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.
I like that ability to describe the victim's bedtime routine, too, Moira. It seemed quite credible. It's nice that Carr took the time (or did the research, or whatever) to get those details right. And the Paris setting is really appealing. I can see why you found a lot to like here.ReplyDelete
All the things I like in a Golden Age detective story Margot!Delete
I love the "woman at dressing table" art genre. That Vuillard!ReplyDelete
I know, there's a surprising number of them and I love them - it's always hard to choose which one to use. Luckily, the scene crops up in books quite often.Delete
Dear "Clothes In Books" (or Moira, if I may),ReplyDelete
This is not at all about John Dickson Carr, but I am in the throes of a bad cold and re-reading some old feel-good books, and it occurs to me that "Elegance" by Kathleen Tessaro really ought to make it into this blog, since it is the ultimate "clothes-in-books-book". Great Literature it is not, but it is all about clothes in a way and also about a book about clothes. And I think you might like it.
Please do call me Moira! And thanks for the tipoff, am always delighted to hear of books I ought to read. Hope you feel better soon.Delete
Did not remember that clothes played such a big role in this one, but points to Carr for knowing how women dress. I don't think he was as successful in the casino scene, I am not sure he understood the card game he is describing very well.ReplyDelete
I always think of him, JDC, as a man's man, but the kind who really liked and respected women, and he often has surprisingly good woman's POVs. And I'm glad not just me who wasn't impressed by the casino scene.Delete
I did find the description that Bencolin knew how women dressed because he was of "sporting habits" amusing.Delete
Something very French about that, or at least the Anglo-Saxon view of them.Delete
I now have more mysteries by Carr, and this is one I have, so I will read it someday. I did think about the dressing table scene from The Emperor's Snuff Box when I was reading your review.ReplyDelete
I think even not-top-level Carr is always enjoyable, and it's scenes like this that make him so.Delete
I am saving "zizipompom" for my next road trip with my sisters. I hope to have it established family slang by spring.ReplyDelete
Excellent Shay, proud of you.Delete
We're going to France, so opportunities ought to be plentiful.Delete
Say it loudly - 'Let's go and find some zizipompom' - and see if French eavesdroppers react: that will tell us whether it is really a French phrase.Delete
Unfortunately my oldest sister's daughter is going with us, and the young get so desperately upset and embarrassed when their parents try to be silly.Delete
Well it sounds like a great trip, hope you enjoy. And embarrassing the young ones is one of the joys of later life.Delete
Did anybody else ever say "zizipompom"? Or was it just John Dickson Carr? It's an entirely new word to me.ReplyDelete
I couldn't find any references to it anywhere, either in other books or dictionaries. I suppose if it is slightly risqué that might be a reason, but I think he made it up.Delete
I have something from him on the pile I'll get to at some point (from you perhaps?) - not tempted by this one TBH.ReplyDelete
Stick with what you've got, but do give him a go. You might find you like a locked room mystery.Delete
Zizipompom! LOVE IT! Just realised that the emails of your new blog posts suddenly started going into my spam folder, hence the radio silence (and some very hard Paddington glares at my email provider.)ReplyDelete
And have to say, Faro's Daughter (which I recently re-read, and loved) has probably one of the best "Clothes in Books" scenes in all Heyer when the heroine deliberately puts together an outfit that is designed to appall and outrage in every possible way.... and it does sound quite spectacular!
Nice to hear from you Daniel - how is Berlin? I am relying on you to introducer zizipompom as new slang in Germany...Delete
Oh now am going to have to re-read Faro's Daughter - long time since I did that one.
It's definitely one of the funniest, even if it does rely on There Has Been A Terrible Misunderstanding, and a relatively short, snappy read.ReplyDelete
99p for Kindle - just downloaded it...Delete