The Lost Gallows (1931) by John Dickson Carr

Nezam Al Moulk, an Egyptian with a secret past, has disappeared from the prestigious Brimstone Club, which has ensnared the curiosity of Henri Bencolin, juge d’instruction of Paris. The gallows that plagued Al Moulk before his disappearance, as well as mentions of the mysterious Ruination Street, seems to hint that his disappearance is going to lead to something far more sinister.

When a dead man, Al Moulk’s chauffeur, is found after driving his car after dying, Bencolin and Jeff Marle find themselves in a race against time. A phantom hangman is stalking the city and if they can’t make it to Ruination Street, more people are going to die.

Following It Walks By Night but preceding Castle Skull – I think, so the British Library has got the order wrong – this continues their current plan of reprinting the Henri Bencolin mysteries, John Dickson Carr’s first detective. Four of them were written, along with Poison In Jest, a Jeff Marle solo outing, before Gideon Fell showed up, and, to be honest, Fell is more interesting.

Actually, in my opinion, it’s not until Henry Merrivale shows up that Carr hit his stride. I find the first Fell books (apart from his debut Hag’s Nook) rather tedious, whereas it takes a good while before a dull Merrivale book shows up. The Fell books hit their stride with The Hollow Man (or, possibly, The Crooked Hinge) but they are patchier than the Carter Dickson stories.

Having said that, though, while the Bencolin books don’t match Carr’s heights, they are much better than his early lows. There’s very little impossibility on show here – the non-existent street doesn’t really count, and the dead man driving a car claims the same trick as Brian Flynn’s later The Feet Of Death, and it’s rubbish.

It does rattle along nicely, though, and Carr does a reasonable job on the “who”. I’ll be honest, though, there are a couple of other books that do the same thing where I felt genuine surprise – here, it was more of “OK, then”. At the end of the day, if you liked the imagery and tone of It Walks By Night and Castle Skull, then you’ll enjoy it just as much this time.

More Carr back in print is a great thing, but I do wish we could get the genuine classics out there. One day, perhaps… In the meantime, this is a good start.

5 comments

  1. You’re right that the early Merrivale mysteries are stronger than the early Fell (Hag’s Nook aside), although I’ll claim that Fell hits his stride one book earlier with Death Watch. Really though things catch fire with The Crooked Hinge, although I realize recent opinion seems to have shifted away from that book (I don’t understand why though).

    I do think that all of the early Fell books are better than The Lost Gallows, which is in my mind his weakest mystery until maybe The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. Still it’s nice to see it being reissued.

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    • You see, I find the early Fell books rather boring – Eight of Swords and Blind Barber in particular. Crooked Hinge, well I don’t like the resolution in it at all, but I can’t deny it’s very readable up to that bit of silliness…

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  2. Crooked Hinge is so good in the early stages that the silly ending lets it down with a bump. If the set- up hadn’t been so good the ending might have felt ok. I think it’s the let-down from such a high that causes a problem with the ending with so many readers.

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