In a gambling house in Paris, the newly married Duc de Saligny is entertaining himself. But the police are in attendance because Laurent, the first husband of the Duc’s new wife and well-renowned psychopath, is allegedly on his trail. But the police, and in particular Juge D’Instruction Henri Bencolin, are in attendance, so nothing possibly could go happen. Could it?
Of course it could. Despite Saligny being seen entering a card room alone and the doors being watched, when the steward arrives to see answer the service bell, he finds Saligny’s head some distance from the rest of his body. Has Laurent found a way to spirit himself into and out of a room without being seen? Even if, as rumour has it, he is a werewolf or something similar, invisibility doesn’t tend to be one of their traits, so how could he appear and vanish without trace?
The werewolf thing disappears pretty quick. It feels like it was inserted to justify the spoooooky title, but it doesn’t serve any other real purpose. Shame really, there aren’t enough locked room mysteries with werewolves in them. They could kill someone, pretend to be a wolf-skin rug, and then sneak away when no-one’s looking. There you go, aspiring writers, you can have that one for free!
OK, back to this book. It’s my first offering for 1930 for Past Offences’ Crimes Of The Century, with at least two more to come, and was Carr’s first novel, featuring his relatively short-lived hero Bencolin, who is an insufferable know-it-all here. For some reason the narrator, Jeff Marle, puts up with him, especially given his “I’ve solved all of my cases in half-an-hour” boasting. Didn’t stop the second murder though, did it, smart-arse?
It’s funny, but I’ve less than fond memories of this one from when I first read it yonks ago. They centred around a certain gambit performed by Laurent that seemed utterly ridiculous to me, but it seemed a bit more sensible this time. It is still utterly ridiculous, don’t get me wrong, but there are reasons that just about make it work – well, for almost everybody. I can’t see one character falling for it, but at least this time there’s a better reason that the abject stupidity demonstrated when Dame Agatha tried the same thing more than five years later.
So, if you can accept that and also Carr’s strange misconceptions as to how drugs work, this is a rather fun read, with a nicely complex scheme going on with a murderer that caught me out (even though I’d read it before). The impossible murder is a little straightforward at the end of the day, but it is effective given the Grand Guignol that surrounds it.
So, it’s a strong start for 1930 and for John Dickson Carr. There are a few cheap second hand copies out there, so if you haven’t read it, you should be able to pick up a copy. Proof positive that the memory cheats, this is Highly Recommended.