Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Tuesday Night Club: John Dickson Carr, week 1



The Tuesday Night Club is an informalCarr logo group of crime fiction fans choosing a new author to write about each month – and we have picked on John Dickson Carr for March. We’ll all be producing pieces about him and his books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.

Logo courtesy of Noah Stewart - my bad - logo courtesy of Bev Hankin.

But Noah does get his own credit! He has collected the links to this weeks posts on Carr at his blog here.


I’m starting out by looking at one of the early  books, featuring Henri Bencolin. For some reason I thought it was perhaps his first – but it was the fourth Bencolin book, and Carr published another two books the same year as well. He hadn’t yet started writing under his other name  or no doubt there would have been a Carter Dickson book too. He was very prolific – the opposite of last month’s author, Dorothy L Sayers.

I wanted to read this book to compare it with another, similarly themed….


The Waxworks Murder by John Dickson Carr

published 1932



Waxworks Murder Brassai



The lounge was another long hall, rather narrow, and even more dimly lighted. It was hung in black velvet. Its only illumination came in scarlet glowing from the mouth and eyes of bronze figures shaped like satyrs, and holding nymphs in their arms. They were life-size these figures; they reminded me of the satyr in the waxworks, and the scarlet light from their eyes and mouths trembled with changing weirdness on the black hangings. About ten feet down, on my left, I saw great glass doors - these, I knew, led to the covered passage communicating with the big hall in the court. I caught the scent of hothouse flowers; the passage was banked with them.

The murmur of the orchestra, through these doors, grew louder. I could hear a buzz from inside, and somebody laughed breathlessly. Arm in arm, a man and a woman - both wearing black masks - drifted from the lounge through the passage. They looked hypnotized in the red-and-black swinging shadows, and the woman's lips were fixed in a faint smile. She looked old; he looked young and nervous. Another couple sat in a corner with cocktail glasses. Now suddenly the orchestra changed its tempo; it pounded with the fleshly beat of a tango, and the invisible crowd seemed to breathe with something of its murmur and hysteria. Then, in the gloom, I saw another figure.


Waxworks Murder



commentary: When I blogged on Ethel Lina White’s Wax last year  – a book with a splendidly creepy waxwork gallery setting – a couple of people mentioned this one, and so I chose it as the ideal opener for John Dickson Carr month. I’m a huge fan of JDC, but found this one of the rare disappointments in his work. It promised well, with a very atmospheric beginning: his sleuths out and about in Paris late at night, in nightclubs and riotous streets ‘where brothels abound’. There are grimy sinister alleyways and, of course, there is a waxworks museum run by a young woman and her father.

The high point of the book comes when the narrator wanders round the museum and admires the waxworks:
‘I wanted to see the satyr [a Parisian killer of the past]. It’s damned good, the whole expression of the satyr, and the woman in his arms –‘
Augustin’s head jerked on his neck.
What?’ he demanded. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said, it’s damned good: the satyr, and the woman in…’
Augustin said, like a man hypnotized: ‘You must be mad yourself. There is no woman in the satyr’s arms.’



But there is now: and so we have the first victim. But that came on p30 of my edition, and nothing quite matched that. The atmosphere of Paris in the 20s and 30s was nicely done, the contrast between formal stuffy old families and modern young hedonists. I like the description of what a young woman wants:
She wants to dance all night in the Chateau de Madrid, and see the dawn come up over the Bois. She wants to drink queer concoctions in bars…; to drive fast cars, experiment with lovers, and have a flat of her own.
Not so unreasonable, and JDC is (as I have pointed out in the past) usually very ready to accept young women’s sexuality. Part of the setting of this one is the Silver Key Club, a place for men and women to go to keep assignations, meet up with an illicit lover, or pick up someone new.

The book is narrated by Jeff Marle, assisting sleuth Henri Bencolin – and they can’t hold a candle to Carr’s great moments with Gideon Fell and Henry Merrivale. The deaths are mysterious but there aren’t any real locked room moments (though a couple of good clues), and – most unusually – the solution left a bad taste with me, it was a nasty story.

Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, published in 1924, also enjoys a bit of hot stuff in Paris: his nightclub is featured in this entry:
‘She suspected they might be thinking she was going to more than powder her nose. They were, she was, who cared?’
… and there’s more, with added tango, here. I’m sure Arlen would have liked the ‘fleshly beat of a tango’ phrase above. Apaches – ie Parisian underworld heavies – turn up just after the excerpt above, and the whole questions of apaches, the tango, and apache dancing got a going-over in this past entry. Click on the John Dickson Carr label below to see more from him. 

Top picture is by Brassai, whose photos show him to be the true artist of Paris nightlife of the era. There’s another of his pictures in this entry.

Lower picture illustrating a book called Lucy and Their Majesties: A Comedy in Wax

 











21 comments:

  1. Sorry to hear that this one was a disappointment for you, Moira. I've always liked Carr's ability to evoke atmosphere, so I'm glad that you mentioned that. But it's not always enough to sustain a story. I wonder what you'll think of the other Carrs you choose. Oh, and ps - I like Gideon Fell very much, too.

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    1. I think he wrote so much there were bound to be some lesser works. But I've already read one gem for next week...

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  2. Oh-oh -- the logo was designed by the talented Bev Hankins! I'm just accumulating all the posts on JDC later today.
    And I also appreciate your comment on JDC's acceptance of female sexuality. There are a couple of quite shocking (for their time) motives in books like The Judas Window, The Reader is Warned, and The Sleeping Sphinx. He was willing to be more frank than almost anyone and still managed to keep it relatively tastefully written.

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    1. Sorry to mis-credit you Noah - have put it right now, and will add the link to the links...

      I think he was astonishing in his acceptance of female sexuality - given his very traditional background, and the placing of his books in the era, and the attitudes of other apparently similar writers. But that is one reason why I found this one disappointing - can't say more!

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  3. Moira, I'd have thought a "creepy waxwork gallery setting" would make this a good read. That setting is certainly appealing. I have read about JDC's Gideon Fell, so I will probably start with one of his books.

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    1. I would definitely agree that a Fell book is the place to start! And although I am lukewarm about this one, the Paris nightclub and waxworks setting is intriguing.

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  4. I've been reading quite a lot of John Dickson Carr lately, including this one, which I enjoyed for the Waxworks setting. He was surprisingly frank about sex - and surprisingly unjudgemental - for the date of this novel - and some of the others.

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    1. Yes indeed, as I was saying to Noah above. It's one of his winning points, and quite a surprise among his cohort of crime writers. Which other ones do you like?

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  5. Just planning to re-read this one actually - Thanks Moira, really enjoyed the post and must get on with opening this one up now that I have it in English (for years had to make do with a rather rough Italian edition)

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    1. I wonder do you find big differences when you move between the versions? And now I'm also wondering how you translate 'Archons of Athens' and other great Fell and HM phrases into Italian...

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    2. I can't remember now ... they're both the same in my had basically (unless the translation is poor) - must check!

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  6. It's not amongst my favourites, either. None of the Bencolin novels feel quite real. They're taking place in an American traveller's dream of what Paris is like. Bencolin is quite a self-consciously nasty character, and this tends to bleed into the rest of the characters and settings. Fell and Merrivale are much more life-affirming, funny characters, and are able to counterpoint the darker elements of the plot. It's quite telling that when Bencolin returned about five years later he had become a much more relaxed, amiable fellow.

    Carr never really had any problem with female sexuality. Mind you, he turned eighteen at the height of the '20s, and he seems to have relished the new freedoms that appeared.

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    1. I'm so glad to see that so many of us appreciate his attitude to women - and he was unusual in books of the time. But that did lead to some of my disappointment with this one...
      And yes, he was quite right to concentrate more on Fell and HM and not Bencolin.

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  7. I was excited to see another book with a waxworks setting, but you say it isn't so good, so I will stick with the one or two I have or find another to try someday. Although the set of covers at Noah's post look quite enticing.

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    1. Do read the ones you have Tracy, but you might like this one some day - and if you ever start reading them in order it does come early...

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  8. I just finished this one, not remembering anything of it from my previous read. I liked it, though I agree the ending was somewhat unsatisfactory. I thought Carr did not want the reader to endorse the double standard on sexuality that some characters express, but I acknowledge it is not so clear. I am actually curious as to what most readers of the time would think of blatant expressions of the double standard, and whether I am right that people would not sympathize when it was so clearly expressed.

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    1. That's a very good point - would love to know what a contemporary reader would have made of it. Carr is normally refreshingly free of double standards - and does not go in for that common hypocritical trope of the time where you describe or strongly imply something very sexual but then disapprove heavily afterwards, so the reader can get the hot stuff without admitting he enjoyed it.

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    2. He quite often draws attention to the double standard, and I have always taken his references to be disapproving and marking the men who express it as hypocrites. (There is one such in this book.) His POV characters show no inclination to share it, as illustrated in quite a number of books. It is interesting that he complains specifically about the double standard and not just prudishness in general, since he never shows any feminist tendencies otherwise.

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    3. I felt this book was the only one of his (that I recall) where he was quite so disapproving, that's what put me off it. I have always felt that Carr, very refreshingly, liked very sexual women, and was fairly open about that.

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