It Walks by Night (1930) by John Dickson Carr
Alexandre Laurent, a man who once tried to kill his ex-wife, has escaped from the asylum for the criminally insane where he was sent after the incident. Louise Laurent is engaged to marry Raoul Jourdain, a handsome successful sportsman. Laurent vows to kill Jourdain because he can't bear the thought of Louise married to another. M. Henri Bencolin, detective, is just as determined to prevent the murder. Following the wedding, the bride and groom go to Fenelli's, a place to see and be seen, a place to dance and drink and gamble, if one chooses. Bencolin and his young American friend, Jeff Marle, as well as Dr. Hugo Grafenstein, a psychoanalyst, also go to the club and install themselves in an alcove directly opposite the card room.
At 11:30 pm, Louise Jourdain is sitting with the trio when they see Raoul enter the card room. Bencolin neve takes his eyes off the door. Stationed outside the only other entrance to the room is one of Bencolin's officers. No one enters until a waiter goes to the card room with drinks. The startled man stumbles out immediately and Bencolin realizes at once that something dreadful has happened. When the three men enter the room, they find Jourdain's body in front of the divan and his head staring at them from the middle of the floor. The only window in the room is open, but the sill is dust-covered and shows that no one went in or out--and even if that were not true, the window is forty feet from the ground and the wall is sheer. How could Jourdain have been killed when no one else went in or out? That is the question that Bencolin must answer.
Oh my. What melodrama. At one point, Carr brings up Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly, a French author of mysterious works from (as Carr implies) "an imperially purple imagination" with "a kind of grotesque smiling detachment." He's comparing the work of Barbey to a play written by one of the characters, but he could have been talking about his own book. Carr's first novel and the first in the Bencolin series has it all. Wild melodrama. Gothic overtones. The implication that there is something evil walking by night. An impossible crime. Horrible death scenes. Indebtedness to Poe for one of the reveals. It also has long drawn-out narrative. When Jeff is on his own with any other character (besides Bencolin), the scene seems to go on for-ev-er.
The only other Bencolin book I've reviewed here on the blog is The Lost Gallows. I was much more impressed with that one and didn't seem bothered by the more atmospheric tones. Maybe thirteen years makes a difference. Or maybe I just wasn't in the mood for that sort of thing right now. Either way, I didn't warm to Bencolin in this book and I can't say that I was terribly impressed by our narrator either. The plot itself was fairly good and I have to say I completely missed the solution. So, I guess Carr did his job in mystifying me. I may have to revisit this one at another time. ★★★
First line: "...and not least foul among these night-monsters (which may be found even in our pleasant land of France) is a certain shape of evil hue which by day may not be recognized, inasmuch as it may be a man of favoured looks, or a fair and smiling woman; but by night becomes a misshapen beast with blood-bedabbled claws."
Last line: She had kept her appointments with three men; she would have murdered them all.
Deaths = 4 (two beheaded; one stabbed; one hit on head)