A review of The Corpse in the Waxworks by John Dickson Carr
There is always something slightly disturbing and macabre about a waxworks, I feel, with all the lifelike representations of figures, subdued lighting, dark nooks and crannies. A real life cadaver would not look out of place there and it is little wonder that it is a favoured venue for the crime writer. Carr has a very strong sense of the Gothic, as evidenced in Castle Skull, and he is right at home with the gloomy, sinister atmosphere of the waxworks and the bohemian, secretive world of rich, famous and aristocratic Parisians looking for a secret dalliance. These two worlds collide with good effect in this novel, originally published in 1932 and recently reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.
This is the fourth outing for Carr’s French sleuth, Henri Bencolin, his name always puts me in mind of a cough linctus, and his faithful, if somewhat improbable, sidekick, the American, Jeff Marle. An American in Paris is not that unusual, for sure, but would the head of the Parisian detective agency really take one into his confidence and let him play a major and dangerous role in bringing matters to a head?
The book gets off to a cracking start with a very moody, atmospheric set of chapters which set up the story. The pace then almost grinds to a halt as Bencolin begins his investigations and midway through the book he has worked out what has happened but not necessarily whodunit. Then the story lurches back into life and becomes almost a thriller as Marle dices with death in his search for conclusive evidence. The final chapter, which in books of this genre, tends to be anticlimactic as the all the pieces are pulled together, is of an altogether different class.
The reveal certainly caught me off guard. I had my suspicions firmly set on another and was increasingly confident that I was right as the chapter progressed. But, no, I was wrong, and the way Carr brought it off revealed his mastery of the genre. There was a clue or two that a really attentive reader could have used to pre-empt Bencolin, so it was not exactly a rabbit pulled out of a hat but it was a surprise. I also enjoyed the way that Bencolin sportingly allowed the culprit to choose their fate. It was not exactly out of the police textbook but made for a dramatic effect and rounded off an astonishing and memorable book.
As for the story, the bodies of two dead women are found, one in the Seine and the other in the arms of “The Satyr Of The Seine”, a grotesque waxwork in Monsieur Augustin’s creepy waxworks museum. Are the deaths linked? And why is the Museum open at night and why has Augustin’s daughter, who works on the cash desk, so much money. Why do so many visitors enter the Museum but do not come out? What is its connection with a rather risqué club next door, The Club of the Silver Key? What clues do some shards of glass contain?
There are false trails aplenty and several very credible suspects. Bencolin in his rather unorthodox style gets to grips with the puzzles. Marle plays a central role in the story, and while his spying helps to reveal the fate of one of the women, it is down to Bencolin’s observational and deductive powers to bring resolution to the second and a later third murders.
It is worth persevering with if only to appreciate the power of the finale and Carr’s ability to conjure up the atmosphere of Paris and the macabre waxwork museum.