Castle Skull

castleskullPoor Castle Skull.  How it lingered for months in the top five of my To Be Read list, only to be displaced multiple times by various events.  The arrival of The Burning Court.  The lure of Till Death Do Us Part.  The sudden insatiable urge to read The Witch of the Low Tide.  I’ve tucked Caste Skull into my luggage on four separate trips, each time planning to turn to it after finishing my current reading.  A fairly well traveled book, for me never having read it.

The final delay in starting Castle Skull was my decision to approach the Bencolin works in order.  Back down the stack it fell, and up roared It Walks By Night and The Lost Gallows.  And, now, that last set back finally leads me to its pages.

I’ve known I wanted to read this book for a while.  I’m a fan of Carr when he lays on heavy gothic atmosphere.  Throw in some dank dungeons, bats, and an iron maiden, a la Hag’s Nook, and it’s all the better.  Castle Skull promises that in spades.  The very title comes from the preposterous premise of a skull-shaped castle looming over the Rhine.  A massive stone dome complete with window eyes and battlements for teeth.  Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s a bit of a juvenile adventure flair there, but I’m still intrigued.  We kind of know what we’re going to get with Carr in this situation.  He’ll suck us in with tales of ghouls and mysterious deaths from long ago, only to melt the illusion away at the end with a cleverly concealed crime.

Well, we’re getting close to that, but Carr’s not quite there in his writing yet.  It Walks By Night doesn’t really feature much supernatural – the title certainly does, and some reviews imply that a werewolf could be at fault, but honestly, that’s overly interpreting an innocent sentence or two.  The Lost Gallows finds Carr laying on the atmosphere thicker, and introducing a touch of potential Egyptian horror, but again, that angle is never really played to its potential (and possibly for the best).

Castle Skull lays on thick atmosphere, but it doesn’t quite approach the level of illusion of potential horror as some later books.  Yeah, we get a creepy castle, and there are hidden passages (I’m giving away nothing), but Carr hasn’t yet figure out how to combine this with legend of horrors past to create a misdirection of something more sinister going on.  With that said, we still get some great passages involving the exploration of the eerie castle during an epic thunderstorm.

The story finds Bencolin and ever-present narrator Jeff Marle lured to Germany with the promise of a baffling mystery, retold by a wealthy investor:  From across the banks of the Rhine, the occupants of a mansion witness a horrific act.  A man flails about burning on the ramparts of Castle Skull before collapsing, dead from his burns and three gun shots.  Witnesses report that shortly after the murder, a motor boat was heard crossing the river, returning to the mansion from the castle.  This suggests that the killer returned to the house and is amongst the inhabitants.  The plot follows two threads of investigation, as Bencolin interviews the potential suspects and investigates the maze-like confines of the castle.

The core crime is interesting enough, but you’ll notice that there is nothing remotely impossible about the crime.  However, there is a minor backstory that is suggestive of a locked room mystery.  A magician who owned Castle Skull was killed two decades earlier under mysterious circumstances.  During a train ride, the door to his otherwise empty car was guarded the entire time.  Upon arriving at the destination, the car was found to be empty.  The magician’s decomposed body was found later in a river along the route.

The impossibility is somewhat lackluster due to the lack of focus that it gets.  The crime happened in the past, and our characters receive a brief second hand account.  This naturally makes the details of the story questionable.  Plus, the victim was a magician, and I’m spoiling nothing by saying that we’re meant to suspect that he staged his own death.

Ultimately, the weakness of the impossibility doesn’t matter, as the story itself is enjoyable.  Although It Walks By Night has a stellar impossibility, Carr doesn’t seem to have shackled himself to the genre yet in his career.  With Castle Skull, we’re treated to a solid mystery that ends in epic fashion.  The final seven chapters focus on the unraveling of the puzzle, demonstrating that Carr was already at the stage where a seemingly simple situation could mask complex undercurrents.

I find the book most interesting for the evolution that you start to see in Carr’s story telling.  Although the two previous books (It Walks By Night and The Lost Gallows) are well written and show glimmers of classic Carr elements, Castle Skull is the first time that we see him layout a story where every minor plot point is either tied to the solution in an unexpected way, or a cleverly laid red herring.

It would be interesting to see what Carr could have done with this story if it was written several years later, say around the time of The Red Widow Murders.  At that time, he had really perfected the technique of using past history to stimulate the imagination of the reader for the effect of horror and stretching the puzzle.  Castle Skull has some great atmosphere, but Carr could have dragged in some old legends about the castle.  He could also have played up the character of the “evil magician” by providing more of a suggestion that the dark arts are pulling the strings.

Castle Skull is a fun fast read with a great mystery.  I think that I’d primarily suggest it to readers who are already into Carr.  The “adventure in a skull-shaped castle”, and the eventual solution to what is going on, may be a bit much for a fan of more traditional murder mysteries.

Begin spoilers

Carr does a magnificent job of subtly casting suspicion on a set of characters.  I found the music-related alibi suspicious the second that it was raised, even though Carr never explicitly presents it as an alibi.  Then, once that red herring is dispelled, my suspicion immediately switched to another character – I imagine most readers did too.

These are excellent cases of misdirection, as they target the more experienced reader.  I suspect that a novice user wouldn’t have keyed in on the music related alibi, but an experienced reader immediately becomes suspicious of every character mentioning the music in their account of the night of the crime.

I suppose that the end itself is somewhat preposterous, but I enjoyed that it was so different than anything I had guessed was happening.

End spoilers

20 thoughts on “Castle Skull”

  1. Some twentyseven years ago, after reading Sherlock Holmes and some Christie I was looking for something different. That was my entire reading experience of the mystery genre. This of course was pre-online book searching. One had to drive to a used book store. So I am standing there, pretty much oblivious as to who all these authors are in the mystery section. Now of course books are very personal objects. Each has a feel to them, and the story/author combination provide the most substance. What else is there to add to a book’s sense? The cover. Yes. I pulled out Carr’s House at Satan’s Elbow and liked the cover. A handsome man in a suit with a gun peering around a corner with an attractive female at his side. Something dynamic. The cover, it turns out, really has nothing to do with the story. I liked the book far more than the cover. I discovered something reading that book. Something that plays with the diabolical, the clever, the illusion. I don’t know how to pin it down, but Carr caught me. I felt that I was deeper into the story than I had been with other books, or at least, deeper in a different direction.
    So, in the next few years I read all I could of Carr. I found nearly of his books in paperback and read them. I told my wife that when I died to place some of his books with me in the coffin. I know, it’s is a strange request. I just wanted them to be with me. ( This is not in my will ). Anyway, I have since read a lot of the books mentioned here at thegreencapsule. Now, I am going to reread the Carr. I am curious how I will respond after all these years.
    I just finished Castle Skull. I don’t think it is a standout, but the story and characters are enjoyable. I think over the years I have come to appreciate “good” writing and discovered that Carr definitely demonstrates good writing in Castle Skull. This was probably the biggests takeaway after 27 years. The book is well written. His descriptive power, use of dialogue, plotting and storytelling are quite top notch.
    I need Carr in my life. I need older novels that take me away. I am about finished with The Bowstring Murders and will move onto The Red Widow Murders, which somehow I never read.
    I appreciate your work here, greencapsule. I will follow up on your recommendation of Henry Wade.
    Thank you-

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The House at Satan’s Elbow is one of the four Carr novels that I’ve yet to read, and I hope that I find a similar enjoyment that you got out of it. I do know which book cover you’re referring to, and it’s one of the less commonly available ones these days in my experience.

      I’m jealous that you get to go into The Red Widow Murders having not read it, as I’d love to relive that experience again. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


      1. Yes. It is nice knowing I have an early great one yet to read. I also have not read The Devil in Velvet or Captain Cutthroat. I started Wade’s Heir Presumptive last night and am hooked. I am thinking of the character in Maupassant’s Bel Ami. Then on to The Read Widow Murders.


  2. The human ability to deceive. To pretend to be normal and civil when in truth there is malignancy in the head and heart. That is what so fascinates me with murder mysteries and Shakespeare tragedies ( among other admirable qualities such as artistic command of English). In our actual lives we see this capacity reveal itself on rare occasions. Heir Presumptive is an exploration of this phenomenon. We are in Eustace’s head throughout. Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

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