John Dickson Carr was in his mid-twenties when he published The Waxworks Murder,in 1932, yet he had already established himself as a detective novelist of considerable distinction. And this is one of the striking features of the Golden Age - so many of the leading lights began their careers when they were young, and wrote books with youthful energy and verve. And there is plenty of verve in this story, which is set in Paris.
The narrator is Jeff Marle, who acts as "Watson" to Carr's first series sleuth, Henri Bencolin, rather than Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale. Bencolin is a distinctive character, with a faintly sinister side perhaps, but certainly a Great Detective. Another strong character is his polar opposite and long-time adversary, a deeply unpleasant chap ironically named Galant. By contrast, Jeff is - as is the way with so many Watsons other than the original of the species - not especially memorable.
The deaths of two young women are at the heart of this mystery, but I felt that the strength of the book lay not so much in the careful way in which Carr works out his plot, but rather the splendid atmospherics, and the excellence of the finale. The reason why Carr's mysteries have retained their popularity is that he wasn't content just to come up with a convoluted plot. Here,the macabre ambience of the waxworks that is the scene of the crime, and the dangerous Club of the Silver Key, is very nicely done. The evocative writing helps to retain reader interest through what I felt was a rather stodgy part of the plot in the middle of the story.
I didn't find myself caring too much about either of the victims, to be honest, and this was a weakness. The story doesn't involve an "impossible crime", but in other respects it's a good example of Carr;s writing. I don't think it's one of his masterpieces, but rather a story that is worth reading for the setting, the solution, and the compelling contrast between a good detective and a very nasty piece of work.
Thanks for this Martin - I adore Carr but it has been decades since I read this - I think I preferred CASTLE SKULL or LOST GALLOWS but need to re-read all these early ones frankly.
Thanks, Sergio. My reading of early Carr has been patchy, so I'm trying to fill a few gaps when time permits.
I read three of the five Bencolins a few years ago, and I think this is the best. Though the story drags in places, the atmosphere is excellent throughout, and as you saw, the ending is a corker.
It's a great little book. Not just a mystery - it has a real air of menace. I need to read more of his Bencolin mysteries.
Love the early Carrs for their atmosphere, though it's lovely when his plots start matching his scene-setting around the time of The Plague Court Murders. Agree with Graham that this is probably the best of the early Bencolins (Four False Weapons, coming later, bettering this again), will have to dig out my copy and give it another look. Thanks, Martin!
JJ, I didn't actually like Four False Weapons much, and I absolutely loathed The Plague Court Murders, so I'm very glad we can agree about this book!
Glad to see you reviewing this - I've just read Ethel Lina White's Wax, and thought to myself I must read the Carr to follow up on the setting....
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