Castle Skull was once owned by the monstrous magician Maleger, and then, on Maleger’s mysterious death, by the famed actor Myron Alison. A peaceful night at Myron’s home across the river is disturbed by the sound of screams. The house-guests look up to see a burning body dancing on the battlements of the castle – as Myron spends his final moments in agony. Summoned by financier Jérôme D’Aunay to investigate, Henri Bencolin and Jeff Marle soon find themselves in collaboration – or perhaps in competition? – with Bencolin’s old foe in spymastery, Baron Sigmund von Arnheim. Will Bencolin be bested by von Arnheim, or will he sweep the Baron’s theories away?
In 1930, a few months after the publication of It Walks By Night, John Dickson Carr embarked on a tour of the Rhineland with his friend William O’Neil Kennedy – one of the two dedicatees of Castle Skull. Inspired by the landscape and the castles, Carr made the Rhine the setting of his third novel. And what better location could there be for the most Gothic phase of his career than a crumbling old castle in the shape of a skull. This should be perfect for Bencolin, who has that Dracula-esque masterful vibe – except Bencolin’s character is oddly softened in this book. The guy sings, he parties, he plays friendly games of poker – and the ending seems more unusual for him than even that.
Perhaps it’s to contrast with Bencolin’s true rival figure of von Arnheim, who matches him in theatricality and in dramatic stage-management. This rivalry really feels central to the book; and for the first time the novel is complex enough to support these multiple theories. The first two books had scenes of definite padding, but here everything either builds up the plot or adds atmosphere. Carr hasn’t yet reached the stage in his career where every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, but he uses the promise of a scene to come as a different kind of incentive to read on – the first visit to the castle, for example, or a mysterious night-time rendezvouz.
The plot strands all tie together nicely as well, with this being the first use of the “almost the answer, except for one thing” trick that Carr does so well. The only problem is that most of the investigation goes into resolving a single point connected with the relations between suspects – which does raise the issue that everyone seems way more concerned with that than with witnessing a man die in agony from immolation, or that one of the group is probably a murderer.
The characters, while distinctive, are generally very one-dimensional and in some cases annoying – most of them don’t make very good suspects. I did enjoy the company of Agatha Alison, “the Duchess” and sister of the deceased. Her reaction to some of Bencolin and von Arnheim’s investigations is a treat.
I also liked the friendly reporter Brian Gallivan, who is mostly just a backstory delivery service, but at least manages to be interesting while he does it. And there’s von Arnheim himself, who proves a worthy adversary for Bencolin. The other most interesting characters are Maleger and Myron Alison, who don’t make nearly enough appearances due to being dead.
Though my suspension of disbelief was pretty elastic from all the unlikely behaviour (and because of the castle that looks just like a skull – it’s fantastic in both the old and new senses of the word), I still found that it snapped come the denouement. The ending takes place at a wild party hosted in the dome of the skull itself. Given the purpose of the party is to reveal the murderer it’s already unlikely enough, but things just keep getting crazier and crazier. I was overwhelmed by it all. The pacing slows down too, as Carr lingers over scenes of vivid description of the party. It’s great, but kind of exhausting (and I still couldn’t get my head round the boat metaphor on the re-read).
I did find the payoff of the reveal to be worth it, though. [ROT13] Guerr sbe guerr ba flzcngurgvp(vfu) ivyynvaf va gur Orapbyvaf fb sne. Naq V npghnyyl yvxrq guvf punenpgre zber guna gur bgure xvyyref.
I think out of the three Bencolin books I’ve read, this has been the best so far. If you can suspend your disbelief and put up with some nonsense, this book boasts some impressive plotting and unique and fantastic imagery. Carr’s command of atmosphere is something special in this book, even if the storm-swept castle is a bit of a cliche. He is trying a bit too hard to scare you at times, too. But the descriptions of the river in bright sunlight, the setting sun in the evening, the depiction of Coblenz… I won’t lie, I really wanted to go there myself. I’m sure reality couldn’t match what’s shown in this book, though.
The information about Carr’s Rhineland trip is from the amazing biography by Douglas G. Greene, which I’ll get around to reviewing some day.
The story of “The Hostile Brothers” Castles can be found here: https://great-castles.com/hostileghost.html