The Lost Gallows (1931) – John Dickson Carr

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A limousine joyrides through the fogbound streets of London with a corpse at the wheel. The shadow of a gallows is seen on an unknown street. Nezam al Moulk receives threatening packages delivered directly to his room even though no one could have entered.
Ten years ago a duel was fought in Paris – and now the mysterious hangman Jack Ketch wants revenge. Will he drag his victims to Ruination Street, or can Henri Bencolin stop him before it’s too late?

Henri Bencolin and Jeff Marle are visiting London to watch The Silver Mask, the play that figures into the plot of It Walks By Night. The Lost Gallows features a call even further back, too. Readers of Carr’s college magazine The Haverfordian would have recognized Sir John Landervorne, Henri Bencolin’s friend and occasional colleague, from Carr’s early short stories featuring the detective. As I noted, this is a direct follow-up to It Walks By Night, and it was published just a year later. Although flawed, It Walks By Night was an extremely solid debut, with an opening that grabbed me right from the start. The Lost Gallows struggles a little by comparison.

There are a collection of problems which seem vaguely connected, and even combined they aren’t that compelling. That said, the opening line is pretty great:

“It stood on the table before us, among the teacups, a small and perfectly constructed model of a gibbet.”

The central “victim” is Nezam al Moulk, whose name is borrowed, appropriately enough, from the first man to be killed by an assassin. Nezam receives threatening packages – apparently without anyone entering the room (the source for this is so unreliable, though, that the only reason to trust them is that this is a John Dickson Carr novel and so something impossible will have to be explained). Then comes a careening limousine, with a dead cheauffer at the wheel. Bencolin himself dismisses this impossibility early on, and it’s not made much of. The murdered chaeuffer you would think would get more investigation or attention, but gets very little – Nezam al Moulk is kidnapped at the same time, and this becomes the primary crime. Of course, everything gets linked together in a satisfying way at the end, but threads are left dangling throughout the middle in an annoying rather than intriguing way, with nothing more exciting to distract the reader’s attention.

The plot is an odd one, because we know simultaneously a lot and a little about the crime. We discover the motive quickly, and the killer’s pseudonym of Jack Ketch. The mystery comes from “who is Jack Ketch” and from how all the disparate parts of the plot will come together to form a coherent whole. This leads to the plot feeling as shrouded in fog as the London setting. None of the problems on its own really pulled me through the book, and at times it felt like a chore to read on (though this was a re-read so I knew the answers). Generally, the more we learn about the plot, the more interest I had, and the more the pace picks up too, as we find out what awaits for Nezam al Moulk and part of Bencolin’s plans to stop it. I did find it frustrating the amount of times during the book that Bencolin claimed he had already solved the crime. If I read something like that I start to wonder what the point reading the rest of the book will be – maybe that reaction is peculiar to me though. Bencolin really is at his most omniscient and cruel here, with his manipulations coming across as quite inhuman – most of all at the ending. I did actually find that harshness quite effective – the detective as a figure of fear. Despite all this, Bencolin does still have his relatable moments. At one point he gets drunk and lectures about detective fiction (who hasn’t?).

Bencolin’s coldness is matched by the unlikeability of the rest of the characters. The detective, Talbot, is a boring figure, a kind of proto-Hadley or proto-Masters. Sir John Landevorne is more interesting, providing a foil to Bencolin with his clashing opinions. Sharon Grey appears again here as a love interest to the narrator, Jeff Marle. She is more bearable than in the previous book but the narration still has a tendency to go haywire with imagery when she appears. Fortunately she’s not in it much. A character I found interesting despite – or because of – his odiousness is Nezam al Moulk’s secretary, the shifty and sozzled Lieutenant Graffin. It’s fun to watch a character try and hide his secrets so ineptly, giving an easy hook to hang more plot off. Towards the end of the book it’s his behaviour which helps maintain the tension of the final showdown.
The only straightforwardly likeable character is Dr. Pilgrim, a kind of historian-detective, who makes the most of his brief page time.
Unfortunately there are the other important characters. Nezam al Moulk, the victim, is a cowardly, swaggering, foolish character; the combination of exotic and immoral which writers of that era – or sometimes even of today – reached for as an easy trope. Alongside him in terms of uncomfortable “othering” is Teddy, a young man “stunted by the war” both in terms of size and intelligence. He is shown sympathy but is also treated as another element of the grotesque atmosphere.

The pacing ramps up as these characters are introduced, and by the time we’ve met them all, things have really begun to kick into gear. The climax of the book is a masterpiece of tension from Carr, making up for the slow beginning in spades. Bencolin enlists Jeff in a scheme to trap the killer (while telling Jeff as little as possible, of course). This sequence would fit perfectly into any of Carr’s better later books. The young Carr may not have figured out his plots right away, but he certainly knew how to thrill.
Then comes an ending that is classic Carr all the way – agree or disagree with his sense of justice, you can’t deny it’s a dramatic ending.

Ultimately The Lost Gallows is an underwhelming book capped by a burning bright spot of an ending. I wouldn’t call it essential if you’re not a die-hard Carr fan.

Other opinions:

The Grandest Game in the World
The Green Capsule
The Invisible Event
In Search of the Classic Mystery

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. thegreencapsule

    A spot on review. This was the first Carr that I read that fell flat for me. Since then though I’ve read his novels from late in his career and The Lost Gallows is much better. The end was thrilling.

    1. Velleic

      Yeah, it may be flawed but there’s still lots to enjoy here. And knowing that his books will improve in quality is more cheering than knowing the best is behind him…

  2. I enjoyed this a little more than you, but it’s perhaps the least memorable of the Bencolin novels and so can feel a little flat when put up against the gaudy horrors of Castle Skull or the creepy weirdness of The Corpse in the Waxworks. Difficult to disagree that the characters aren’t the most memorable, too.

    Thankfully, Carr would improve in every regard…!

    1. Velleic

      I definitely don’t hate this – there’s lots to enjoy here. I could even see improvements in Carr’s writing since the first book! But my re-read of this felt like a slog at the beginning where It Walks By Night just didn’t.

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