John Dickson Carr: the Bencolin short stories

Before John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks by Night, came out in 1930, he wrote a number of short stories that were published in The Haverfordian, the literary magazine of Haverford College (where Carr was a student). Four of these stories were impossible-crime mysteries featuring Henri Bencolin, the same detective who would go on to star in IWBN and four other Carr novels. They were reprinted in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, edited by Douglas G. Greene, which came out in 1980, three years after Carr’s death. Some of the information here is taken from Greene’s introduction to the book.

These four stories were written by a man in his early twenties, but there is nothing about them that smacks of juvenilia; they’re polished, assured, and above all entertaining. They’re written in the third person, from the point of view of an omniscient narrator; there’s no sign of Jeff Marle, the “Watson” of the first four Bencolin novels, or of the third-person “juvenile lead” who’s the viewpoint character in most of Carr’s books (including the last Bencolin, The Four False Weapons).

It’s interesting to see Bencolin evolve as a character in these four stories; in the first, he’s brilliant but not infallible, unafraid to confess that he’s stumped at one point before he figures out the solution; by the last, he’s the theatrical, pseudo-demonic manhunter of IWBN, who sneers at everybody and is nearly always master of the situation. 

So what happens in the four stories? With no spoilers:

“The Shadow of the Goat”: “I saw Cyril Merton go into a room that had only one door, which was bolted and which I was watching. The room had only one window, barred, with locked shutters. There was no fireplace, nor was there any secret means of egress; the walls were stone. Exactly that. It was a stone box. But I tell you Merton went into the place – and vanished.” And then the murders begin.

“The Fourth Suspect”: “There was nobody else in the room except that grotesque dead man – nobody else. I examined it with care. No one hiding. There was one full-length window, fastened on the inside with sliding bolts and a catch. Obviously it would have been impossible to step outside and lock that window from the inside. And as for LaGarde locking it after he had been shot, that was just as impossible; death was instantaneous. We had both been watching the door of the room, and we had seen nobody leave. Certainly the person who killed LaGarde could not have left, yet that person was not in the room.”

“The Ends of Justice”: murder in a room where the door was under observation; there was an open window, but the murderer could not have escaped that way without leaving traces in the fresh snow outside.

“The Murder in Number Four”: another locked-room murder, this one in the compartment of a train. Carr saw fit to leaven this one with humour, but he’s hit and miss when it comes to comedy, and here it’s a miss.

Where I have to criticize the stories is in the detection: Carr would evolve into a master of cluing, but he wasn’t quite there yet when he wrote these. For the most part, we’re given the impossibility; Bencolin asks some questions and then tells us how it was done; and that’s it. There are some clues, but where I was able to see the solution coming, it was because I’d read other locked-room stories where the same basic idea was used, not because I was reading a full-fledged fair-play mystery.

It’s interesting that a few characters in these stories have names that Carr later re-used in novels; they’re definitely different people, though. Sir John Landervorne, a character in the Bencolin novel The Lost Gallows, appears in three of the four stories.

Bencolin had one further case published in The Haverfordian: a short novel titled “Grand Guignol”, which was later expanded into the full-length It Walks by Night. It would be interesting to compare the two versions of the story, but the shorter one is not in The Door to Doom, and I don’t know of any place where it has been reprinted. (Update: as you’ll see in the comments, it’s available online.)

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10 thoughts on “John Dickson Carr: the Bencolin short stories

    1. Thank you! I checked and it seems to be back up at the Internet Archive, at: https://archive.org/stream/haverfordianvol448have#page/202/mode/2up

      (For the benefit of anyone else reading this, the above is a link to Volume 48 of The Haverfordian in its entirety, from June 1928 to May 1929. It will take you to page 202, where “Grand Guignol” starts.)

      I look forward to reading the original version and comparing it with the better-known one… appreciate the tip!

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  1. I am, au natrel, gigantically curious to read these, since the prospect of a young Carr at the very beginning of his writing career is a fascinating one. These posthumous collections, and Greene’s biography, have thus far eluded me, but I remain hopeful and I’m grateful for this look at what I’m missing.

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    1. You can access these Bencolin stories online. Here are the links to the volumes of the Haverfordian where they appeared (thanks again to realthog for alerting me to them):

      https://archive.org/details/haverfordianvols4647have
      https://archive.org/details/haverfordianvol448have

      Be warned, these volumes are 734 and 492 pages long respectively, so you will have to do some flipping around to find the Carr stories.

      There are some other early Carr pieces in these volumes, including a curiosity called “The New Canterbury Tales,” which is the work of Carr and a bunch of other writers. People sit around telling each other stories… among them are Bencolin, Landervorne and some other characters from Carr’s work.

      An interesting note about “The Shadow of the Goat”: it has a preface, not included in the Greene volume, in which Carr refers to his readers as “the curious.” He really started early with some things!

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      1. The New Canterbury Tales are, as far as I know, the creation of Carr and only one other writer, Frederick Prokosch.

        I’d already downloaded all the Carr tales from the Haverfordian, even the historical romances. Their not great, but it’s pretty interesting to read the young Carr.

        The only story that eludes me is Harem-Scarem, which was only available as a booklet for those who ordered one of Crippen & Landru’s books as a hardcover (again as far as I know)…

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      2. Hmm… I confess I know nothing about the New Canterbury Tales beyond what I have read in the PDF’d pages of The Haverfordian. The seven stories grouped under that title are credited collectively to eight sets of initials, two of which are F.P. and J.D.C. (Might the others be of nonexistent authors, included as a sort of game? I’ve read that the Haverfordian’s staff went in for that sort of thing.)

        None of the stories is titled “Harem-Scarem”, but there is one called “The Legend of the Softest Lips” that has a harem as a plot element. Is there another version of the NCT that includes this story under the alternate title?

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      3. Ah, good stuff, thank-you! And there are so many streaks of style and approach that run right the way through Carr’s 70-some books and heaven-knows-how-many short stories that I can well believe there’s more than a sniff of this approach at the very start. Some strong precepts got him started, and doubtless stayed with him all the way through for how insistently he kept returning to the same ideas and refining, refining, always refining them.

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      4. Yes, as I remember it, those initials were invented by Carr and Prokosch – using names of friends and well-known people to students. I just checked Greene’s “The Man who Explained Miracles”, and he confirms my memory. Supposedly, the framing story and five of the tales within are by Carr alone, two are by Prokosch, and one is harder to determine and may be a collaboration.

        (“The Legend of the Neckband of the Carnellians” and “The Legend of the Hand of Ippolita” are the two that are by Prokosch alone, while “The Legend of la Bella Duquesa” is the one that is harder to determine. Greene speculates that it was plotted by Carr but written by Prokosch.)

        I didn’t mean to imply that “Harem-Scarem” is a Haverfordian story, sorry about that. It’s just the only Carr story I haven’t been able to read, or at least the only one of those that we know of. But actually you are correct too – it IS a slightly rewritten version of “The Legend of the Softest Lips”.

        Carr did that a lot. Many of his Haverfordian stories were later rewritten or had plots plundered for later stories.

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