JOHN DICKSON CARR. The Lost Gallows (1931).

26 Jul

A limousine careens through London’s West End with a dead man at its wheel. Taunting “gifts”—noose-like pieces of rope, a grisly children’s toy—appear out of nowhere in the middle of a closely watched but otherwise empty room. The shadow of a gallows looms suddenly on a wall in a byway (“Ruination Street”) that exists on no city map. LostGallows.jpgHenri Bencolin, late of the French Sûreté, crosses the Channel to reckon with those impossibilities amid London’s pea-soup fog and amid thick clouds of Grand Guignol atmosphere. There’s an Egyptian curse, as well as an Egyptian victim, the aristocratic and elusive Nezam El-Moulk. There’s an imposing locus of mystery, the ghoulishly evoked Brimstone Club, and a comically unimposing dwarf who haunts the place. And there’s “Jack Ketch,” a crafty killer who takes his name from the alias traditionally assumed by the hangmen of England. Carr overdoes it plotting and on atmospherics, even as he leaves the story itself somewhat underdone. He packs a slew of complications and climaxes into 157 pages (the length of Berkley paperback edition that I read, pictured at left), but offers readers no chance to catch a breath or to enjoy the show. A tendency to mistake antic confusion for dramatic mystification was a besetting flaw of Carr’s, and it marks this engaging but too-clever-by-half early work.


Posted by on July 26, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


2 responses to “JOHN DICKSON CARR. The Lost Gallows (1931).

  1. Giuseppe Lippi

    December 29, 2012 at 3:06 AM

    I just finished reading an Italian translation of this, published for the first time in 1957 and reprinted in 1972 by Mondadori, in its quite popular “Giallo” series. I liked it mostly because of its fast pace and gothic atmosphere, as if we were reading a modern-day Sherlock Holmes adventure. Its trappings are equally implausible but affectionately rendered, so that one can enjoy the whole and discard the minutiae quite easily. The narrator, an American named Marle, is a very acrive dr. Watson, while the detective is the Satan-looking Bencolin of the Parisian police. The other great character in the story is the Brimstone Club, a quaint and rambling building rich in squalor (like most places that knew better times) and all the deviousness you need in a good mystery. The Brimstone incidentally remembered me of the Bramford, the gothic pile where “Rosemary’s Baby” was set. Only difference, the Bramford is in New York while the Brimstone graces a London corner near St. James’ Street, but the Devil has something to say in both. Also fascinating was the El Moulk character, an Egyptian dabbling in ancient lore, with a bend for curses & secret cults. I didn’t particularly care for the solving of the mystery – which, by the way, concerned a cruel revenge scheme and a race against time to discover the identity of a murderer who called himself Jack Ketch, like the infamous London hangman – but quite enjoyed the first murder in a lonely car, who seemed driven by a dead man. The Fantômas atmosphere of this and the adventures that followed did all they could to amuse me… in a way.

  2. Mike

    December 30, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Guiseppe. Yet it’s less a “comment” than a full-fledged review! I agree that the atmosphere is this one is particularly well done.


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