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.
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