The Beginning of Bencolin – John Dickson Carr’s short stories in The Haverfordian

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After finishing The Lost Gallows I wanted to go back to the short stories that featured Henri Bencolin and Sir John Landervorne. I’ve also been pretty busy, so I thought a review of the four stories would be a nice quick way to get back into posting. Things did not work out that way…

These stories were among Carr’s first detective stories, and they were published in Carr’s college magazine The Haverfordian between 1926 and 1928, when Carr was in his early twenties. By the time he wrote these, Carr had already written glowing reviews of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and even if Carr’s early stories don’t come anywhere near the style and imagination of Chesterton’s work, it’s clear that Carr has taken them as his model of what a detective story should be.

While on the more Gothic end of Carr, the tales vary in tone and setting. The throughlines are the impossible crimes which, aside from the final story, stretch credulity in their solutions, and Bencolin who, aside from the final story, is quite unlike the Bencolin of the novels. It’s worth noting that the final story was written much closer to the publication of It Walks By Night than the rest – by the time it appeared in The Haverfordian, Carr had spent six months in Europe, mostly in Paris.

Bencolin’s evolution over the course of the stories is interesting to observe. In The Fourth Suspect, “The little detective came shambling in with his rather apologetic air.” In The Ends of Justice, “He wore careless grey tweeds, and needed a shave, for his black beard was scraggly and his hair rather wild.” He is also a more kindly-seeming figure rather than a relentless seeker of justice as in the books. But by The Murder in Number Four, “the caricaturists had always a chance for Mephistopheles”. His sardonic tone, too, only appears in the last story.

Is it worth reading these unless you are a Carr completist? I think so (aside from The Fourth Suspect). They may be clumsy, but the spark of imagination and the dedication to impossible crimes is already here. It’s also exciting to see exactly how flawed Carr’s writing was at the beginning, and see how he improved.

If you only read one story…

…read The Ends of Justice. It’s very unsubtle but overall I’d say its writing and pacing are the best of the lot, and there are many interesting links with future Carr stories.

The Shadow of the Goat:

Sir John Landervorne tells his friend Henri Bencolin of the impossible events he witnessed at the home of Cyril Merton, actor and occultist. Merton made a bet with young Billy Garrick that he could disappear from a sealed room. At the same time, Bencolin finds the body of Billy Garrick’s uncle Jules Fragneau – Merton’s hated enemy – stabbed in his impregnably locked house. If Merton can vanish from a sealed room, then maybe he can enter one, too…

This story was not the young Carr’s first foray into locked rooms, but as an early work it’s very impressive. The plot is enjoyably complicated and Carr makes sure every part of it is clued (even if you would have to make some inspired guesses to follow Bencolin’s train of thought). Every detail of the story is a crucial part of the scheme. However, this is carried too far; there really are no details except the crucial ones, and the world of the story feels sparse and thinly drawn as a result. I couldn’t even tell what century this was set in, it feels so dislocated from the real world. What details are included come across as awkward, because they are only included out of necessity. Even our detectives are barely described. Compare the descriptions of Bencolin and Landervorne to those at the start of The Lost Gallows. By that time, Carr is able to convey their characters quickly and effectively, whereas here he’s painting with a broad, coarse brush.

Bencolin’s taste for drama is already present, as he arranges to confront the killer for their crimes in an extremely horror-tinged way that requires a great deal of effort – similar to how he handles the wine cellar in It Walks By Night. Not only is this totally bonkers, Bencolin is also completely out of his jurisdiction. It does lead to a nicely dramatic ending, though. This is not simply a detective story, it’s a story that wants you to take something away from it when you’ve finished reading.

The Fourth Suspect:

Bencolin’s superior Villon tells him of Patrick O’Riordan, a spy for France, and LaGarde, a spy working against France. LaGarde has stolen Patrick’s wife, and for some reason also has a piece of paper naming which world power he works for. Patrick and Villon rush to LaGarde’s house just in time to find him shot dead and the paper missing. Bencolin must find the paper and the killer.

Here, Carr brings in multiple solutions to the murder, one joking and one serious. However, the central crime is still awkwardly reported in speech, and the characters, even Patrick whom whe are told is a brash daredevil, all have a similar “voice”. Carr does introduce a central female character, who falls into a common trope seen in future Carr stories: is she a wrongly maligned innocent or a devil in disguise?

The central crime, the shooting of LaGarde with the killer appearing to have no chance to escape, has some good clues, especially relating to the difference between the false and true solutions. But the solution itself is unworkable, relying on an incorrect assumption about firearms and some spectacular unobservance from Villon who is somehow Paris’s chief of police.

The spying angle is even worse. I was not invested in whatever crisis they were supposed to be dealing with, and frankly I don’t actually understand Bencolin’s choices here and why he makes them. Did he “win” or “lose” by the end of this story? I neither know nor care. This story stands out to me as the worst of the four.
We’re told that Bencolin “never seemed able to detect a falsehood when it was practiced on himself”. The Bencolin of the novels (at least the first two) would sneer at such an eccentricity!

The Ends of Justice:

Sir John Landervorne and Bishop Wolfe witness the impossible killing of spiritualist Roger Darworth, whose killer appears to have vanished from his home despite the unmarked snow surrounding his house. The Bishop uncovers a suspect – philanthropist Tom Fellowes. Six months after the incident, the man is set to be hanged – but when Bencolin hears the story, he finds a different solution to the mystery.

OK, so this may be another reported tale, but Carr has finally figured out that he can use multiple narrators, and have them describe events in first person. There are two of these sections here, and each narrator has a distinct style (hints of The Arabian Nights Murder…) – this story shows a marked uptick in writing quality compared to the first two. Carr is able to create the atmosphere of a summer evening and a snow-swept winter night very well.

Anyone who’s read all the famous Carrs might notice a spoilery similarity between this and a later novel: (ROT13) gur fbyhgvba nagvpvcngrf unys bs Gur Ubyybj Zna. The case is also an example of an vzcbffvovyvgl ol nppvqrag, a concept Carr would return to again.

In addition to improving his skill with narration, Carr has also added humour to his repertoire, mostly at the expense of the other narrator Bishop Wolfe, who remains blind to his own flaws while revealing them to the reader through his narration. “I respect any man’s beliefs, except atheism,” he says at one point. That and his racism towards one character reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, and Bencolin’s implied atheism reminded me of Valentin from those stories. Doug Greene didn’t believe Bishop Wolfe was a parody of Father Brown, though, and indeed these are the only similarities. As a simple caricature of a hypocritical churchman I think he is far too broad. The tale ends with Bencolin lamenting as Wolfe repeats his mistakes, and I think the ending would be much improved if those lines were missing. Having made his point quite well, the author choosing to loudly call attention to it is cringeworthy.

That lack of subtlety is the story’s greatest flaw, and continues with the condemned man, Tom Fellowes (you might say he’s a “good fellow”), who is not only generous, but: “Were it not for Tom Fellowes… thousands of children in London would die every year… hundereds of maimed soldiers in France would die.”
The victim, on the other hand, is an obvious wrong ‘un, whose antics with morgue limbs drive home both his and the Bishop’s noxiousness a little too hard. Roger Darworth the sleazy spiritualist will be a familiar role to many Carr readers; The Plague Court Murders will kill him off again.

The other weak point of the story is the solution, which strains the bounds of what’s physically possible. And any time anyone uses the phrase (ROT13) “unaqphss xvat” the story gets knocked down a few notches. Not only does it sound silly, it’s also not an explanation for the impossibility. V qba’g guvax lbh arrq gb or n “unaqphss xvat” gb trg vagb unaqphssf! One of Bencolin’s explanations also contradicts the facts as described earlier on. But despite all this, the story is very enjoyable. It’s the closest of these early stories to the mastery of atmosphere and tone that Carr would show later, with its impossible expanses of snow and the absurd yet creepy imagery of the toy train. Aside from the final lines, the conclusion of the story packs an effective punch.

The Murder in Number Four:

A diamond-smuggler is strangled in his locked train carriage at the same time as several other passengers see a ghost. But the real question is, why was the victim wearing a false beard?

Having created some excellent atmosphere in the last story, Carr immediately overdoes it here, when he declares that the train called the Blue Arrow is “haunted” and “has an evil name” and “sometimes there rides in the cab a blind driver named Death”.

The impossible crime here is a good one; rather than locking the doors and be done with it, Carr tells us that the window is open slightly but is completely inaccessible, giving us more moving parts to consider. (One spoilery quibble: juvpu jnl vf gur ivpgvz snpvat? Ur zhfg qvr jvgu uvf onpx gb gur jvaqbj, ohg ur’f yngre frra jvgu uvf onpx gb gur qbbe, snpvat gur jvaqbj…). The solution is the most workable and satisfying of the early tales. As in The Shadow of the Goat, even seemingly insignificant bits of description prove to be important, but that is handled much more deftly here.

After an introduction heavy with atmosphere, the main part of the story occurs in conference between returning characters Sir John Landervorne and M. le Comte de Villon, along with a handful of passengers and crew from the train. Minor note: one of the passengers is one Septimus Depping, later the name of the victim in The Eight of Swords.
The main flaw of this tale – aside from Brunhilde Mertz, Carr’s caricature of a “militant feminist” – is its slow pacing. The majority of the “action” is talking, and unfortunately when Bencolin isn’t on the page the talking isn’t particularly interesting.

Villon remembers Bencolin’s trick from The Fourth Suspect and hates him for it; briefly it seems like his spite will lead him to finger Sir John Landervorne for the crime, but that threat is sadly wasted. All the tension is defused by Villon kindly narrating to two potential suspects all the crucial evidence of the case as though they are trusted colleagues. Things pick up when Bencolin arrives, and tension rises as he traps the killer… only for them to give up immediately. Then, in what will soon become a feature of the early novels, Bencolin expounds at length about the theory of detection and detective fiction:

“A chess game can be a terrible and entralling thing, when you play it backwards and blindfolded… The great chess player is the one who can visualize the board as it will be after his move. The great detective is the one who can visualize the board as it has been when he finds the pieces jumbled. He must have the imagination to see the opportunities the criminal saw…”

Henri Bencolin, The Murder in Number Four

It’s a great speech, and could stand alone from the story, honestly – like the Locked Room Lecture. And it describes exactly what Bencolin does here: he imagines a theory that explains all the facts, and then obtains proof of that theory; exactly as in It Walks By Night. The reader is only given the clues to the reasoning, and the proof is saved for the end. Though this is still “fair play”, it often feels unfair – perhaps this is why Carr moved away from delivering denouements like this.

Other opinions:

The Invisible Event – only of The Shadow of the Goat
Mysteries Short and Sweet

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