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The Corpse in the Waxworks

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 6 months ago

Carr, John Dickson - The Corpse in the Waxworks / The Waxworks Murder (1932)


Review by Nick Fuller


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. Apart from the families themselves, 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 les 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…

The Corpse in the Waxworks is an early John Dickson Carr novel, one of the small set of highly Gothic tales set in France with "Satanic" series detective Henri Bencolin, whom Carr was to abandon after this tale (with the exception of one 1937 novel, The Four False Weapons, where Bencolin unfortunately is much toned down as a menacing, Mephistophelian character). It's an effective tale, and it offers a nice break in style from many of the Fell and Merrivale stories.


Waxworks quotes Edgar Allen Poe, and for good reason. The book is filled with gloom and grotesques and the writing is highly florid, with long descriptive paragraphs. Though not on the whole so much to my taste as his later, rather more stripped-down (though often still evocative) style, I think it is quite well done in Waxworks. The mystery, involving a girl stabbed to death and left in the arms of a wax satyr in a museum's Hall of Horrors, is a good one and fairly clued, although without all the long descriptive passages and a lengthy dramatic episode involving the dubious infiltration of a sinister sex club, the Club of Masks, by Jeff Marle, Bencolin's young "Watson," the book would actually be pretty short. Overall, I'm reminded with Waxworks of Carr's later historical mysteries from the 1950s and 1960s, though Waxworks is much more Gothic. Systematic criminal investigation seems to take something of a back seat to colorful, exciting episodes.


For me the very best part of Waxworks is the conclusion, highly dramatic confrontation between Bencolin and the murderer. I cannot say much, but I'll just point out that Bencolin stays true to the rather the formidable, merciless self Carr fashioned for him in these early tales. You'll remember this ending.


Curt Evans.

Comments (1)

Jon said

at 8:55 pm on Apr 2, 2010

I enjoyed CITW, but I still feel that he hadn't quite found his voice yet. The problem that I had with the book is the feeling that there was simply too much melodrama. In his later books, the Gothic flourishes are set against such everyday backgrounds as the New Forest, or contemporary London. The weirdness is cast into sharp relief by the everyday qualities of the background. Also, the reassuring, comical qualities of the detectives allow him to pull back at times and reduce the tension. There's no such relief with the determinedly devilish Bencolin. After a while this simply becomes annoying.

Still, generally a good book, like you said.

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