“Somewhere in the house, unsuspected behind a familiar mask, was walking a man who had no heart or brain, but only a mechanism tuned to kill.”
It is the wedding night of Raoul de Saligny and his bride Louise, yet this couple is far from happy. Louise’s violently insane ex-husband Laurent has escaped from the asylum. All they know is that he received plastic surgery, then killed the surgeon. Threatening letters claim that he has infiltrated their inner circle. Seeking safety in crowds, Louise and Raoul spend the night of their wedding at Fenelli’s casino, under the watchful eye of magistrate Henri Bencolin.
A gruesome locked-room murder leaves even Bencolin confounded. “I often kill,” Laurent has told his psychiatrist. “I have a way of getting into houses, Herr Doktor, which nobody knows but myself.” Could a werewolf be roaming the streets of Paris?
It Walks By Night is a wonderfully atmospheric bit of Grand Guignol centered around a clever impossible crime. It is also a marvelous debut novel for John Dickson Carr. He seems to have crammed every crazy idea he ever had into this first book—werewolves, ghostly trowels, Poe homages—and gets away with nearly all of them. However outlandish the events, they all seem plausible within the strange world these characters inhabit.
Perhaps most diabolical of all is Henri Bencolin himself. His young American friend Jeff Marle is never quite sure what to make of Bencolin.
The light over him turned his face to a devilish and inhuman mask. The black eyebrows slanted and hooked down over gleaming eyes; the thin, cruel lines going down from shadowed cheek-bones past small moustache and pointed beard, the parted hair twirled up like horns…
Bencolin’s ominous demeanor is offset by his almost childish boasting about his success as a detective, a claim that is somewhat undermined when Raoul de Saligny is murdered while under Bencolin’s protection.
It’s an exceptionally gory crime: a beheading that leaves the room smeared with blood. Strangest of all, the murderer appears to have brought a book to kill some time, a copy of Alice in Wonderland, befuddling investigators. Unusually for a bridegroom, Raoul has squirreled himself away in an empty card room, where nearly every moment of his time is accounted for by a series of visitors. As Jeff points out, “Saligny is having entirely too damned many appointments for one evening.” Both doors to the room are under surveillance, and the window is a sheer drop that could only be entered by a supernatural creature.
Carr is a master of evocative atmosphere, a talent that is clearly present right from the start of his career. These early chapters are smothered in the suffocating, hysterically decadent environment of the gambling club, lending an unreal air to everything that happens. “Is this room ever used for any purpose other than assassinating guests?” demands Bencolin, and given the description of the card-room, one might wonder. It is decorated all in red, the walls hung with sharp swords. As the severed head rests in terrible solitude in the center of the carpet, “a breeze blew through the open window in the wall at our left, and ruffled the hair with a low and lifelike sway.”
Carr glories in the worldly, often sordid, milieu of 1920s Paris. These characters exist in a permanent twilight of drunkenness, gambling, drugs, and illicit sex; the reality of murder barely sinks in for them. (Like many other Golden Age authors, Carr has rather strange ideas about the effects of drugs, detracting from the book’s already shaky relationship to realism.) This world attracts a number of shady characters, including Vautrelle, a social climber with a mysterious past, and Sharon Grey, an Englishwoman determined to throw herself into continental sensations. Almost any of them could be Laurent in disguise.
Jazz-age debauchery exists right alongside the old French aristocracy. The dank decay of the ancient nobility is symbolized by Raoul’s family estate, where Jeff fancies that the ghosts of the centuries sit beside him at the piano, their fingers tinkling out melodies that faded many years ago.
…risen up before us, gaunt and grey-ribbed, the house looked out from under its dark roof, inscrutably, as from under a mask. It was a tall grey house, whose windows swam in low still slants of sunlight. Behind it a line of thin poplars moved slightly, and contrasted with grim, motionless chimney-stacks piled against the sky…The noises of Paris came with a mournful quality into this stillness. We walked up to the place through rose-beds of Gloire de Dijon and La France, bright swaying things which heightened the effects of the grey house’s blank and empty stare.
It Walks By Night is suffused with horror, the scent of blood and doom clinging to every page. The locked-room mystery is the weakest point of the story, yet the solution to the murder has so many twists and the killer’s confession is so hypnotically powerful that I hardly noticed.
Overall I did enjoy this book, despite some qualms and I thought considering Carr often gets criticised for his characterisation skills, he actually did a good job in my opinion in describing his characters in this book with many an enjoyable phrase. This was also an interesting book to read in regards to examining which particular features Carr would go on to develop such as his use of the gothic and magical and the bizarreness of his crimes and solutions and which aspects he would let go such as the use of the Watson narrator.
In It Walks By Night (1930) we have the beginning of all things ‘Carrian’. The rich and velvety use of prose to describe character and scene, the grasp on setting and the creation of atmosphere that with a few words stays in your head a life time, confused psychologies and motives, double clues, fiercely well written and leading female characters (and the beginning of what would become a staple for Carr – the oppressed or wrongly convicted woman), endless macabre and of course the head spinning impossibilities of an original and water tight locked room mystery.
Even if you don’t want to solve the mystery, this is a good read. I’ve always appreciated the books of Carr for the atmosphere, which he piles on with an ornate blood-stained shovel. Mind you, you could argue that it’s almost always the same atmosphere: monocles, capes, pungent cigars, fine sherry, gas-lamps, ticking grandfather clocks, borderline hysteria, grotesque figures half-seen in the moonlight.
The impossible murder is a little straightforward at the end of the day, but it is effective given the Grand Guignol that surrounds it.
Death Can Read (very detailed review–may contain spoilers)
In short … a youthful work by Carr, still not perfectly oiled, but already able to win and wonder: the plot and the solution are wonderful, and already recall certain other Locked Room mechanisms that will be invented later.
It Walks By Night is available in paperback and ebook formats from British Library Crime Classics, just in time for Halloween.