John Dickson Carr is a pretty special author to me. He was the first Classic Crime author I really got into after the obvious Agatha Christie, and discovering the joys of a good Carr or Carter Dickson is what made me want to explore more to see what else was out there. I’ve already read a lot of his books, but I want to share my enjoyment of them by re-reading them and writing reviews. I’ve decided to start at the beginning for now, with Carr’s first book, It Walks By Night. Prior to this book, Carr wrote a handful of short stories featuring an early version of his first Great Detective figure, Henri Bencolin. After experiencing Paris for himself, Carr wrote a novella, Grand Guignol, that he then expanded into It Walks By Night.
It Walks By Night follows Jeff Marle and juge d’ instruction Henri Bencolin, who travel to a Paris gambling-house to protect Raoul de Saligny and his new bride, Louise, from her murderous ex-husband Laurent. But Raoul is found beheaded in the card-room – even though it was watched by police the whole time. Entry by any way other than the door seems impossible. Could the blood-crazed Laurent’s claim to know of a secret way to enter houses be true?
As the summary suggests, Carr starts out with what he would eventually become a byword for – an impossible crime. The setup is excellent, and the solution was not a let-down for me; it cleverly lays multiple traps for the reader, but is simple when explained. The closely observed impossible situation is a great fit for Carr’s current writing style, which focuses on the gory aspect of the crime just enough to give a touch of the Poe-esque horror that Carr is aiming at.
It’s to Poe that Carr owes a lot of the atmosphere of Paris. The characters may hop in their cars to cross Paris (a few too many times, perhaps), but the atmosphere feels so much like it’s from the previous century that the narrator’s image of the killer as a “robot” gave me a jolt.
The book’s atmosphere is at times its greatest strength, and at other times its greatest weakness. When the narration focused on the seedy gambling house, or on the eerie home of the murdered man, I found its hyper-vividness compelling, and it contains some inspired metaphors. When it spent multiple paragraphs mooning over the narrator’s love interest Sharon Grey, I quickly became frustrated. The youthful Carr is not content to let an image sit and stir the imagination; he piles on image after image and ends up with more of a whisking effect.
Another thing Carr piles up and lessens the effect of is the twists. In his later work he adeptly parcels out the case-turning twists that leave you reeling; here, he saves them all for the end. One of the big twists is clued more than the other, to the point where I figured it out early during my first reading. It’s frustrating when you’re waiting for the reveal to catch up with your knowledge for the whole book. I would have liked to see the ramifications play out from revealing it much earlier. Clues are so heavily piled on to this one twist that the actual whodunnit can feel like an afterthought – even though the identity of the culprit is strong.
How well-drawn the characters are varies widely, from the intriguing Vautrelle, to the broad caricature of Golton, and the blandness of narrator Jeff. Certainly Carr is distinctive, and once again vivid, in his descriptions. He’s not content to write “types”. But the characters don’t really ring true to life – there’s kernels of behaviour that you might find in real humans, but they seem to exist only for the purposes of creating and maintaining the drama of the book.
Bencolin himself is given very few human traits – at this point in time, Carr’s thesis is already that the larger than life kind of detective is best. As with many of his books, the detective delivers a speech setting out Carr’s ideals in detection – in this case, brilliant reasoning directing scientific investigation. Carr would soon drop the scientific investigation aspect; I won’t miss it. Carr’s writing is not well suited to it.
Though I enjoyed much of this book, I don’t think it’s the best introduction to Carr. His style changes too greatly between this book and his best novels, even though the seeds are there already. Read it if you’re after a horror atmosphere to your classic detection, or if you’re interested in where Carr started, or if you want a crime novel that’s just different from everything else.
For fans of the thrilling twist pileups of later Carr, then the slower pace of this book might be offputting.
If you want the same basic story in a sixth of the time, the novella version, Grand Guignol can be found in the collection Bodies From the Library 3. It’s interesting to compare it to the novel. Many scenes are replicated near-verbatim, but the novel is not a simple expansion – while the central crime and plot remain the same, many other plot points have been shifted around, added, or dropped. Unsurprisingly, Sharon Grey is not present in the shorter version. Though her addition into the novel is mostly seamless, there’s still a lingering sense of her scenes being padding.
The main stand-out feature of Grand Guignol is the mode of its denouement, where Bencolin stages a shadowy reconstruction of the crime in order to trick the culprit into revealing themselves. This scene may be atmospheric, but it provides the finishing blow to any remaining suspension of disbelief. Bencolin actually gets humanized more in this novella than in the novel. Here we get to meet “the man himself, in carpet slippers” – it’s interesting that this scene was removed; I found it quite engaging.
Noticing the changes between the versions of the story was inspiring. It Walks by Night doesn’t simply expand Grand Guignol, it finds undeveloped plot points and tweaks them so that they achieve their potential. As an aspiring writer, I envy the clear-headed recycling of an already good story as “material”.
If you’ve read It Walks By Night, you don’t really have to read this version. But die-hard Carr fanatics should definitely seek it out.