LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carrpublished 1930
To see the face of a beautiful woman looking up into a match-flame is another part of the dream. The eyes were amber, turning to brown, and terror-stricken against a white face. The hair, waved and parted in dull gold, lay upon her shoulders. Except for a kimono over one shoulder she was unclothed, a breathless mystery of flesh and shadow against pillows in the faint light…
‘I’ll dress,’ she said. She was crying now.
A low orchid lamp threw only a little illumination over the long divan. She sat there rather forlornly, clad in a chemise, pulling on one stocking.
‘I don’t care,’ she said in that slurred accent. ‘I don’t care.’ And she continued slowly pulling on the stocking. ‘You don’t look like a policeman,’ she said, and after a moment’s pondering added, reminiscently: ‘It was nice lying there, dreaming… I’m partly drunk I think.’
commentary: This was John Dickson Carr’s first full-length detective novel, and I can’t help feeling that this introduction of a vaguely heroine-like female character must have come as a surprise to readers. Sharon has come to a notorious nightclub in Paris for what is plainly a planned sexual encounter. She says she is drunk, and although it is not spelled out, she is in the part of the club where customers go to take drugs as well as to have private assignations. And Sharon has not been fooled or tricked into doing this – she has her regrets and problems, but doesn’t seem terribly put out by where she is.
I have always said that JDC allows his women a lot more sexual freedom than his contemporary writers, and this was clearly the case right from the beginning. This is a Henri Bencolin book, narrated by his friend Jeff Marle, and I cheekily maintain that Bencolin is everyone’s least favourite Carr sleuth (surely someone will argue). But he does bring with him a great atmosphere of between-the-wars Paris, of exciting times and low nightclubs – he reminds me in this respect of the revered blog favourite Michael Arlen.
This is also a real Carr impossible-crime-puzzle – starting as he means to go on. A severed head and its body found in a room that only the dead man has entered, in the nightclub where Sharon is dreaming her dreams upstairs. I think the low orchid lamp (they are found throughout the club) may have looked like this:
There is a quite splendid scene later, in the gardens of the obligatory mysterious villa, where two characters are sitting out in the evening on a bench:
Suddenly she said in a low, plaintive voice:In a magic joyous moment the reader realizes what must be leaning on her shoulder…
‘How cold your hand is - on my shoulder!’
It grew on me, horribly, that my hands were clenched together, before me.
The solution came in two parts, and I found one half, the first big revelation, very clever and satisfying – but then was somewhat disappointed in the final explanation of the murder. Quite a lot is kept from the reader, and the forensics were rather confusing. But fair play – it is otherwise a very accomplished confident debut, and Carr got a lot better at the locked rooms. And overall a most enjoyable read.
More John Dickson Carr books all over the blog – click on the label below.
The top picture (which actually shows a woman UNdressing, but seemed right) is by Delphin Enjolras – from the Athenaeum site.