Dress Down Sunday: How Cold Your Hand Is…


It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr

published 1930

It Walks by Night

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:

It Walks lamp

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:
‘How cold your hand is - on my shoulder!’
It grew on me, horribly, that my hands were clenched together, before me.

In a magic joyous moment the reader realizes what must be leaning on her shoulder…

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.


  1. Bencolin is an interesting sleuth in how Carr sets him up ambiguously, as the hero character (being the detective), yet also describes him in ways which align him with the devil. One of the few occasions where I have figured something out by Carr, as unfortunately his literary allusions spelt certain parts of the solution out too clearly.

    1. Yes, I think he might be an interesting character if I could force myself to pay more attention to him, or read the books in proper order. I just went and read your review of this, and am glad to see we felt the same about the forensics.
      [Kate's review is here https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/tuesday-night-bloggers-it-walks-by-night-1930-by-john-dickson-carr/ and highly recommended to other readers - it also has a very good comments section which had me nodding my head. The 2nd door... ]

    2. Yeah I've not read any more Bencolin books. I may well do so and see how he develops.

    3. I often wonder if I am going to get through all the JDC books in my lifetime...

  2. I read and enjoyed this very recently - and as sometimes happens with Carr, I guessed who had done it, but I didn't have a clue how they had pulled it off. Yes, the authentic Carr atmosphere right from the start!

    1. Yes it was good fun wasn't it? I have had that experience a few times with JDC: sure who the murderer is, but no idea as to method, and ready to enjoy it anyway.

  3. I'm so sorry, Moira - I commented here yesterday, and I think it got eaten up! Not that I had anything particularly illuminating to say, but it grates me Blogger played me up. Sorry about that!

    1. Never apologize Margot - you are so staunch, and such an encouragement to everyone. And Blogger is to blame, it can be a complete pain in the neck...


Post a Comment