I’ve documented my obsession with reading order before. John Dickson Carr has books covering all sorts of ranges – various detectives (Bencolin, Fell, Merrivale, non-series), subgenres (historical, time travel, locked rooms), and five different decades. How to tackle it all? Well, I have my own evolving maniacal method that I’ve discussed on here from time to time. For this piece though, I’ll be focusing on my deviation from it.
It all started with some sound advice from JJ over at The Invisible Event. Reasonable guidance, along the lines of “just read them in order.” Well, I can’t quite argue with something as simple as that. What better way to experience an author than to watch them evolve? To watch the arc of Bencolin, the introduction of Fell and Merrivale, and then to understand if and how the stories linked together or matured over time. Still, I had my inner turmoil. There were a few problems that jumped out at me:
1. Most of us probably got involved with Carr via “the classics”. Well, maybe that’s probably not completely true. I started with Hag’s Nook and I know there are several who started with Panic in Box C. Yet…I have the sense that once most of us got our bearings, we were reading the more popular works. And, of course, that creates a problem with reading in order, as we’ve already filled some key gaps.
2. We know things go down hill in the end. I’m taking a leap of faith based on popular opinion, but I’m confident that ending your Carr journey on a run steeped in Papa La Bas, Deadly Hall, and The Hungry Goblin isn’t quite the way to go out.
3. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but starting purely with the first four Bencolin books wouldn’t be the best introduction if you haven’t read Carr. Oh, they have they’re strengths to be sure, but I doubt many readers would be sold on the author purely on his initial work.
Yet, I saw opportunity with JJ’s advice. At the time, I had yet to read any Bencolin books. They were currently dispersed throughout my TBR stack – The Four False Weapons and Castle Skull towards the very top, the other three spread throughout the bottom half. Why not do a quick rearrangement and tackle them all in order? It sounded like fun, plus it gave me another excuse to reorder everything.
Going in, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had assumptions that Carr’s writing style wouldn’t be quite up to his normal standards. After all, these were his first works (beyond early college-age short stories) and I guess I anticipated his prose and plots would be weaker. In that respect It Walks By Night caught me off guard. Here was the same Carr-ian story telling that I already loved. The characters. The perplexing puzzle. The way the author takes the time to paint each scene. It wasn’t until I had a few books under my belt that I started to detect the difference from his later works. The use of atmosphere wasn’t as evolved. The layers of misdirection weren’t as tight. The impossibilities…well, they weren’t there.
Yes, you heard me right. The Bencolin books don’t really focus on impossible crimes, with It Walks By Night being the notable exception. The rest are…well, each their own thing. I could potentially lump The Corpse in the Waxworks and The Lost Gallows together as semi-conventional murder mysteries. Castle Skull is definitely its own unique experience, perhaps falling closest to the damp and brooding Hag’s Nook. The Four False Weapons – well, that’s more Fell territory, a la Death Watch.
If I do have one qualm about the Bencolin works, it is the lack of the impossibility. I need a strong hook to keep my invested in a book, much less a run of books, and it wasn’t always there. It was there in spades for It Walks By Night, with the mystery of how a man could be beheaded in a room observed from all entrances. There was certainly a hook in The Four False Weapons, if simply in the baffling set up of the crime scene. Yeah, you could argue that there are minor impossibilities in Castle Skull and The Lost Gallows, but Carr never plays them to their full potential.
As for the detective – going in, I knew that Bencolin was described as “satanic”, although I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Prior to reading the books I was puzzled that Carr might have an evil detective. I would quickly come to learn that it referred to Bencolin’s appearance alone. Well…maybe not quite – the ending of The Corpse in the Waxworks is pretty hardcore…
Of all of Carr’s series detectives I find Bencolin to be the most relatable – at least in the earlier works. I get the sense that my opinion doesn’t match common consensus, which seems to hold him as some form of caricature. Here’s my take: Bencolin does things a normal human would. He has real conversations with the other characters. Conversations on life, not simply focused on the crime. When he drives a car through Paris streets, it’s nothing noteworthy – he’s just going somewhere. Contrast that with Merrivale who drives lurching for blocks with the parking break engaged. Bencolin melds into the scene; an observant gentleman. He doesn’t bluster, barge about, or eat a kidney pie the size of a truck tire. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Fell and Merrivale, but I don’t quite get the opinion that Bencolin is some shallow facade.
More so, I don’t understand Carr’s forced attempt to humanize him. This started with The Corpse in the Waxworks and was ratcheted up in The Four False Weapons. I don’t know what Carr didn’t like about the original detective that he created, but he was trying to change something. It couldn’t have been the angle of the omniscient investigator – he played that up in spades with Fell and Merrivale. He must have felt there was a human aspect missing, and I just don’t get that. Give me the Bencolin of It Walks By Night, The Lost Gallows, and Castle Skull any day. That’s a guy I like.
As for the other characters – Jeff Marle and Sharon Grey: Marle was a likable enough narrator – not so different than the many point of view characters who’ve graced Carr’s pages. The author definitely had refined his skill by the time of Till Death Do Us Part or She Died a Lady, but Marle was a fine stand in for the majority of his other central characters. Why discard him for the final Bencolin novel, The Four False Weapons? I don’t know, but I still have one last rendezvous with Marle in Poison in Jest.
Of course Marle had a romantic interest in the first two books – Sharon Grey. She had decent substance behind her – I’m not sure why Carr dropped her. I suppose she didn’t fit the narrative of Castle Skull, with it being set in Germany. I believe there is a reference to Marle having a fiancé in The Corpse in the Waxworks; perhaps it is Sharon. I’m sure someone with a Carr biography/companion knows.
It wasn’t just characters that changed over the Bencolin arc. The writing changed as well. The early stories have a focus on the horrific nature of death that surprised me for books of the time period. Take for example the gruesome description of the slumped headless body in It Walks By Night. By The Corpse in the Waxworks, Carr has lost this fascination for the morbid.
Overall, my experiment with reading Bencolin in order was fun. I definitely had a better frame of reference for some minor plot points that connect the books, although these are mere nuances and you wouldn’t miss out on anything if you read them out of order. I also got to see Bencolin evolve as a character along with Carr’s story telling.
I will say that my journey was aided by a regular injection of Fell/Merrivale stories along the way. Reading only Bencolin for five straight books may be a daunting task, especially if you’re an impossible crime lover like me.
If you’re a more casual fan of Carr, definitely read The Four False Weapons – it’s definitely one of his better books. Then take on It Walks By Night, which offers what I consider to be a top rank impossible crime and solution. If you’re a more hardcore fan, I might test the waters with Castle Skull. It’s a really different book for Carr and will give you a good introduction to Bencolin’s character.
With that, I now offer my first true ranking of Carr works – the best of Bencolin. This is actually fairy hard to do, as the stories are varied enough and have different strong points. Position 1 and 5 are easy for me, but 2-4 could easily be in a different order.
This is the only Carr book where I haven’t walked away with some sense of satisfaction. There just isn’t enough meat on the bones of the mystery and Carr’s writing wasn’t yet at the level where he could hold a story without the inclusion of a strong puzzle (Fire, Burn and The Demoniacs). There are a few plot points that have potential – a lost gallows on a street that doesn’t exist, shades of Egyptian horror – but Carr doesn’t capitalize on them. There are two minor impossible crimes, if you want to call them that, but again, Carr doesn’t give them the attention that they deserve.
I’ve seen this title grace a few Top 10 Carr lists, which has me puzzled, given the wealth of the author’s catalogue. I’ll admit the book has a fairly tense ending, but with the lack of a strong mystery, you don’t get that reveal scene that you read these books for.
This book is all about the second half. Carr starts off the story with some decent atmosphere in a creepy waxworks, and then the story kind of plods along through an unremarkable investigation. Midway through, Bencolin pretty much provides the solution to the whole thing, leaving you thinking “what’s left?” Oh, there’s plenty left – action, suspense, murder, and one of the most face-smacking fair play killer reveals. There’s no impossible crime, but Carr’s deft handling of the second half makes up for it.
3. Castle Skull
Despite the lack of any impossibility, Carr provides a strong mystery and combines it with an intriguing setting to create a satisfying story. His strength in this effort is planting several subtle red herrings, targeting not the novice reader, but the grizzled veteran. The plot is strengthened by the strange backdrop of the namesake castle, plus the arrival of Bencolin’s nemesis – a German detective set on solving the mystery first. The solution to the whole thing caught me off guard and took a very different direction than I would have ever anticipated. This could easily be in the #2 slot.
I will forever remember the exact circumstances of reading the ending to It Walks By Night. The book finds Carr starting his career with a killer locked room mystery and the solution doesn’t disappoint. Rather, the solution angered me, then filled me with awe, and then left me with a lingering sense of satisfaction that lasts to this day. It was sort of like a “five stages of grief” type thing.
I know there are some who solved this one, and to them I take off my hat. I’m glad I didn’t though, because I’ll always remember the sensation of the dumbfounded expression on my face as I flipped to the map at the front of the book and stared in disbelief. For that alone, I rate this the second best Bencolin book.
That this is the best Bencolin work should be no surprise given its 1938 publication date. At this time, Carr had perfected his craft and was releasing a torrent of one phenomenal book after another. The Four False Weapons is an interesting entry in Carr’s catalogue. It doesn’t feature an impossible crime, but rather overwhelms the reader with a large variety of perplexing clues. Even the very name of the book suggests this. We get four potential murder weapons at the scene of the crime, but none of them quite fit the circumstances. Yet, none of the weapons (or other strange clues) are merely a red herring. Each item plays a crucial role in a complex web that comes together beautifully by the time the story is done.
As far as Bencolin books go, this is number one by a mile. The competition is too fierce to place this in Carr’s top 10, but I can’t imagine a world where it isn’t in the top 20.