book review

The Corpse in the Waxworks

What if the secret society of Eyes Wide Shut were combined with the atmospheric horror of The Mystery of the Wax Museum and the whole enterprise had John Dickson Carr at the helm? The Corpse in the Waxworks (32) doesn’t quite live up to that promise, but it comes damn close.

It’s Paris, which means Monsieur Bencolin is on the job. Two women have been murdered, both stabbed in the back. One is found bloodied and bruised in the Seine, the other cradled in the arms of a wax satyr in the basement of the waxworks. Carr goes out of his way to exonerate the main suspect, a nasty piece of work named Etiane Galant. Forget the name though. If you’ve read It Walks By Night or Castle Skull, you’ve met this type of character before. He’s brilliant and cultured and harbors an intense hatred of humanity.

Bencolin points him out to the blank slate narrator, Jeff during the first chapter. The other suspects slowly come into focus as the investigation turns to the museum and the alley passage where the second murder actually took place. Right next door to the waxworks is the sex club. Its members wear masks to hide their identities while engaging in carnal liaisons. Within the connection between the waxworks and the club lies the heart of the solution.

Carr’s structure for TCitW is intriguing. For 100 pages, we receive the clues piece by piece, often finding out crucial information right at the end of a chapter. There’s a wonderful surrealism to our introduction to the basement of wax figures. Carr has a special way with darkness, using it to isolate faces and (yes) shine a spotlight on clues that we instantly disregard. Later he has a chance to present a killer pretending to be a statue…and he doesn’t do it! Okay, that was just something I really wanted to see. There were a few things I wanted to see that weren’t in the book, but I suppose that’s unfair criticism.

At the 100-page mark, Bencolin presents his theories up to that point. He lays out all the evidence while still leaving room for about ten different directions. It’s a smart idea and perhaps my favorite passage.

Then we get some action, well-handled and completely engaging. Jeff goes undercover at the sex club, getting in some hot water and making a narrow escape. Here (again) I wanted Carr to use the situation more. What a great opportunity for some mistaken identity. He does it a little, but the potential for some batshit character switches is left by the wayside.

It’s wrapped up back in the museum with a huge surprise. Is it satisfying? Yes and no. I’m trying to be careful about spoilers–although I believe most of my readers are far more well-read than I and probably know everything already. Yes, because he hid it so well. And I’m not talking about the…scarcity of the character. I mean the natural way he/she is discounted as a suspect. Bencolin does it himself through his dialogue. Nothing is out of place and the nature of the character makes the murder(s) plausible. No, because this is a bad-faith choice of killer. Remember all those times Carr puts the eventual killer through the paces of the plot, while still fooling the reader. Yeah, not so much here.

And then comes the final chapter. It’s…it’s just plain silly. Ridiculous. I don’t even want to talk about that phone call. It might be the dumbest thing I’ve read in a Carr book.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It’s exciting, well-clued, and presents a milieu not often seen in Carr’s work. I can’t help going back to that promise though. Eyes Wide Shut crossed with Mystery of the Wax Museum. Somebody needs to write that book!

4 thoughts on “The Corpse in the Waxworks”

  1. Carr uses darkness very well across the Bencolin books — I reread Castle Skull recently and had forgotten how great his use of shadow is during a key chapter of revelation and obfuscation. I know what you mean about this one being a bit crazy and, weirdly, a little disappointing into the bargain, but I’ve often thought of it as his last hurrah before he settled down to write more “considered” fare. Even the return of Bencolin in The Four False Weapons is very, very different tonally to these opening four, so I wonder if this was just a last roll of the Crazy Dice to see how baroque and odd he could make something while also making it a legitimate novel of detection.

    It also has possibly my favourite opening line in Carr’s pantheon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I still get a kick out of the clue dangled in the reader’s face. Yeah, no one would ever probably notice it in real life, but it isn’t like that super obscure clue in The White Priory Murders that necessitates a page number.

    I kind of liked the second half of this book – it had a lot going on to keep your attention. Not quite what I’m looking for in Carr, but enjoyable nonetheless.

    If you haven’t read The Four False Weapons yet, you’re in for a treat. It’s got a different vibe from the rest of the Bencolin books, but it’s hands down the best.

    Liked by 2 people

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