The Corpse in the Waxworks (John Dickson Carr)

  • By John Dickson Carr
  • First published: UK: Hamish Hamilton, 18 March 1932, as The Waxworks Murder; US: Harpers, 23 March 1932

Rating: 5 out of 5.


Carr’s first masterpiece. Two girls are brutally stabbed to death in a waxworks connected to a sinister night-club. This setting is used by Carr to reveal the hypocrisy at the heart of Parisian society: waxworks represent frozen life, in which both the waxworks and the lives of the Parisian nobility are controlled by centuries of tradition; the victims are young women from the aristocracy who wish to be themselves rather than to be kept children forever (as Odette Duchêne’s mother wishes her to be) or dolls in a museum as stilted and as stratified as the waxworks (as Claudine Martel’s father wishes her to be). The only way to achieve these dreams of freedom, and to avoid destruction by the outraged morality of society, is through the Club of Coloured Masks, which is yet “a world of illusion”. While the waxworks achieves its illusions through stability and permanence, an echo of noble Paris, the immortality of the waxworks is transient and fleeting.

As place is memorable, so is characterisation. The grief of the families of the victims is genuine and touching, and the whole imparts a feeling of genuine mood. The most interesting character in the book is Etienne Galant, Henri Bencolin’s nemesis, who, like Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty (although the white cat recalls James Bond’s Blofeld), is “a man of extreme brilliance, who has read books until his brain bursts with the weight of them; he is brooding, introspective, vicious of temper; he begins to look out upon what he considers a crooked world, wherein all moral values are hypocrisies.” As the Club is juxtaposed with the waxworks, so this “idealist unhinged, a sensitive man and brilliant man beating at a cage in his own brain” is used by Carr to reveal Henri Bencolin’s own character. In a memorable soliloquy, Bencolin reveals his inner personality, and why he has become the Mephistopheles of Paris (although he is less flamboyant in this book than in others):

‘I grow old, Jeff,’ Bencolin observed, suddenly. ‘Not very many years ago I would have permitted myself a secret smile at that woman… And I would be saved from hating all human beings, as Galant does, only because I could laugh at them. That has always been the essential difference between us… He saw a world mismanaged, and loathed it; he thought, by striking into poor squashy faces, that he was battering down a little of an iron world. And what about me, Jeff? I continued to chuckle, like a broken street-organ, and I turned the crank, like the blind man, and I threw my thin little dissonances against the passion and pity and heart-break that jostled me in the street… Yes. So I laughed, because I feared people, feared their opinions or their scorn… So, because they might take me for less than I was, I tried to be more than I am; like many others. Only my brain was strong, and, damn me! I forced myself to become more than I am. There walked Henri Bencolin — feared, respected, admired (oh yes!) — and behind him now begins to appear a brittle ghost, wondering about it… Wondering … why they ever took as a wise man that fiendish idiot who said, ‘Know thyself.’ To examine one’s own mind and heart, and explore them fully, is a poisonous doctrine; it drives men crazy. The man who thinks too much about himself is padding his own cell. For the brain is a greater liar than any man; it lies to its own possessor. Introspection is the origin of fear, and fear builds these walls of hate or mirth, and makes me dreaded; and I am paid back, many times over, by dreading myself…’

Although at first sight, Bencolin’s detection is based on police procedure (he is a juge d’instruction of the Sûreté with access to the resources of the police force that both Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale lack), it becomes clear that he shares the use of logic with those characters, and in his use of the amateur, sending Jeff Marle to infiltrate the Club towards the end of the book—Marle’s original joy at experiencing “the strong drink which is adventure, and the bright eyes of danger” soon turns to fear when he is nearly killed by Galant’s apaches during a chase which would be reused in Below Suspicion (1949), although the romance is present, mainly in the sexual byplay between the character and Marie Augustin, one of Carr’s characters who seek to escape into the world of the Arabian Nights — much subtler than in later books, and very well-done.

After a particularly horrible third murder in the waxworks, stabbed to death with the knife used to murder Marat in the exhibition, Henri Bencolin solves the case with one of Carr’s most surprising solutions — surprising both psychologically and in terms of the detective story, as genuinely tragic and disturbing an outcome as that of The Burning Court (1937) or She Died a Lady (1943). The motive is unique— “a very extraordinary sort of vengeance… I don’t know whether any of you could understand, or even whether I understand”, comments Bencolin, who remarks that “you would have to go back to the history of Rome to find a parallel motive… It’s morbid and mad and damnable.” The murderer, who “deliberately gave Bencolin clues … and an even chance to guess”, leading the detective to call him “the most sportsman-like killer I have ever met”, plays as fair with his clues as Carr does, the clue of the watch in particular being a delight.

Although the story is slightly over-written (e.g., in order to further the cause of atmosphere, Carr describes a cat as having “a kind of inhuman squeal and snarl”), the book is gripping and spell-binding, as Carr, like Bencolin, has “more than any person I know, in his choice of words the power to suggest. A few phrases clang in the mind like bells, and then go reverberating with multitudinous echoes through every corner of that brain, so that spectres are roused.” Spectres of women in brown hats, walking through waxworks, while a murder is committed… Spectres of men in white masks chasing another through the luxurious sensuality of a Club… And spectres of nightmare that linger on in the mind long after the book itself is finished…

Blurb (UK)

Bencolin, the French detective, was not been looking for murder when he entered the ancient museum of waxworks of M. Augustin.  But in the eerie green light of that sepulchral place he discovered the body of a young girl placed in the arms of the sinister figure of the Satyr of the Seine – stabbed in the back.  That same morning the body of a young girl had been found floating in the Seine – stabbed in the back.  Her lover had come to Bencolin for help, and the first clue had led directly to the waxworks.  M. Augustin and his daughter, when questioned, professed to know nothing; yet there was a frightened look in their eyes.

Bencolin follows many trails, and incidentally overlooks three clues, deliberately given him by the murderer.  It is not until these clues have been discovered that the famous French detective finds the murderer.  The final moment is dramatic and exciting.

The author of It Walks by Night has written another surprise mystery, one that will satisfy the most exacting of readers and leave him baffled until the very end.

Blurb (US)

For the first time in his successful career, Bencolin, that peer of French detectives, was baffled.  He had not been looking for murder when he found the body of the young girl, stabbed in the back, lying grotesquely in the wax arms of the Satyr of the Seine.  And yet in the eerie green light and sepulchral gloom of M. Augustin’s famous wax musée one might find anything.

The first clue led directly to the infamous Club of the Silver Key where carefully masked members met to take part in nights of horrible debauch.  What connection could there be between a musty gallery of wax figures and this orgiastic club?  The murderer deliberately left three clues, but not until the end of this exciting tale does Bencolin trap his man in a scene that is as unexpected and dramatic as anything Mr. Carr has ever written.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (28th April 1932): That the dead body of a woman should be discovered in the arms of a wax satyr in a Paris waxworks is an unusual feature of a story somewhat outside the bounds of reasonable possibility.  Detective Bencolin, who sets out to find the murderer, is quite wrong on several counts and, incidentally, overlooks three of the clues presented to him by the murderer.  In the end it is found that the crime was committed by a man who had no real inclination to murder, but who was drawn to it through the follies of a daughter whose name and honour he felt bound to shield from scandal.  The waxworks is a gloomy affair, filled with the figures of crime and insanity.  But it sees two murders; and, if the solution involves the use of a time-honoured expedient, this does not detract from a thrilling tale.

Spectator (18th June 1932): Neither The Waxworks Murder nor The Body in the Car [A. Hodges] avoids the Scylla of improbability nor the Charybdis of sensation.  They provide, we fear, dull fare.

Books (Will Cuppy, 3rd April 1932, 80w): With greenish lights and abundant paraphernalia of horror in every direction.

Boston Transcript (9th April 1932, 250w): The conclusion is startling and unexpected, yet plausible.  The plot as a whole is a long series of cleverly connected and thrilling episodes deftly handled, and it will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most entertaining and satisfying tales that readers of detective fiction will find in some time.

The Times: A thrilling tale.

News Chronicle: Mr. Carr is a master of the ghoulish and sinister school of fiction.