Review: THE CORPSE IN THE WAXWORKS by John Dickson Carr

Without the Crimes of the Century meme to prompt me, my reading of classic crime is almost non existent. Which is why I treated myself to a Vintage Mystery Box subscription late last year (check out Kate’s Etsy Store for a subscription of your own). Among other treats my box contained a book by a prolific author that I’ve somehow developed a fairly dismissive attitude towards despite never having read any of his work (a not uncommon behaviour for me when it comes to classic crime I’m afraid to admit). I’ve no idea if THE CORPSE IN THE WAXWORKS is indicative of the author’s 70 or so books (written under several names) but it wasn’t nearly as awful as I might have imagined.

It is set in Paris, presumably contemporaneously with its 1932 publication date. The story’s hero is Henri Bencolin, a much-feared judge d’istruction, though its narrator is the far less assuming Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s colleague of indeterminate purpose. This is the fourth book which features the pair so whatever ‘origin story’ might have been provided for them is not to be found here and all I gleaned was that they share a mutual respect.

As the book’s title indicates the body of a young society woman is discovered in a museum of waxworks figures. Indeed she is in the arms of one of the exhibits and on first appearance is thought to be part of the exhibition. The body of another young woman, a known acquaintance of the first, is found in the nearby river. Suspicion initially falls on the waxworks’ owner and his adult daughter but the suspect pool widens when a connection to a nearby night club is uncovered. Things seem to become especially sinister when Bencolin’s nemesis, Etienne Galant, proves to be involved with the club.

As an example of impossible crime style of puzzling mystery the story is a good one and, importantly for this genre, the author does play fair with the reader. The complexities of the various red herrings and false solutions are all believable and easy enough to follow. Much use is made of the rather gothic setting of both the waxworks and the neighbouring club, which is of the adult variety providing secluded rooms for the use of society’s mask-wearing wealthier members.

The characters too are well drawn, especially for this kind of book which can sometimes neglect character development in favour of more puzzlement. I found myself less interested in the somewhat inevitable dueling geniuses Bencolin and Galant and more intrigued by the minor characters including the young woman who is a friend (of sorts) to the two dead girls and the father and daughter pairing who run the waxworks. Marie Augustin, the proprietor’s daughter, is a particularly large-than-life character and has a lot more agency than many women of similar-era books (who have a tendency to be dead or harlots) (or both). The families of the dead girls too offer some interesting insights into the society being depicted.

The book is not without some of the elements that prevent me reading more classic crime including the overwritten style. By modern standards it is a short book but if you took out all the long, flowery passages describing not much at all it would almost be a short story. And the scene in which the story’s narrator inveigled his way into the club for a spot of eavesdropping on key suspects is preposterous from several angles. But I found these easy enough to forgive in the context of an otherwise enjoyable romp.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher This edition Dell Publishing, original pub date 1932
ISBN N/A
Length 224 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #4 in the Henri Bencolin series
Source of review copy Bought, secondhand

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12 Responses to Review: THE CORPSE IN THE WAXWORKS by John Dickson Carr

  1. realthog says:

    The Bencolin novels aren’t rated very highly among Carr aficionados — largely I think, because of that flowery writing you mention: they’re a bit Gothique. Me, on the other hand, I love ’em, and if anything the flowery writing adds to the love!

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    • I don’t know that I’d want to read one every day but I did enjoy it and even the flowery writing that I’m not a huge fan of suited the setting. I am curious enough to track down some of his later works in the other series to see what I think

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, Bernadette. Carr really was a master of the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ sort of crime, and I respect him for that. I’m glad you noticed the character development, too. In my opinion (which is by no means universal), Carr did characters better than one might think. And a wax museum – what a deliciously eerie place to have a murder. I really like the setting on that score.

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  3. Glad I haven’t put you off Carr all together! (JJ would never forgive me lol). Carr’s work is quite variable in quality and style as he once he starts approaching the 1940s he wrote a number of suspense filled but non-gothic styled mysteries such as The Emperor’s Snuffbox and The Case of the Constant Suicides (two of my personal faves). They might be a good place to start, though I imagine others will have their own recommendations.

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  4. The four initial Henri Bencolin mysteries (of which this is the last), plus Carr’s following novel, Poison in Jest, have a somewhat different vibe from the rest of his work. Some thoughts on how this compares to a normal John Dickson Carr novel:
    -Carr always had a bit more flowery writing than most, but this element is more prominent in the earlier books.
    -The Corpse in the Waxworks is incredibly light on any impossible element, to the point that most Carr fans wouldn’t even consider it to be an impossible crime.
    -As famous as Carr is for his impossible crimes, he perhaps excels even more in having a well hidden killer. You definitely experienced an example of that with this one.
    -The notion of a young man view-point character and a romantic interest is present in all of his novels.

    Others have provided you the excellent recommendation of The Emperor’s Snuff Box. If you enjoy that and want to try some other books that are representative of Carr’s wider work, try The Problem of the Green Capsule and Hag’s Nook.

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    • Thanks so much for the comments and recommendations of good choices from his long list for me to look for.

      I am definitely not an expert on impossible crime mysteries…my only thoughts on this one fitting the description was the reliance upon timings of the comings and goings at the two buildings…but the identity of the killer was exceedingly well hidden…sometimes I don’t like that but here I did think it played fair and the motive was realistic too…sad but realistic.

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  5. Keishon says:

    I see people talk about Carr so much that I’m willing to give one of his books a look in future to see what the fuss is about. I’ll start with the titles provided in the comments.

    I’m not a fan of Spillane either.

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