Castle Skull – John Dickson Carr
Every now and again I come across a book in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series that is truly bonkers. Carr’s Castle Skull, subtitled A Rhineland Mystery and published in 1921, certainly falls into that category, mixing crime with gothic horror by the bucket load. Rather too overwritten for my taste, it nonetheless is an entertaining read.
Following classic crime fiction conventions, the story is narrated by Jeff Marle, the rather innocent American sidekick to one of Carr’s detective creations, the Frenchman, Inspector Bencolin. However, as Marle is never privy to all of Bencolin’s thoughts, the importance of some of the clues are not realised. This allows Carr to flog some of the red herrings for all they are worth.
Carr ratchets up the tension on the detective stakes by introducing Bencolin’s arch-rival, the German detective, von Arnheim. Both are invited to Castle Skull, so named because from afar the castle looks like a skull, to solve the mystery. While on the surface both co-operate, they feed each other red herrings in the hope that they can solve the crime. This device adds another layer of intrigue to the story, although you can pretty easily guess who will come out on top.
As for the crime, it is truly bizarre. Castle Skull, the Gothic horror castle to outdo all Gothic horror castles, was owned by a famous stage magician, Maleger. The magician, though, died some 17 years before the action of the book in mysterious circumstances. He was travelling alone in a railway carriage, from which he disappeared, his body being found in the river below. Did he jump or was he pushed?
The castle is bequeathed to a rich financier, Jerome D’aunay, and a rather vain actor, Myron Alison. Alison dies in spectacular fashion, having been shot, doused in petrol and before expiring he was seen running around the battlements on fire. D’aunay invites Bencolin to solve the crime, von Arnheim is brought in by the local Rhineland police. There is the usual motley crew of suspects, staying in the house directly across the river from the castle – Alison’s sister, Agatha, a rather annoying concert violinist, Emile Levasseur, a couple of the younger set who may or may not be in love, Sally Reine and Sir Marshall Dunstan, and D’Aunay and his wife, Isobel. One or more must have killed Alison but who and why?
I will not spoil the storyline, save to say that not everything is at it seems. And in the spirit of Holmes, Maigret et al, natural justice rather the strict interpretation of the letters of the law is allowed to prevail. To say that the plot is melodramatic is an understatement, it is almost as if it is a pastiche of all the elements of a good horror story rolled into one. There is something of Edgar Allan Poe about it. Despite his flowery prose, Carr does succeed in conveying the atmosphere engendered by the castle and the tension and atmosphere does build up to a fitting crescendo as the tale progresses.
Marle makes for an effective narrator and his portrayals of the various characters add to the reader’s understanding. But he doesn’t aid the reader in terms of the unravelling of the crime and, frankly, I was a little taken aback by the denouement. I didn’t feel hard done by but there were too many rabbits being pulled out of hats for my liking.
It made for an entertaining, undemanding read. There is much worse rubbish on the television, after all.