LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Reconstructing the night of the crime]
Bencolin sat back in his chair.
‘Very well. We now have her sitting in front of the dressing-table, in her nightgown and slippers, either applying or preparing to apply the cold cream. She is not yet quite ready for bed, because she has not yet closed the sitting-room windows giving onto the balcony and the pleasant night – which she ultimately means to do, for (remember) there is an outside staircase to that balcony and locked doors will mean nothing if her laggard lover can simply walk up through a window… She sat down to finish her toilette.
‘And then she was interrupted.’
‘Interrupted?’ repeated Ralph sharply.
‘By the entrance of someone. Concentrate your attention on that dressing-table, for everything centres round it. Don’t you see how the tempo changes, the scene is fixed in mid-air, the woman’s traceable movements come to an abrupt stop? She’s interrupted in putting cold cream on her face – for she has not put the lid on the jar… There by the dressing-table everything suddenly halts.’
commentary: This was, on the whole, a most enjoyable outing for M Henri Bencolin, everyone’s least favourite Dickson Carr detective. He just happens to have retired to a spot outside Paris near where a dead woman has been found in a mystery villa (that mainstay of French-set murder stories). She is the former mistress of a respectable young Englishman, Ralph Douglas, who is now engaged to be married to a beautiful young woman. A witness – the dead woman’s maid – puts him right there on the spot – but hen he also seems to have an alibi.
And anyway – how did she die? The room is overloaded with the false weapons of the title – razor, gun, stiletto, sleeping pills. And, as it turns out, the plot is overloaded with motives, possibilities, people who have an interest, people who are not where they are supposed to be. This is true of many murder stories, and particularly those of JDC, but this is an exceptional example.
As in so many of his books the story starts with a young man who is pulled into the action in an intriguing way, finds another young man he quite likes, meets a young woman whom he obviously fancies like crazy (though he can’t say it or do anything about it) - and then Bencolin runs the group to solve the murder.
I particularly liked the Paris setting, and of course the importance of clothes detection – one up to JDC, you can’t imagine most of his male contemporaries even trying to get this kind of thing right, but this is excellent, and he is very good at showing you what must have happened as the lady prepared for bed.
There is a splendid moment when the waiter serving the detecting trio gives his opinion:
‘The woman was M. De Lautrec's mistress: she went to another man's house for zizipompom: M. De Lautrec killed her. There you are.’...it’s a word that also popped up in Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff Box –
Any form of zizipompom I can detect at a distance of three kilometres and in the dark.-- and Snuffbox has another key scene with a woman sitting at her dressing-table:
The first two-thirds of this book was marvellous, top class. But then ... the climax features a long scene in a casino (something I normally love). It is not at all clear what Bencolin hoped to achieve with this: the actual outcome seems unpredictable. It is rampedup as the first game of basset in 250 years: this is unique, this is extraordinary, nobody knows what basset is, it is the lost card game of the world. However those of us who mis-spent our youth reading Georgette Heyer books know all about basset and its direct descendent Faro (there’s even a regency romance called Faro’s Daughter) so it wasn’t quite so exciting for us.
And the final final explanation, after all the skeins of mystery had been unravelled, is a bit unsurprising both because there really aren’t very many characters in this book, something that is obvious throughout, and also because as someone actually SAYS, ‘It is difficult to see how [character described] could have been anybody but X’. I kept hoping Carr had something spectacularly exciting to pull out of the hat, but that wasn’t really the case.
However – it was still a most enjoyable read.
Mary Cassatt’s Antoinette at her dressing-table, Edouard Vuillard’s Madame Hessel at her dressing-table, both from the Athenaeum. The orchid lamp was a feature in the nightclub in the recent entry on the first Bencolin mystery, It walks by Night – also featuring mystery villa near Paris.
More John Dickson Carr all over the blog – click on the label below.