Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Castle SkullCastle Skull, an imposing structure on the banks of the Rhine, was the home of the dark magician Malegar. It has a dark history, full of tales of torture, murder and suicide, so you might be surprised to hear that Malegar dies instead on a train – hurled from an well-guarded empty railway carriage into the river below. It is one of Malegar’s friends who dies at the castle – shot three times at close range and then, before dying, set on fire and left to run around the battlements for all to see.

Enter Henri Bencolin and Jeff Marle, hired to get to the bottom of the deaths. Is it possible that Malegar is exacting his vengeance from beyond the grave? Can Bencolin get to the bottom of things to prevent more death? And, most importantly, can he find the murderer before his German rival?

Castle Skull is the second of the Henri Bencolin books from Carr, pre-dating both Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale.  In fact, it is only (I think) the second book Carr wrote. Carr is another author who cannot be ignored in a look at the Golden Age – but is this representative of his work?


Personally, I think Carr’s finest work is in his middle period – roughly 1935 to 1950. OK, that’s earlier than the middle, but you get my drift. There are a few exceptions from after this time – The Witch Of The Low-Tide, for example, and the period does contain the dire And So To Murder as well, but it’s not a bad line to draw.

This earlier story is much darker, much more in the Grand Guignol style, in the same vein as the other early Bencolin stories. But, to be honest, I found it rather dull. Which is saying something for a book that’s only 160 pages long.

There are some nice touches – Bencolin’s rival, for example, is not a complete idiot and, in fact, solves much of the mystery. It would have been easy to make him a comic foil for the Frenchman, but it works much better this way. But no-one seems to act as if there’s just been a murder in the household. People just stand around getting on with their own business until the  finale when the murderer is unmasked. It’s pretty hard to spot what’s going on even if you can keep your attention on it as a) the motive is ridiculous – it fits with the over-the-top style but you’ll never guess it and b) there is a massive cheat in something Bencolin says early on which serves only to distract the reader, nothing else.

Anyway, I didn’t particularly enjoy this one – in fact, I don’t think I particularly enjoyed any of the Bencolin novels. So, read something decent by the author – She Died A Lady is a good start point. Save this one for completists.


  1. I remember enjoying the Bencolin novels as a teen but they do feel they like the work of a young writer (he was, I think, 24 when he wrote it) and I agree his work took off really in 1933 with MAD HATTER starring Fell an in 1934 when he introduced Merrivale in PLAGUE COURT. Having said that, IT WALKS BY NIGHT is still a cracking debut though, and I have a soft spot for POISON ON JEST too.


  2. Yes, I agree. He really clicked with the creation of Fell, but both IT WALKS BY NIGHT and POISON IN JEST are pretty enjoyable. To me, the problem with the Bencolin novels is that Carr hadn’t quite figured out how to structure and pace the books. Fell was important, in that he allowed the author to lighten the mood every now and then. He is also a far more reassuring figure. Bencolin becomes a complete pain in the backside over the course of a full novel. It’s impressive just how quickly Carr improved as a writer.


    • One of the things that got me was the fact that no-one seemed to have anything like a human reaction (or a reaction at all) to the fact that one of their number was shot and then burned to death. Just seemed like business as usual.

      The misdirection from Bencolin’s dialogue is a bit of a cheat here as well – there’s something similar in And So To Murder, if I recall correctly…


  3. To defend this one slightly (I agree it’s VERY silly, and Bencolin is somehow even more ghastly than usual), I think Carr does quite a great job of managing reader suspicion. Obviously this varies a lot from person to person, but when I read it I stumbled onto each false solution just a few pages before it was exploded. Which is tricky to do, and very satisfying when it works. (I know a few other people who’ve felt the same, so I think it’s fair to chalk it up to Carr’s skill rather than coincidence.)

    So I sometimes assign Castle Skull to clients as homework, because it’s a technique that’s hard to explain, even harder to do well, and it can be useful to read a book where the rest is so silly and artificial that you can easily see the exposed cogs if you know what to look out for.


    • The artificiality killed it for me, I’m afraid, but I can see that there is good stuff in here – just not enough, in the grand scheme of things. To balance things, there’s a review of one of the classic Carrs coming v soon.


    • May I ask what you do for a living?

      I love Carr and the Bencolin shorts and Waxworks but as much as I expected to I didn’t love Castle Skull. I think it would make a memorable movie though.


      • Of course! I’m a freelance developmental editor, focusing more on helping clients get from a good first draft to a great final draft than the nitty-gritty of line editing and proofreading (although I do that too!). I don’t get to work on as many mysteries as I’d like, but techniques like clueing, twists and information management are fundamental to most kinds of storytelling, and often mysteries are the best place to find these techniques in their “pure” form, as it were.


  4. Oh, sure. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t interested in writing a mystery themselves. It reads too much like an idea Carr had been toying with since he was a kid (those thirty foot thick walls!) It’s a very juvenile approach to atmosphere and suspense. I remember finding it quite funny, but that obviously wasn’t Carr’s intention.

    Still, I think that to be as prolific as Carr wanted to be (or felt he had to be) you have to get all your ideas down on paper, even the ropey ones.

    I’m looking forward to your HE WHO WHISPERS review! I think there’s a lot more to talk about there.


  5. […] For details of all the author’s novels, including the four other Bencolin mysteries, check out my dedicated Carr microsite here. This book was a gift from my chum Colin, wrangler of the unmissable Ride the High Country, for which many thanks – about time I read it in English! Curtis Evans, blogger and mystery historian extraordinaire, provided a detailed analysis of this book over at his online home, The Passing Tramp; the lovely Yvette Banek also gave a detailed review over at in so many words …. while the Puzzle Doctor also had some less positive comments to make over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. […]


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