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.)