On the second page of John Dickson Carr’s first murder mystery It Walks by Night, the book’s narrator, a young American named Jeff Marle, tells the reader that, on that first night,
“I knew that there would be ugly things in the future.”
Carr, an American himself, was at the start of a writing career that would span four decades and see him acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in the heyday of the sort of mysteries that were written with complex, plot-oriented stories centered on one or more puzzles that the reader was expected to be trying to solve as the pages were turned.
Indeed, he was a callow 24 when It Walks by Night was published in 1930, and that’s clear in the book.
He’s trying too hard.
At this point, Agatha Christie had already published nearly a dozen mysteries, and Carr, along with a great many other writers, was trying to find his own spot at the bestseller table. While Christie could be, at times, macabre, her books tended to be somewhat demur, featuring murders that, if not quite bloodless, were low on gore and high on brain work.
“A slow and lifelike sway”
In this first of his books, Carr is offering a similar locked-room puzzle — actually more than one — while including a very un-Christie-like amount of blood and high sexual tension.
The first murder in the book — well, here is how Jeff Marle describes it:
At the end of the room opposite us was a large divan. Beside it was an inlaid table on which burned a lamp of red glass. A man had fallen forward on the red carpet before the divan. The fingers of his hands were outspread as though he were about to spring forward — he was squashed against the carpet in a kneeling position. But the man had no head. Instead there was a bloody neck stump propped against the floor.
The head itself stood in the centre of the red carpet upright on its neck; it showed white eyeballs, and gaped at us with open mouth in the low red light. A breeze blew through the open window in the wall at our left, and ruffled the hair with a slow and lifelike sway.
Shocking, macabre, gory
What did I say earlier about trying too hard?
Carr is consciously working to shock the reader and to emulate other writers of shocking, macabre, gory works, including Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine.
I know he had those writers in mind because, at numerous spots in his narrative, he mentions them and their books. Indeed, he borrows a key scene from one of their works to restage in his novel.
He has three murder victims, a couple dope fiends, and more than one killer as well as a French mastermind detective who has so many character tics as to make Hercule Poirot seem downright bland.
Keeping the plot moving
The interesting thing, however, is that, even with all this overpacked baggage, Carr ends up keeping the plot moving, the twists occurring (along with interesting grace notes that don’t have to be there but add to the reader’s enjoyment), the suspects emoting (and, as you’d expect, some dying), the detective suitably inscrutable — and all in 174 pages.
At one point in my life, I read a lot of Carr. Not at all for probably 30 years. My memory, though, is that he had these writing quirks under control in his later work. After all, he did make a lot of money selling a lot of books.
It only makes sense.
He must have quickly realized that there’s no percentage in trying to out-Poe Poe.
Patrick T. Reardon