CASTLE SKULL (1931) by John Dickson Carr

Carr_Castle-Skull_c&gHenri Bencolin visits the Rhine in his third novel, and appropriately enough there are a trio of killings to solve: the impossible attack on a magician in a train carriage under constant supervision, apparently thrown out by an unseen assailant; the burning on an old Shakespearean actor on the battlements of the eponymous castle; and the shooting and chaining up of the castle’s watchman in one of its dungeons. Bencolin is hired in a private capacity and squares off against two local policemen – who will find the solution first?

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Somewhere there is a powerful, devilish warped mind, working for reasons we cannot yet fathom”

It is fairly well understood by genre fans that in the vintage whodunit, there are two entwined battle of wits taking place simultaneously: one between the detective and the hidden villain and one between the author and the reader. But here the layer gets tripled as the story also includes a duel within the story between rival detectives. It works splendidly in Christie’s Murder on the Links and Simenon’s My Friend Maigret (which I previously reviewed here) and it is another very nice touch here as the diabolical Bencolin squares off against Baron Sigmund von Arnheim. The two are always polite and charming, both very good at what they do, and yet have in the past been deadly enemies, so they definitely set sparks off each other.

“In the sound of rain on windows, Baron, I find a tremendous suggestiveness.”

The plot includes several secret passages in and around the castle but Carr never cheats in terms of his plot, which is great fun in its Gothic way. Seventeen years earlier a famous magician, who owned the skeletal castle, was thrown off a train where no one could apparently get to him. Now, so many years later, one of his heirs, an actor, has been shot and burned to death and the rest of his family and friends, who live int he large house across the river, are suspects,. Bencolin is hired by the other heir to the magician’s estate to get to the bottom of the mystery. The atmosphere of horror is very thick and perhaps a bit overdone but there is much to enjoy here as we follow the duelling detectives sift through the clues and reach bizarre but entertaining and very unexpected solutions (yes, Carr_Castle-Skullthere is more than one). Admittedly the cast of characters (most of whom are ensconced in the home built by the actor across from the Castle) is not especially memorable (you know the thing – young lovers, old lovers, an annoying violinist who never seems to stop practicing, etc), though as so often with the author, we also get a decidedly unconventional romance at its heart with an unexpected resolution. So, not Carr at his best then, as it is all a bit daft, with the atmosphere overdone and the characters a but undercooked (sic), but we still get a really solid mystery none the less (if we accept the fairly loopy lines of its Gothic logic), with the trick of the train disappearance nicely dovetailed into the plot and with lots of nice surprises along the way.

For details of all the author’s novels, including the four other Bencolin mysteries, check out my dedicated Carr microsite here. This book was a gift from my chum Colin, wrangler of the unmissable Ride the High Country, for which many thanks – about time I read it in English! Curtis Evans, blogger and mystery historian extraordinaire, provided a detailed analysis of this book over at his online home, The Passing Tramp; the lovely Yvette Banek also gave a detailed review over at in so many words …. while the Puzzle Doctor also had some less positive comments to make over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

And with this review I complete Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo, using the ‘free space’ category, meaning I can bestow my final slot with any of the tile categories on the board – in this case, I choose the spooky category (albeit in the unused ‘religion’ tile):

036-Vintage-Castle-Skull

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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54 Responses to CASTLE SKULL (1931) by John Dickson Carr

  1. The cast of characters may not be truly rich and original, Sergio, but still, this sounds like a satisfying ‘old-school’ mystery. To be honest, I wouldn’t have expected less of Carr. I really wouldn’t have. And you have to love those secret passages…

    • Thanks Nargot – well, I agree, he is my favourite. And just to confirm, passage are not relevant to explaining any of the big mysteries. No cheating from Carr on that score 🙂

  2. realthog says:

    I’m very fond of Carr’s Bencolin books — at least, I was when last I read them, many years ago! He managed to effect in them a creepiness I don’t think he ever quite achieved later.

    • I think you are right there, John – certainly Carr seemed less and less incluned to make them as obviously dark. The final Bencolin is noticeably lighter in tone (also not as good, but that’s for another review).

  3. To add another less positive comment – I only read this two years ago and can’t remember a thing about the plot. Not a good sign…

    • Well, on that basis that would knock out about half of the mystery books I’ve read in the last six months, Steve! It is not the best and not the least of the Bencolins, but I always preferred Fell, Merrivale and the historicals anyway!

      • That’s very true – sometimes I’ve forgotten key details about something that I’ve just read – never a good sign. But to forget the details of a Carr book is a rarity and rarely a good sign…

        • Yes, I agree, with Carr thsi is unusual – but on the other hand, I really look forward to re-readinf TILL DEATH US DO PART as I remember loving it but it was decades ago so I don’t remember much else beyond the basic set up and the great fete sequence so hope to be thrilleed all over again.

          • I’d recommend re-reading ALL the slightly ropey ones first – end on a high note.

          • While there are weak one along the way, up to PANIC IN BOX C I’m pretty happy with Carr’s output. I know we all think he he a master of the craft but I enjoy his work so much that, even with some slip ups, there are few genuine duffers for me until the mid 1960s. I know that is not quite your point of view chum … 🙂

  4. JJ says:

    Yeah, these early Carrs are long on atmosphere and crazy plots and short on actual people, but it’s not like that’s something he didn’t address as time went on. I enjoyed this for its loopiness and the Gothic structuring you mention, and not least because there’s very little that isn’t a Bencolin book which reads anything like this. However, I am also with the good Doctor in being able to recall only a very few specifics…

  5. Colin says:

    Congrats on completing the challenge and I’m rather pleased this book was the one you chose to end on.
    The Bencolin novels are really atmospheric and that aspect is perhaps overdone at the expense of other elements. The plots tend to be a bit wild too, but they’re fun. Mind you, I still need to read The Four False Weapons.
    My own tradition of “a Carr for Christmas” continues this year with Hag’s Nook.

    • The least I could do Colin – so pleased to finally have it in Englisg! Ah, the Fell debut – one of the few that I don’t remember that well (even after 30 years)- The Four False Weapons is a bit weak sadly.

      • Colin says:

        Well I’ll still get round to it sooner or later.
        As for Hag’s Nook, I’ve read it before too and also remember very little so it’s almost as good as new as far as I’m concerned.

        • Which I think is just perfect – there are a few Carrs left for me to read but there are several I don’t remember that well except for knowing I liked them – which is a perfect combination in my view.

          • Colin says:

            Absolutely.
            I recall you saying you were missing a few titles in English versions. Let me know which ones and I’ll root around as I still have a few spares around that may coincide.

          • That would be insanely generous but I love Carr so I’ll probably explot our friendship a bit more 🙂 Really glad to have this one. In fact, because you mention it, HAG’S NOOK is one I think i only have in Italian, but it is a very good edition with a modern translation, so I’m a lot less bothered. My old CASTLE SKULL was possible from before the war …

          • Colin says:

            Think I might have an extra copy of Hag’s Nook actually – will need to check. Email me any other titles and I’ll see what I can do.

          • Well, I just might have to … I love it that you have spare Carrs – always the sign of a great author rather than a careless shopper, that’s what I say! 😉

          • Colin says:

            Bit of both in my case – but that’ll do all the same. 🙂

          • Yeah, well, I certain’y can’t point the finger … 🙂

  6. TomCat says:

    Castle Skull is not the best mystery novel in terms of plot and characters, but it’s a wonderful exercise, from a young writer, in atmospheric and imaginative writing. Something that would adorn better plotted novels with finer delineated characters in the years ahead.

  7. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great review, Sergio – and thanks for the links to the other blog reviews, also interesting reads. I haven’t read this particular Bencolin mystery, but I have read the first two, and enjoyed them very much. The atmosphere of these early books is almost absurdly thick, but for me, that’s a selling point.

    There’s still a ton of Carr I have yet to read, which pleases me greatly. Want to savor them as I slowly find old paperbacks to round out my collection.

    • Thanks very much Jeff – I do love Carr;s stories, novels and radio scripts pretty unconditionally when he was at the height of his powers (roughly into the early 1950s I suppoose) – always nice to know there are plenty more where they came from – and hey, otherwise we can just start bombarding Colin for his spares! 🙂

  8. I’ve always like that cover on the BERKLEY editoin of CASTLE SKULL. Sadly, this is not one of the great John Dickson Carrs. Have you seen STAR WARS yet?

  9. Matt Paust says:

    Your review entices me, Sergio. If I’ve read Carr, it’s been so long ago I can no longer recall doing so. What I do remember is seeing his name constantly on the book rack at Ernie’s Corner Drugstore, where I first learned how to browse without worrying about being shushed. And that was a long time ago!

    • Well, I’m a huge fan and we held a reader’s poll to see which came out on top as the favourite – you can read about that poll right here. Would love to make you a believer, though I shoudl warn you – I also believe Halran Ellison is a bit of a genius and I know you’re not too keen 🙂

      • Matt Paust says:

        Oh, Harlan’s a genius. No doubt about that. Just not my kind of genius, altho I do admire him for standing up to Sinatra’s bullying. And I did enjoy The Scenic Route, which reminded me of the scene in L.A. Story with Steve Martin and Marilu Henner blasting away at the trucker during “Open Season” on the freeway–“Do bullets go bad?”–and I’ll be reading more stories in the Beast collection, for sure. But I see Ellison as all brain and no heart, which is why I much prefer Walter Miller’s voice, and Miller’s no slouch in the imagination department, either. Thanks for the link to the poll. It just might nudge me over the line to trying Carr–again?

  10. macavityabc says:

    I read this one about 30 years ago when I was on a Carr binge. I remember liking it quite a bit, but I don’t recall much about the characters other than Bencolin. And I recall even less about the plot.

  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT

    This is one of Carr’s books where the detective covers up for the murderer. However, I fully support the detective’s action in this case (unlike Death Turns The Table where I was completely against Fell’s action at the end).

  12. Bradstreet says:

    This is one that I’ve never actually read (THE GILDED MAN and this one haven’t come within my grasp at a reasonable price), so it’s something to look forward to, flawed or not. The Bencolin stories tend to be long on atmosphere but short on believability (which is not the same as realism, but that’s another argument). Bencolin is so satanic, and the general atmosphere so charged, that it all become a bit too much. Fell and Merrivale, and the general sense of warmth and fellowship that you find at the beginning of the books that they appear in, give the supernatural, creepy events something to react against.

  13. Yvette says:

    Oh yes, the atmosphere is definitely OVER DONE – but I liked the book anyway. Perfect for a dark and stormy night. In fact, one of the only John Dickson Carr books I can actually remember reading even though I KNOW I’ve read pretty much all of them plus the Carter Dicksons. I think Carr is not an author to reread, it’s possible his books are done after one reading. But still I will probably try and reread a few as we go along. I loved THE FOUR WEAPONS (I think) which also featured Bencolin as the detective. Equally wacky, but lots of fun.

    At any rate, this is my last comment for awhile, Sergio. I’m off to North Carolina to visit family for Christmas. So ‘see’ you when I get back and in the meantime, have a FABULOUS Christmas and a Very Happy New Year. God Bless.

  14. tracybham says:

    I will be trying Carr one day and I will keep this one in mind. The two I have are Gideon Fell novels, but this sounds fine too.

  15. Sergio, congratulations on completing the 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo! Your bingo scorecard looks good, awash with red. This particular Carr novel appears to be quite popular even though it’s not his best, as you say. Three murders, rival sleuths, and an unusual setting should get me started on Carr (and about time too!), if not with this book than some other.

  16. Bev Hankins says:

    Well done, Sergio! Don’t forget to submit a wrap-up post at the Vintage site (http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2015/12/vintage-bingo-year-end-wrap-up.html)–for a chance to win prizes!

  17. Anne H says:

    In Australia where I live there was a ban for many years on the importation of American paperbacks. Books had to be published in Britain before they could reach Aussie readers. Castle Skull was one that never made it; though I was familiar with all the other Bencolins, and an avid fan of JDC / CD, I’d never heard of it. It was a real surprise to discover its existence in a bookshop in San Francisco in 1970, and yes, it was really odd even by Carr’s standards. It’s one I’ve never re-read but it’s now on my list for the immediate future, along with the John Dickson Carr Companion that is under the family Christmas tree with my name on it.

    • Thanks for that that Anne – yes, I think it only had an American paperback for decades. That’s a great book, really enjoy dipping into it. Hope you have a great Australian Christmas (I’ll be in Sydney in January and then off to New Zealand and am greatly looking forward to it).

  18. Bencolin is always a second-string for me, but no doubt will read this sometime. Well done for completing the challenge….

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