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!