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. Henri 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.
JOHN DICKSON CARR. The Lost Gallows (1931).