John Dickson Carr: It Walks By Night (1930) – Allusions to Poe and his Terrifying Trowel.

John Dickson Carr’s first novel is like a perfectly drawn map of everything he would go on to achieve and master in his career as an author of astounding detective fiction.

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In It Walks By Night (1930) we have the beginning of all things ‘Carrian’. The rich and velvety use of prose to describe character and scene, the grasp on setting and the creation of atmosphere that with a few words stays in your head a life time, confused psychologies and motives, double clues, fiercely well written and leading female characters (and the beginning of what would become a staple for Carr – the oppressed or wrongly convicted woman), endless macabre and of course the head spinning impossibilities of an original and water tight locked room mystery.

The story: On the eve of their wedding day Madame Louise and her new husband the Duc de Saligny are spending their first night together at a Parisian gambling house, but they are not alone. Half the Parisian police force is guarding the building at threat of ‘Laurent’, Louise’s psychopathic ex-husband, who has recently broken out of prison and has sent a message explaining that if they go through with the marriage he will kill the both of them. Laurent is a master of disguise and seemingly able to enter and leave rooms at will. But of course head of the police force Henri Bencolin is there, so nothing can go wrong…

During the night at the gambling hall, the Duc de Saligny walks into the empty card room and closes the door behind him with both entrances watched. But when a waiter responds to a bell for a drinks order rung from the room, he opens the door to find Saligny beheaded, and a bloodied sword hanging on the wall, but the rest of the room is empty and there is no sign of Laurent.

The main thing to say straight off the bat is that this was Carr’s first book, HIS FIRST BOOK! The amount of depth, challenge, character, misdirection, impossibility and woven plot is absurd for a first crack at a detective novel.  There are many great reviews of this book out there, most of them you can find on fellow Carr fan The Green Capsule’s ever growing review list, where he is collecting Carr reviews from across the blogging community. So if you want some more opinion on the book and it’s pros and cons, go and check those out.

I want to take things in a different direction by looking at Carr’s relationship to Edgar Allan Poe, and how this book I think acts as a homage to the great American writer of the macabre.  And I’ll start by explaining the title of this post.

If you have read many of Poe’s short stories you may have come across the The Cask of Amontillado (1846). It’s one of Poe’s best and most chilling tales, which opens with these shuddering lines:

‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled – but the very definitiveness with which is was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes the redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’

Our narrator does indeed take his revenge when he leads Fortunato, a passionate wine expert, deep into an underground cellar with the promise of a rare casket of Amontillado, which he asks him to check is the genuine article. He appeals to Fortunato’s pride by telling him that another wine connoisseur, whom Fortunato believes to be a fool, has said it is the real deal. Fortunato then meets his horrible end (although you are never quite sure) deep in the caverns of the cellar, with a haunting trowel in the hand of our narrator.

So, now to the links between the two. The charged atmosphere in the chilling opening chapters of It Walks By Night, with the possibility of Laurent lurking round every corner, has one particularly horrific moment when Laurent appears in a locked bathroom, a smile hanging on his face, and then vanishes without a trace dropping a metal object onto the bathroom tiles. The object is found to be a metal trowel, as with the killer in Amontillado. There is also the presence of an underground wine cellar from which Carr builds a crucial and chilling plot point in his mystery.

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There is not just similarity here in the placement of key objects from Amontillado, but in their meaning. The trowel in the hand of the killer in Poe’s story is the instrument and symbol of revenge acted out, of confidence tricks and pride played out against the victim. This symbol works exactly the same when Laurent drops the trowel at the feet of his ex-wife in It Walks By Night, as he seeks revenge for the betrayal of their marriage. His pride will not let it go, and he will trick Louise and the Duc De Saligney into his trap. Alongside this,  a reference to Poe and the trowel  is actually made by one of the main characters in chapter 8 entitled ‘We Talked Of Poe’.

Furthermore, if we drift back to the opening lines of Amontillado: 

‘A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes the redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’

In many ways this quote represents the solution to It Walks By Night, the killer is found because they are overcome in trying to ‘make themselves felt’, and in the end they are caught when retribution overtakes the redresser; the killer goes too far.

Therefore It Walks By Night is homage in meaning, motive and setting which shows that Carr saw Poe in some way a founding father for the type of work he wanted to create, and would go on to create. I found out recently that Carr even produced a radio show on the work of Poe work for the BBC. ‘New Judgement’ John Dickson Carr on Edgar Allen Poe was broadcast on 22 May, 1944 at 22:05 on the BBC Home Service. I’m trying to track a copy of this down, so I’ll keep you up to date with that!

 

 

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14 thoughts on “John Dickson Carr: It Walks By Night (1930) – Allusions to Poe and his Terrifying Trowel.”

  1. There is a lot to enjoy in this first novel by Carr. Bencolin is an interesting character and I liked how he wasn’t larger than life and excessive like Fell and Merrivale are. Nice moral ambiguity of characters as well. The literary allusions were good with Poe and Carroll but unfortunately they do reveal a bit too much about what is going on. I think my main issue with the book was the solution. One part of it I enjoyed but the second half (I think) was less impressive, as a lot of forensic evidence is withheld from the reader and the way Bencolin discovers the killer is a bit disappointing.

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    1. Totally agreed on both counts. I would have said more about how the two stories link but yes I would have given too much away, as Carr really does lift from Poe for this. I agree that the solution, particularly for the locked room is disappointing (although others among us rate it highly), but I’m willing to except that as his first book. In many ways this story is more about atmosphere (again coming from his obvious love for Poe), than about the clean solutions, although I still think the plotting is first rate, And of course for Carr that would only get better.

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  2. Carr was very young when he began to write detective fiction, short stories as a student and novels when he was still in his early twenties, which all clearly show the influence Edgar Allan Poe had on the then budding mystery writer. You can see this admiration up till Poison in Jest. After that, he began to find his own voice. So you could write a few additional Poe-themed reviews of Carr’s earliest mysteries.

    By the way, the solution to the impossible murder in It Walks by Night was clearly inspired by Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, which would be the model for many of his locked room ideas

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    1. Thanks Tom Cat, that’s really good to know. I need to look at one novels that counts for in the list, but looking forward to seeing more of that. I hadn’t thought of the links between the Yellow Room and It Walks By Night before. Do you mean the main locked room in YR or the impossible disappearance from the corridor?

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      1. Sorry for the late response. I’m worthless when it comes to following comment comversations.

        Anyway, now that I think back of it, the locked room trick from It Walks by Night, as I remember it, is a bit of combination of both the locked room and impossible disappearance from The Mystery of the Yellow Room, isn’t it? It used the basic ideas from both impossibilities and were made into a new-ish locked room situation.

        By the way, I also vaguely recall Leroux was mentioned in It Walks by Night. That why the solution struck me as a relative of the impossible crimes from Yellow Room.

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      2. I hadn’t thought about it that way but yes the solution is a total blend of the two. And yes there is a reference, some one, I can’t remember who now say something like ‘you have been reading too much Gaston Leroux.’

        It’s brilliant to see this lineage from Leroux and Poe traced in Carr’s work. It places his work as a development of horror/macabre fiction genre, but then how he takes it into the detective genre I guess breathed a lot of new life into things.

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  3. Great choice for the format of your review. I think most readers will pick up on the references to The Cask of Amontillado while reading the book, but I never really pondered the significance and some of the more subtle connections to the story. Thanks for a thought provoking read.

    I was really surprised by Carr’s prose in this book. I don’t know why, but I assumed that his writing wouldn’t have taken form until later efforts. It’s his first book after all; how could he be that good? It sounds like you had a similar experience.

    It’s curious how It Walks By Night is the very essence of the type of impossible crime / locked room mystery Carr’s name would become synonymous for, and then he abandoned the idea for the rest of the Bencolin books. It isn’t really until The Bowstring Murders (or possibly Hag’s Nook) that we see another puzzle of the form.

    Eh, and how about that twist though? Yeah, there are some elements that I can see people complaining about. In fact, I was furious when I first read the solution. But then it all settled in, and the audacity of the crime became something I admired. It’s almost like a big joke on Carr’s part, and the reader is at the butt of it. Did you at least have the moment where you scramble frantically back to the map and then stare with your mouth open and eyes wide?

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      1. I did have the ‘ah ha’ moment with the map, but in some sense I still felt a little cheated by it, even with that. Maybe it’s because I have seen the best of Carr elsewhere.

        The prose indeed are marvelous, and it’s interesting to read this to see how then Carr just distilled and distilled that writing style until he could just shock and create atmosphere with one or two words, which maybe is one of the best things he brought to the whole genre in my opinion.

        I picked up a copy of Mad Hatter recently, so it will be interesting to see where that goes in terms of the Poe links you have mentioned.

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  4. Thanks for the review, and I was delighted to see a new post – I had been occasionally checking since the Berkeley post sometime ago. 🙂

    I read ‘It Walks by Night’ recently, and I enjoyed it. I thought it was nicely atmospheric, and the puzzle had some strengths even if it certainly was a couple of inches short of Carr’s usual full yard. I think I was examining the map more closely than I usually do, as I had been promoted by Mr Green Capsule’s review of it. I certainly spotted a key idea, but was thrown off by another aspect of the map that I had glossed over too quickly.

    It’s interesting to read of the parallels between Poe and Carr, as Poe’s tale clearly informed significant aspects of ‘It Walks by Night’. Would you recommend Poe more generally?

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    1. Thanks JFW! Glad you have been checking for posts! I have just completed a Masters course here in the UK, so have been able to read very little the past two months, but now back in flow. I did another review last week as well, so there is another post if you want a further read.

      I would highly recommend Poe. His sense of the macabre and ability to write chilling narrative was so high. Short stories like The Tell Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado and the Fall of the House of Usher, are great ways to get started.

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  5. It’s refreshing to see someone link Carr and poe witout going on about ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ just because both as locked room mysteries; Poe’s take feels almost like a deliberately Berkelean subversion of the expectations of the form, just before it was a form. In fact Poe’s stories of detection, such as they are, tend to age better to my eye if viewed as parodies: as sick as Brad is of The Birlstone Gambit, I’m thoroughly sick of the ‘Purloined Letter’ trick…it happened once, wasn’t very good, and should be left alone!

    But I digress.

    Actually, I’ve forgotten what I was going to say. Well, this is awkward.

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