Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Lost Gallows - John Dickson Carr

If I was underwhelmed by Castle Skull a few weeks ago, 'The Lost Gallows' is a return to form for both me and Carr. In this case for Henri Bencolin and Jeff they're in a wintery London, staying in an outrageously gothic club where a shady Egyptian is being terrorised by threats from the hangman Jack Ketch, and there is the most marvelously macabre car chase through the West end I think you could ever read. 

If anybody knows what John Dickson Carr thought of Wilkie Collins I'd be very happy to know it as he feels like his spiritual successor here - or at least some of the details are odd enough to be straight out of Collins. I think the plot made some sort of sense, and you probably could have worked out the murderer from the clues provided, by how anybody reading this could concentrate on something as inconsequential as the plot when a car is being raced across London in the fog, apparently driven by a corpse, is beyond me. A liberal application of mysteries disappearing streets, ancient Egyptian curses, hidden rooms, skullduggery, revenge, model gallows, dwarfs, and terrible accents all add to the general confusion. 

There is no point at all in reading Carr if any of this sounds unappealing - the whole point of him, or so I'd argue, is the atmosphere he creates and the details he brings it alive with. I don't honestly care about who did what or how it'll work out, but what I absolutely adore is the way Carr creates a London or a Paris, or any number of other places where for a moment you think you're in a ghost story before he explains how the trick is done. These books are for anybody who's ever jumped at a shadow. In Carr's hands it's positively reassuring to find that evil lies in the hearts of the living, and isn't coming from beyond the grave.

The Lost Gallows is Carr's second book, and written whilst he was still in his early 20's (it was first publishes in 1931 when he was 24 - 'It Walks By Night' is the first, and also available in the British Library Crime Classics series). Judging from my review of 'It Walks By Night', I think 'The Lost Gallows' is a more assured book - though I agree with Martin Edwards in the introduction when he says it's clearly the work of a man, that it's "full of youthful swagger and zest".

There's still none of the humour that I've found in some of his later books, but that humour hasn't been a feature of any of the Bencolin mysteries I've read so far, and Jeff's romance with Sharon seems a bit pointless (Jeff gets better with women as the books continue, I don't know what happens to Sharon) beyond the coincidences it provides for laying clues out for the reader, but the overall there's a sense of the characters settling into themselves, and Carr hall marks about this book which make it hang together just a little bit better than I seemed to think 'It Walks By Night' did. 

Altogether I found this book a lot of fun, especially that car chase with all ghost story connotations - and believe me, even more horrible explanation. I think Carr is perfect lazy weekend reading, I need a bit of time on my hands to appreciate his gothic flourishes - they're too good to rush. 


  1. Yes, I loved that ghostly car chase, too. Totally bonkers of course, but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. What this mystery lacks in plausibility, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and mood. Like you, I wasn't keen on Castle Skull, so much so that I didn't write about it at the time. This one, however, was great fun -'lazy weekend reading' is spot on!

  2. It is totally bonkers, but it also has the feel of an urban legend, or well believed ghost story about it. Certainly it's a memorable set of images. I thought it might just be me with 'Castle Skull', but maybe not. I couldn't picture the Castle as well as I could a Parisian waxworks, or the gloomy buildings of London coming out of the fog. I do think of Carr as weekend reading, I want the time to appreciate the flourishes and embellishments.