Egyptian curses, notorious hangmen, phantom cars, and gallows on a street that doesn’t exist….eh, sorry, but it just didn’t really do too much for me. Although a decent read, this probably finds its way to the bottom of my list of books by John Dickson Carr. A pity, as I had high hopes after seeing this grace several top 10 lists on the poll at Tipping My Fedora a few years ago.
The Lost Gallows is a light continuation of the events from It Walks By Night, with narrator Jeff Marle and detective Bencolin visiting London to attend the opening night of the play mentioned in the previous novel. While staying at the ominous Brimstone Club, they get swept up in a mystery that is going to be a bit taxing for me to explain. This is one of those plots where you feel like you have to do a grade school book report to really capture what’s going on.
Basically, a wealthy Egyptian may or may not have caused the death of a man whose identity was never known. Ten years later, he’s haunted by his past crime. Mysterious gifts, such as a noose and a toy-replica of gallows, show up at his room in the Brimstone Club – despite witnesses being certain that no-one entered or left the quarters. Then, the tormented man vanishes. His car is seen careening through the streets of London, with the chauffeur dead behind the wheel. Despite having no driver, the car somehow navigates back to the Brimstone Club.
I mean, I guess that’s it. Those are our mysteries, although they didn’t really strike me as much. It kind of reminded me of my experience with Fire, Burn, where midway through the book I realized I had already been dealt the “impossibilities” and wasn’t getting more. In the case of The Lost Gallows, the impossibilities aren’t really even presented as such:
- The mysterious appearance of gifts is reported by a witness who is a drunk and doesn’t seem very trustworthy. Even if he can be trusted, no-one really treats it as a big mystery and Carr never emphasizes how difficult it would have been to pull off.
- The self-driving car is immediately dismissed by a comment that it was foggy enough when the car stopped that someone could have jumped out and fled unnoticed. Assuming that comment is true, then the only real mystery is why a witness didn’t see anyone driving the car. I could think of a number of possibilities.
So what we’re left with is an investigation of the chauffeur’s murder and the disappearance of the Egyptian. It’s not a bad investigation, and Carr provides an enjoyable enough read, but it’s just lacking that extra bit of magic to lure you into the story. The best analogy I can think of is Fire, Burn, without the historical intrigue.
The strong point of The Lost Gallows is the atmosphere that Carr lays on, especially in the last third of the book. The darkness verges on horror, and I was definitely drawn deeply into the tense later chapters. As dark as It Walks By Night was, The Lost Gallows is where we truly see the genesis of the atmosphere to come in later works like The Red Widow Murders and The Crooked Hinge.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Lost Gallows is how Carr seems to reveal some of his thoughts on crime fiction. Similar to The Witch of the Low Tide, Carr appears to talk through his characters, this time Bencolin. In a debate about the merits of crime fiction with the main character, the detective laments that mystery writers are challenged to make their stories probable, when the role of fiction is to provide amusement. He also supplies a comment that hints at Carr’s goals with other series detectives like Fell and Merrivale.
“The detective never errs, which is exactly what I want. I could never understand why writers wanted to make their detectives human beings, patient workers, liable to error…”
Another character in the book is a doctor who is known as “the detective of history”.
“He took some famous murder-stories – historical facts they’ve never properly explained – and worked them out, with evidence, just like modern police-court records.”
This is somewhat prophetic of what was to come for Carr, with The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey being published five years later in 1936.
Speaking of things to come, Carr describes an inscription on the wall of the Brimstone Club that reads “From the hag and the hungry goblin”. This is a reference to a 15th century poem, but more interestingly, it was called upon again for the title of his final novel in 1972.
Since this is part of my effort to read the Bencolin books in order, I’ll discuss the impact of that for a bit. I’ve noticed cross-book references in both Merrivale and Fell works, although it is typically just a sentence referring to a previous crime years earlier. I’ve also caught some character continuity – if I recall, the main character of The Red Widow Murders was also in The Plague Court Murders. There have been a few more, but they typically don’t seem to have much relevance to the story – but then again, I wouldn’t know, since I’m reading in random order.
In the case of The Lost Gallows, I’m glad that I had read It Walks By Night right before it. It provided a bit more backstory to the narrator and his relationship with Sharon Grey – his reoccurring love interest. It is probably the play that Bencolin and Marle attend where I benefited the most from reading the prior book. It would have seemed like they were just going out for a night at the theatre, but with the proper backstory I better understood the relevance of the scene.
Overall, it’s not a bad book – I may have given you that impression from my first few comments. While it may be at the bottom of my Carr list, it’s up against some fierce competition. The story was entertaining and the atmosphere was top notch. I just didn’t feel like it delivered on the mystery, and unfortunately that’s the most important part.