It Walks by Night (John Dickson Carr)

By John Dickson Carr

First published: UK & USA, Harpers, 1930


Carr - It Walks by Night.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

When the police burst in they found the mangled body lying on the floor, while staring at them from the centre of the empty room was the severed head of the Duc de Saligny.  The crime had occurred in an anteroom of a smart Paris gambling-house.  Both doors of the room were watched by the police.  The window was absolutely inaccessible and had not been entered, and there were no secret passages by which an entrance could be made through the walls.  Yet within the space of ten minutes the criminal had entered the room, had committed the murder, and had escaped, without leaving a clue and without having been seen by anyone.

So begins a mystery story as weird and terrifying as any ever contrived by Poe.  All the wiles of Bencolin, most satanic and most lovable of modern crime detectors, were called upon to solve the mystery of de Saligny’s death – the first of the inexplicable murders.  Carr has a style and literary skill equaled by few modern mystery-writers and this novel takes rank with the best for eeriness and ingenuity.

My review


“I do not know whether it was a good play; calmly considered, no doubt, the thing was clap-trap in the extreme. The characters spoke in a dialogue like nothing in heaven or earth, but behind it was an imperially purple imagination, ‘tiger’s blood and honey’ of Barley D’Aurevilly, and a kind of grotesque smiling detachment, like a gargoyle on a tower.”

With this book, the world’s greatest writer of detective stories began his career. Carr later came to hate this book; and not without reason, for it is severely flawed in every department: plotting, writing and believability.

The plot is bizarre and complex. Louise, formerly married to the criminal lunatic Alexandre Laurent, has become engaged to the Duc de Saligny, a popular sportsman and athlete. Laurent escapes, travels to Vienna, has his face changed (to a highly improbable degree that wouldn’t bear scrutiny for an instant), and kills the plastic surgeon, leaving his head in a jar. On the wedding night, the Duc is found beheaded in a locked and watched room, a theatrical crime with “the ghastly unreality of wax-works, all the more terrifying for not being human,” like so many of the characters and events in the story. This crime is investigated by Henri Bencolin, who believes himself to be the Devil; one of Carr’s most improbable characters, he does not become flesh and blood until the 1937 novel The Four False Weapons. Unusually for Carr, his detection displays a greater knowledge of forensics than usual, recalling the novels of Anthony Abbot. Carr plays fair with the clues, but many are either obvious (e.g. SPOILER Vautrelle’s calling attention to his alibi, de Saligny’s English) or dubious (the reason for de Saligny’s kneeling position).

Although the solution is ingenious, it is also as silly as in a certain Agatha Christie novel; and the amount of double-dealing and treachery is preposterous, as every character is up to no good (probably due to all the drugs). The rest of the story can be summed up by a reversal of Carr’s belief that “the ridiculous is not very removed from black fear,” for too much black fear simply makes the book look ridiculous. Everything is painted in lurid hues, and the heavy atmosphere, which dissipates after Chapter 7, seems rather false. The general effect is the feeling that “the thing is almost too consistently unnatural to be the work of a madman”; Carr has not yet learnt that understatement is more effective a tool than “cracking the whip and goading the adjective.”

Contemporary reviews


Spectator (5th April 1930):

This book is certainly, to quote its opening words, “not least foul among these night-monsters”.  The hero and heroine, in the inverted fashion of this class of fiction, are a maniac and a drug addict, and the junior lead is played by a mild case of megalomania.  The detective observes the canon of omniscience and, inconsistently enough, fails to prevent two murders after the first one.  In point of fact the first one is not discovered at all until the perpetrator of the second has been brought to justice.  It is all, in fact, very misleading and delightful.  Mr. Carr writes with a proper sense of a detective raconteur’s slight thick-headedness.  The story may be read either as itself or as a burlesque of itself.  In both it is above the average.


Times Literary Supplement (24th April 1930):

Those who buy a book called It Walks by Night in a blood-coloured cover with a black claw-like hand on it must expect it to be—as it is—extravagant in speech, action and emotion.  The subject is a sequence of Grand Guignol murders in Paris, and the charge that may with reason be brought against the author is that in the telling he gives too much space to minor complications, with the result that the attention of his readers is dissipated.  On the other hand, in suggesting to them that the person who committed the murders had a trick for entering rooms unseen, and in devising as convincing a false alibi as is to be found in the literature of detection, he uses legitimate means and those the simplest.  It is further to the credit of his craftsmanship that to hesitate over the suggestion is to challenge the alibi.  Readers, thus fairly baffled, have, however, a second line of defence.  For physical and technical reasons the person on whom the crimes are eventually fastened could not possibly have committed the central murder in the way described.  We are asked to believe that the victim had his head cut clean off with a sword—and that with a stroke made from a cramped “stance”!  It would take a specialist headsman to do that.  Did not kind Henry VIII. send to France for the headsman for Anne Boleyn?


New Statesman (10th May 1930):

The writing of detective stories is one form of sport in which England still easily beats America.  Mr. Hamilton’s plain, well-told murder story [To Be Hanged] makes Mr. Carr’s sham romance and Mr. Bishop’s sham criminology [Death in the Dark] seem laborious and mechanical.  Mr. Hamilton deals in human beings, simple but quite sufficiently differentiated—Mr. Carr and Mr. Bishop have little but ingenuity.  To those who like a thriller, Mr. Hamilton’s book, with its real people, will be a pleasure; those who enjoy the simple type of cross-word puzzle will enjoy Mr. Bishop’s and Mr. Carr’s problems.


Sat R of Lit (22nd February 1930, 180w):

Mr. Carr’s story is highly melodramatic and wildly improbable, but it moves easily within the field of its own assumptions and holds the nerves, if not the commonsense, of the reader pliant to its mood and happenings.


NY Times (23rd February 1930, 160w):

The story is beautifully told and offers one surprise after another before it reaches its dramatic dénouement.


Sat R (17th May 1930, 140w):

This murder and mystery novel has one distinction: it contains one of the most horrible murders in fiction.


St. John Irvine, Daily Express:

Dazzlingly thrilling.


Ralph Straus:

An exceptionally ingenious yarn.


Daily Telegraph:

Here, emphatically, is a fine detective story.  It would not be surprising if this Poe-like tale becomes a classic of crime.


Morning Post:

Excellently told and ingeniously worked out.


Daily News:

The best thing of its kind for years – really horrible.