The Lost Gallows

lostgallowsEgyptian 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.

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36 thoughts on “The Lost Gallows”

  1. Y’know something? I really do not remember this book — the more I try and recall it, the more it seems to merge with The Corpse in the Waxworks. Whether that means they’re especially similar or whether it’s just that I’m an idiot I shall leave up to your discretion.

    I can’t help but feel that this might be why Carr got sick of Bencolin, because the stories all became a bit similar and in order to break out of that he needed someone new. It’s telling that the first Fell, Hag’s Nook, and the firest Merrivale, The Plague Court Murders, are almost anti-Bencolin in their setup, execution, and resolution — Fell and H.M. would bluster their way through poor Henri’s cases in no time at all, but Bencolin would still be locked in The Plague Court trying to figure out how that cat fit into proceedings 🙂

    I absolutley love that cover, though. Might try to track down that edition in order to reread it…

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    1. If you don’t remember the book, that just means I didn’t go into explicit enough detail with the plot summary… 😛

      You know, I think I realized one of my issues with the book – I’m not very interested in the “supernatural” impossibilities that go beyond an impossible murder. Stuff like the self driving car in The Lost Gallows, the grabbing hand and jumping gun in The Man Who Could Not Shudder, the crawling hand in Poison in Jest (haven’t gotten to that yet) – these just don’t capture my interest and serve as a distraction. I mean, obviously there isn’t a disembodied hand scurrying around, and I’m not really intrigued to understand why someone thought there was.

      Is that just me?

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      1. I do sort of see where you’re coming from, but personally I’m quite partial to a ‘non-murder’ impossibility, usually because when you get one that’s done well it’s an absolute doozy (debunked seances in fiction are a favourite of mine — there’s something I particularly enjoy about seeing tricks like that unpicked, and I could probably do a Favourite 5 Seances post…in fact, I just might…!).

        I guess I find a particular joy in seeing how the blinkers can be put on a reader — that’s what draws me to detective fiction in general, and obviously extends into impossible crimes — even if the Recourse to the Supernatural does become a bit of a trope which, you’re quite correct, gets rather tiresome because that’s obviously not going to be the answer. But then I think how Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit or Paul Gallicos’ Too Many Ghosts wouldn’t work without a supernatural element and I tend to become a little more…forgiving. And Norman Berrow’s The Footprints of Satan — one of my favourite books of last year — obviously isn’t going to be a supernatural solution, and some may claim this made the actual answer obvious, but again it needs the background to explore the setup it has.

        Sometimes an impatience with that sort of thing can be helpful, especially when the author comes with you — the Talbot, for instance, is anchored in a character who doesn’t believe in supernatural bunkum, and it really helps his narrative — but if they’re working too hard to sell you something that bvously isn’t for sale then, I agree, it does get pretty dull pretty quickly.

        This remainds me of that Jacques Futrelle story where his wife wrote a series of supernatural occurrences and he then went through and came up with rational solutions to them all. Blimey, I’ve not read that for years, might go and dig it out.

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    2. Tsk, JJ, you couldn’t remember this title and you concurred with TomCat’s recommendation of it above ‘Corpse in the Waxworks’ and ‘It Walks by Night’? 😛

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      1. Oh, I remember enjoying it more than Waxworks, yeah, but precise details are…sketchy. I didn’t realise anyone was paying attention to what I was saying; will have to be more careful in future 😉

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  2. “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…” So it’s clear already that Carr is setting himself up as the anti-Humdrum champion … his detectives are the opposite of Inspector French, as it were.
    I was surprised to see that Otto Penzler thought well of this book. It certainly didn’t make my top ten list and would be close to the bottom of my own rankings; to me this whole book is just muddy, with a lot of atmosphere and very little anything else. It’s been a long, long time since I felt compelled to re-read it, but what’s stuck with me is Carr’s really unnecessary depiction of the black chauffeur. It’s the only time that I remember Carr partaking of the casual racism of his era, and it’s quite unpleasant.

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    1. There’s a bit of the casual racist element in The Reader is Warned as well. It’s an unfortunate consequence of reading stories of this era.

      Of course, there is more casual sexism in Carr’s books than we could ever bother discussing. One of the more outrageous bits is the bedroom sequence at the beginning of The Emperor’s Snuff Box. The main character is nearly raped by her ex-husband, and he mocks her with the fact that it would be her who would be disgraced if it were made public. Of course, Carr empathizes with the woman, but this is a striking aspect of the culture at the time.

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  3. JJ, PLEASE do your Favourite Five Seances. That would be so interesting! I can only think of three or four off the top of my head … Rim of the Pit, The Sittaford Mystery, the Sayers novel where the “ghost” gets fixed on the letter “B” … but such a good idea for a post. If you don’t, *I* just might, but you’re obviously the expert!!

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    1. “Expert” might be pushing it — I don’t seek ’em out, but I love ’em when I find ’em. I could probably get a post done for Saturday; would you be able to put one up by then as well, then we (and our very discerning readers) could compare and contrast?

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  4. It has been well over 30 years since I read this one but do also seem to recall a slight sense of disappointment with the plot after IT WALKS but I will just have to re-read it now, which sounds like a great idea!

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    1. Carr is absurdly rich for rereading, ain’t he? I’ve just reread The Ten Teacups and it’s such a great experience watching him hide stuff all over the place, picking up on his little turns of phrase and seeing how something can be presented as so hideouly baffling with just the lightest touch here and there. I maintain that this is why I’m making such slow progress through his books — partly it’s difficulty in finding them, partly it’s the desire not to run out, but mostly he’s just a terrific second and third go-around…

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      1. I’m agreeing with all of that – as I read most of them in translation originally, I now tend to focus of re-reading when I get an original English edition. But I do have a few left unread for dire Carr emergencies .. 🙂

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      2. I’m not sure I want to re-read ‘Ten Teacups’ or ‘Plague Court Murders’, but I liked ‘Green Capsule’ more the second time round. The two titles I really want to read again are ‘Death-Watch’ and ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. For some reason I very much liked ‘Death-Watch’, despite lukewarm reviews – it struck me to be a bizarrely complex mystery, and the hypothetical court-room scene in the middle was great.

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      3. If my ethusiasm for Death-Watch hasn’t yet permeated, I frickin’ love that book; don’t get how it’s so dismissed, it’s a brilliant dense puzzle that highlights so much of what Carr did better than most-comers.

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      4. Death Watch was an excellent recommendation from JJ. There is just so much going on that entire book and you get Fell at his best. I can’t quite imagine why it gets a bad rap. Well, it lacks an impossible crime, but for that matter, so does The Emperor’s Snuff Box. An aspect of the solution may be considered somewhat of a cheat by GAD standards, but i ate it up.

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  5. Great review, and especially intriguing for me and I haven’t read this one yet. In terms of your relating this to Fire Burn, with regards to the feeling that the mystery/impossibility os over half way through, I’d be interested to see what you thought of Captain Cut-Throat. I got put onto it from TomCat having it high on his list of impossible crimes, and with this also impossible element is finished half way through. But the book has a great amount of tension and pace to carry you through to the end, like a more successful Fire Burn.

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    1. Well, it isn’t that the impossibility is over midway through either book – in both cases, the solutions are provided at the end. I was referring to being midway through Fire, Burn and realizing that the shooting in the hallway WAS the impossible crime and I wasn’t getting another one. Fortunately, Fire, Burn has a great plot and Carr provides a lot of historical intrigue. I walked away from that book ready to recommend it to anyone.

      I use my experience with Fire, Burn to draw a parallel with The Lost Gallows. About half way through the book, I realized that the “self driving car” WAS the impossibility. There was to be no locked room murder, no footprints in the snow… That was my big disappointment.

      Carr almost makes up with it by pouring on some really dense atmosphere in the last third of the book. Still, I wouldn’t exactly recommend The Lost Gallows, which is a first for me with Carr.

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      1. Ah, I see, thanks for the clarification! Good to know that you still recommend Fire Burn. I’m interested now to read The Lost Gallows just to see what a Carr book looks that doesn’t deliver on mystery. Although I never managed to finish The Blind Barber for the same reasons.

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  6. Mr Green Capsule – would you say it’s important, or even beneficial, to have read ‘It Walks by Night’ before ‘The Lost Gallows’? I got ‘Lost Gallows’ on the strength of JJ’s and TomCat’s recommendation, but the reviews I’ve read of ‘It Walks by Night’ have not endeared me to the prospect of tracking down a copy…

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    1. No, it isn’t that important to have read It Walks By Night before The Lost Gallows. There are two main benefits:

      1. The narrator’s romantic interest is a carry over from It Walks By Night, so you’ll understand the relationship a bit better. Of course, we don’t read these books for the romance, so it doesn’t matter much.

      2. There is a play that is attended in the very beginning of The Lost Gallows that ties back to the plot of It Walks By Night. The significance of this play isn’t necessary to understand in order to enjoy The Lost Gallows, and nothing from the previous book is given away.

      Personally, I preferred It Walks By Night over The Lost Gallows.

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  7. It was a while since I read it but I do think reading some of Carr’s earlier short stories prior to reading this book would also add to it. (Not that many of the first readers would have done that.) It adds to the relation between the characters.

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