sets the tone for the kind of atmosphere and action the young Carr has in store. The Parisian setting, unusual for Carr, seems to endow him with an extra sense of the macabre, with references to werewolves and Poe stories abound. I can tell that Carr had the knack for a creepy atmosphere which he later perfected, such as in Hag’s Nook or He Who Whispers, but as a fledgling writer he didn’t know how to pace the amount of atmospheric writing in the novel. The atmosphere in It Walks by Night is definitely saturated, with its near-Victorian prose style and evocations of unmanifested horrors. Bencolin’s character is a part of this, as well – Carr purposefully describes him as Mephistophelean, makes him appear several times as if out of thin air, and if his wispy, horn-like hair isn’t symbolic, then I don’t know what is. From what I hear Bencolin gets toned down by the end of his series, but for now, having such a literally devilish detective figure is interesting, although it does become tiresome after a bit.
The other characters in the novel were not that memorable. We don’t get to see much of Jeff Marle, even though he narrates the whole thing! For someone I spent 225 pages looking through the eyes of, I did not get that much of a sense for his character, besides “young, stuffy American expat”. Hopefully he becomes much more fleshed out by his stand-alone mystery, Poison in Jest. Many of the suspects were mainly defined by one overarching characteristic. Saligny’s best friend Edouard Vautrelle is a bit rounder a character than most, but mostly he comes off as an uptight socialite. Sid Golton, the other American in the book, is a drunk – and that’s about it. It’s like he got lost on the way to the Pamplona fiesta and ended up in a murder investigation. Louise de Saligny is mostly characterized by her addiction to marijuana – which Bencolin claims will kill her within five years. Talk about dating yourself.
So the atmosphere is strong but a bit too unfettered, and the characters are pretty one-sided. If anything can save this book, it’s the plotting. Thankfully, it does. I’ve already described the impossible crime which becomes the marquee mystery of the novel. For Carr’s first novel-length locked room, it’s beautifully handled. We get most of the clues we need to solve it in the first few chapters, a steady trickle of new information afterwards, and a stellar solution which is so simple it makes you feel inadequate for not figuring it out. The solution to the locked-room puzzle contains a perfect balance of psychological and structural trickery.The map Carr includes is a must-have for visualizing the salon and how the crime could be worked out – it’s very helpful. My BLCC copy didn’t have one, but from what I hear the BLCC edition does contain it; I must have gotten a misprint or something. The whodunit aspect of the novel is well done as well. Laurent’s secret new identity constitutes one of Carr’s best twists, even if I figured it out beforehand; It Walks by Night definitely contains one of Carr’s best-hidden murderers.
I’ve commented before on how Carr has many novels which end on a perfect note – an extra twinge of emotion, or a last haunting image. I think that here, Carr was already trying to figure out that perfect, literary ending. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite come off. The final three chapters have a perfect balance between tension and explanation, but on the last page, it just kind of… ends. Without spoiling anything, Carr tries to part with an some haunting imagery, but he doesn’t subtly close the narrative the at the same time, such as he does in a stellar fashion with She Died a Lady or the aforementioned He Who Whispers. It was disappointing, but still interesting, to see a “classic Carr ending” which ultimately flounders.
Carr’s debut novel wasn’t perfect. I didn’t expect it to be. however, I was surprised by how many of his hallmarks already appeared in It Walks by Night, even if those hallmarks hadn’t been refined the way they are in Carr’s masterpieces. Young JDC clearly had a passion for murder-mystery writing, and an inspiration from many of the mystery authors before him, like Poe and A.E.W. Mason. Even if he hadn’t completely found his own voice yet, he was already in full control of the genre’s bounds by his first novel, which has to be one of the most successful GAD debuts out there.
Even if my copy omitted the map of the crime scene, I really enjoyed the British Library Crime Classics edition. Martin Edwards’ introduction was thorough and enjoyable; and there was an extra delight in the inclusion of “The Shadow of the Goat”, Carr’s (I believe) very first story. It was a lot like the novel, with a heavy atmosphere, impossible crime, and somewhat underdeveloped characters. I still enjoyed it, though, and the solution to the locked-room disappearance in it was quite enjoyable, taking a classic trope to its logical limit, even into the rest of the solution.
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