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
Length 224 pages
Book Series #4 in the Henri Bencolin series
Source of review copy Bought, secondhand