It Walks By Night

Written by John Dickson Carr

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

It Walks By Night
British Library Publishing
RRP: £8.99
Released: September 10 2019

It Walks By Night was John Dickson Carr’s first novel, and in many ways laid out his skills and ways of working for the next twenty-five years. It is a locked room mystery, involving a ghastly murder, body parts and a missing murder weapon; investigators sure of what they saw and yet realising that what they saw was impossible, and all told in an over-written grand-guignol style that some people enjoy while others find infuriating.

Rather oddly, given the style, and the language of high morality and invocations of absolute evil and devilry, Carr was very much a down to earth figure. So much so, that he prepared models of most of his murder scenes, so that he could test the sight-lines, blind-spots and angles of refraction on which the revelation of his plots depended. Whether he did this early in his career (he was 24 when It Walks By Night was first published in 1930) I am not certain, but with its map of the gambling house in which the murder takes place, and its carefully numbered and identified points where the detectives were standing, it is little different from what he would do as his career took off.

You may have seen battered green paperback copies published by Allen Lane in 1938, and by 1940, Penguin had printed it a further four times. A murderous lunatic has escaped from a private asylum, while in the build-up to this year’s French Open tennis-tournament the favourite is injured and unable to compete. They are all in the gambling house tonight, where Carr’s first detective, the French investigating magistrate Henri Bencolin, has placed his men.

Carr tends to copy the ‘posh’ atmosphere of Wodehouse and the madcap humour of such books, which combines with the ‘squiffy’ attitude of The Thin Man worlds (the assumption seems to have been that anyone with money in Society was permanently half-drunk). Carr picks up something else – shades of Dorothy L Sayers’ Dian de Momerie – characters who are permanently in a cocaine induced haze; possibly victims of drug pushers and villains intent on depriving the wealthy of their trust funds. It is a social milieu that has not appealed to many critics, who dislike both those sorts of characters, and Carr’s use of it. In another case of changing times, though, something stands out to readers in the second decade of the twentieth-first century: the role of drugs, specifically iatrogenic drug addiction. The talk today – especially in the USA – is of opioid addiction caused by doctors’ over prescription, and in fact that is part of the plot to It Walks By Night: the wounded tennis player is medicating with over-the-top levels of pain-killing cocaine.

The denouement is rushed, though the solution to the locked room puzzle (which involves time, and a view from a distance) is fair played. This is one of the first golden age locked room mysteries to have been published in the British Library series, but it is difficult to know how easy readers new to the genre will find it. I was lucky, my introduction was the school library’s copy of A Doctor Fell Omnibus, which contained The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death-Watch, The Black Spectacles, and The Seat of the Scornful: the first three of them Carr’s best. Let us hope that those soon see print again, too.

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