Castle 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.