For some reason, I’ve never felt drawn to The Corpse in the Waxworks. In part, it was my knowledge that it doesn’t feature an impossible crime. Couple that with the back of the book jacket description basically amounting to “a woman is found dead in the arms of a satyr in a waxworks”. Sounds…. conventional. It seems unfair of me though. Being an overall fan of Carr’s style of writing, and knowing that he can deliver the goods without even a whiff of an impossibility (The Emperor’s Snuff Box, Death Watch), why not give it a try? I suspect I was held back by my experience with The Lost Gallows, another early Bencolin work that lacks a strong puzzle. Despite featuring a heart pounding finale, Carr’s overall narrative skills weren’t quite yet to the level of holding a full novel without the lure of an impossibility.
The Corpse in the Waxworks finds us back in Paris with Jeff Marle, the point of view narrator from all previous Bencolin books. Marle is accompanying Bencolin on an investigation into the death of a young woman whose body was found in the Seine river. The victim was last seen entering a waxwork museum several days prior, but never leaving. As Marle and Bencolin explore the waxworks, they make a gruesome discovery – the body of another young woman is slumped across the arms of a wax satyr.
Carr starts strong with this one – he lays on the atmosphere and he lays it on thick. Marle’s investigation of the waxworks had me fully on edge, which is natural given the setting. Any reader with a basic whiff of the plot knows that a murder victim is going to be found, and so it is very natural to read into the surroundings. Is the killer lurking among the wax figures? The author plays this angle against the reader, augmenting it with a number of macabre sets in the museum’s chamber of horrors. The sense of dread in this early scene is a progression from The Lost Gallows and Castle Skull and sees Carr honing his skills for future works to come, such as The Crooked Hinge and The Problem of the Green Capsule.
As for the mystery, there isn’t enough of a high level hook for me to go into, and I don’t want to dwell on specifics of the crime scene that you’re better off experiencing in your own reading. Early on, we do get the impression that the crime somehow ties into a mysterious club next to the waxworks, where the elite of Paris meet behind masks for anonymous encounters with the opposite sex.
Once the crime is exposed, the book takes a turn towards what I’ll disparagingly call “conventional Carr investigation”. You know the type if you’ve read The Ten Teacups, The White Priory Murders, or It Walks By Night. The detective (Bencolin, Merrivale, or Fell) is accompanied by the point-of-view-character on a sequence of interviews with a known cast of witnesses. This is where I tend to find Carr faltering and the stories start to plod. Although we no doubt encounter interesting twists in these interrogations, there’s a predictability to the plot in that you can know the set of people who must be questioned, and so you can somewhat anticipate what the next 5 chapters are going to look like. The Corpse in the Waxworks progresses mostly along this vein for the first half.
And then….the book becomes awesome.
10 chapters in (with nine remaining), Bencolin pretty much provides the solution to the mystery. Much in the fashion that you expect from the final chapter of a Carr novel, the detective unravels the crime and explains the nuances of the crime scene. Only the identity of the killer and a few minor details remain, but we’re given a remarkable layout of how the crime was committed. I was a bit taken aback. So much of the book was left, and yet some really core questions had been answered. This isn’t typical Carr! He must still have something up his sleeve.
Oh, and he does. The entire second half of the book careens out of control. I won’t delve excessively into details, but be prepared not to put the book down. We get a tense scene as Marle goes undercover in the mysterious club. We get a shocking murder. And, we’re treated to one of the more astonishing killer reveals in Carr’s repertoire (which is saying a lot).
Plus, we get a map!!! Well, that was a bit of a disappointment actually! The second I turned the page and saw a floor layout, the first thought in my mind was “oh my god, he stuck the impossible crime in the last third of the book!!!” Well, as I’ve mentioned up front, there is no impossible crime.
Overall, this is a fairly solid book and I’d rank it somewhere in the neighborhood of Castle Skull – not a recommendation for someone’s first venture into Carr, but a book worth exploring if you’ve enjoyed a handful of his works already. Although it lacks an impossible crime, the book is really worth it for the fierce pace of the second half.
As I make my way through the Bencolin books in sequential order, it’s interesting to reflect on the changes in the character and Carr’s writing style. It seems apparent that the author had grown tired of, or felt limited by, the initial version of the detective that he created. The Corpse in the Waxworks features a scene in which Carr attempts to inject humanity into the detective’s character through a depression tinged lament. To me it came off a bit forced and unnecessary. From his first appearance in It Walks By Night, Bencolin felt to me to be the most human of Carr’s series detectives. Although he had an element of enigma, it was much downplayed compared to Fell or Merrivale. The mephistophelian nature was played up in appearance only; Bencolin’s personality being more relatable than the dour Merrivale or the jolly but omniscient Fell.
Carr also seems to have drawn back the focus on the gore. It Walks By Night was gruesome in its description of the beheading. The Lost Gallows was more reserved, but still had a fairly vivid description of a throat cutting. Castle Skull had…well, a man burning to death. The Corpse in the Waxworks more fits the rest of Carr’s library in that it doesn’t dwell on the grisly nature of the crimes.
I have a few more comments, but I’m going to have to reserve them for spoilers. No, I’m not going to give away the ending, but I will be discussing details that could ruin your first time enjoyment of the story.
Wow, so how about that killer? I mean, granted, I almost never see them coming, but I was completely caught off guard with this one. Carr had laid out so many tiers of potential suspects. You have the obvious ones, and then the ones you suspect for not being obvious, and about five flavors in between. Then wham, out of nowhere… I was so taken aback by the reveal that I was convinced that Bencolin was presenting a false solution in order to draw out the real killer. That angle would actually have played out pretty convincingly given the cruel position he puts the guilty party in.