Poor 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.
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.