Being the End of Bencolin

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:

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The Four False Weapons

fourfalseweaponsHaving worked through the Bencolin books in order, I’ve now reached the final destination – The Four False Weapons.  Carr’s final outing with the detective comes not in a continuous run with his first four books, but after a six year hiatus.  During this time, the author introduced us to Fell and Merrivale – the series detectives that would provide countless classics over the decades to come.  More importantly, he had significantly refined his story telling.  His deftness for atmosphere, with works like Hag’s Nook and The Red Widow Murders.  His ability to deliver head spinning impossibilities, with The Hollow Man, The White Priory Murders, and The Unicorn Murders.  Perhaps most important, his ability to build layer upon layer of story, with narratives like Death Watch and The Burning Court.

The Four False Weapons always jumped out at me.  How could it not?  The title alone invokes the what I love most about Carr – the suggestion that the author is going to directly challenge the reader with a series of clues that he openly admits are red herrings.  The title harkens back to The Nine Wrong Answers and The Reader is Warned, although it’s worth noting that The Four False Weapons came first.

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The Corpse in the Waxworks

corpseinwaxworksFor 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.

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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.

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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.

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It Walks By Night

Being the Beginning of Bencolin

itwalksbynightI’m one to obsess a bit about my To Be Read stack – not just the three or four books that will be read next, but the order of the entire stack(s).  I like to read a mix of Carr – some classics, some less appreciated books.  Some Fell, some Merivale, some non-series or historical.  When I first started, one of my big questions was in what order I should attack Carr’s work.  I didn’t want to blow completely through the best of his stories – I wanted to mix things up.  But with over 70 books in the backlog, how was I to identify a proper order?  Sure, the classics, recommended, and duds are fairly easy to identify from reading various lists and blogs.  But there is a large middle ground of less reviewed books that I had a hard time evaluating.

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