It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr – #1930Club

This week Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting another of their club events, where bloggers read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time it’s 1930 and I found two books on my TBR from that year, one from each of my two favourite genres, classic crime and historical fiction.

I decided to start with It Walks by Night, a detective novel by American author John Dickson Carr which has just been reissued as a British Library Crime Classic. My previous experience of Dickson’s work has been limited to the short story Persons or Things Unknown, which appeared in a Christmas anthology I read a few years ago, but I liked it and knew I wanted to read more. It Walks by Night was his first detective novel and also the first in a series featuring the character of Henri Bencolin, a juge d’Instruction (examining magistrate) of the Parisian police.

The novel is set in 1927 and opens with the newly married Duc de Saligny attending a gambling house in Paris. The Duc has been accompanied by a police escort who are providing protection after he received a death threat from Alexandre Laurent, the violent ex-husband of his new wife, Louise. Laurent recently escaped from the asylum where he had been committed after attacking Louise with a razor and has vowed to kill both Saligny and Louise if they go through with the marriage.

Late in the evening, the Duc walks into an empty card room with police guarding both doors. Soon afterwards a bell rings from inside the room and a waiter arrives to answer the summons, expecting to be given a drinks order. Instead, he finds the Duc dead, his head severed from his body, and a blood-covered sword hanging on the wall. There is nobody else in the room and as both entrances were being closely watched, nobody could have gone in or out without being seen. The murderer must be Laurent – but how did he manage it? Henri Bencolin, who claims to have never taken more than twenty-four hours to solve a case, sets out to discover the truth.

It Walks by Night is narrated by Jeff Marle, an American friend of Bencolin’s who plays a similar role to Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels or Hastings in the Poirot novels. His main function is to provide a sort of bridge between the reader and the detective so that the solution is not revealed as early as it would have been if the story had been told from Bencolin’s perspective. Bencolin himself is not the most appealing or memorable of detectives, in my opinion, and I never warmed to him at all – but I haven’t met any of Carr’s other detectives yet, so maybe his characterisation improves in later books.

As a classic locked room mystery, it’s quite a clever one and certainly kept me wondering how the murder could possibly have been carried out, in a room with no secret entrances, no hiding places and a window forty feet above the ground. To make things even more confusing, we are told in the first chapter that Laurent is known to have visited a plastic surgeon and may have altered his appearance so successfully that he could be almost any of the characters we meet throughout the novel. I didn’t much like this idea as it seemed too far-fetched to me, but it did give me something else to think about.

So did I guess the solution? Of course not; I almost never do! There were clues – there’s a map at the beginning of the book and some allusions to a story by Edgar Allan Poe which I have read more than once, but I still didn’t work out the significance of any of this. I don’t feel too bad about my poor detective work, though, as it meant I was surprised by the twists at the end of the story! I will read more by John Dickson Carr, but as I didn’t like Bencolin I would prefer to try a book from a different series next.

~

I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to finish my second 1930 book by the end of the week, but for now here are some other books from that year previously reviewed on my blog:

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie
Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)
The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield
Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

14 thoughts on “It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr – #1930Club

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve read this one too, and my review will turn up later in the week. It’s wondefully twisty, isn’t it, and I didn’t get it either. I’ve read some other JDC but only ever his Dr. Gideon Fell stories. Fell is a bit different to Bencolin so you might like his stories better! 😀

  2. cirtnecce says:

    What a great review! And you are the not only one who never guesses the solution; you have a companion in me! This does seem like a great book and I think I will get to it maybe just not this week! I sorely tempted to re-read The Diary of a Provincial Lady again for the event, but since it is such a go-to book for me, I have decided to be adventurous and read a hard boiled American Detective Novel – The Maltese Falcon. I am feeling all the force of a black and white noir film!

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed The Diary of a Provincial Lady, but I just read it last year so wasn’t ready to read it again yet. The Maltese Falcon is not a book I’ve ever thought about reading, but I hope you like it.

  3. Carmen says:

    Sometimes I guess the solution, not so much in books but in movies, then I blame the writer for not doing a better job, or the opposite, I resent the writer for keeping his cards too close to the chest. Can’t win! 😛

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it can be disappointing when you guess the solution too easily – but it’s not fair when important clues are kept from the reader (or viewer) either. I suppose it’s hard for writers to get the balance right.

  4. Simon T says:

    I love a locked room mystery but have still never read Carr – I don’t have this one, but I think I have one or two others. And like you, I never guess the ending!

    • Helen says:

      This is a particularly clever locked room mystery, so I don’t feel too bad about not guessing the solution! I hope you enjoy Carr when you get round to reading him.

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