1. Henri & Jules
What about Seabury Quinn, though? It’s hard for me to believe Carr didn’t have Jules de Grandin in mind when he created Bencolin as the latter often looks like a darker twist on Quinn’s character, not to mention the similarities between the universes they inhabit. Bencolin strikes me as some sort of a crossover character, with many features of the « weird detective » tradition but operating within a naturalistic framework.
2. A Whiff of GKC
While Chesterton is often cited as a major influence on Carr – an influence that Carr himself acknowledged to the point of fashioning one of his series detectives after him – it only progressively found its way through his writing. Carr’s early work up to Hag’s Nook reads like a hodgepodge – a superior hodgepodge – whose essential components are Poe, Stevenson and the pulps with some HIBK thrown in, probably unconsciously in the latter case. The only Chestertonian feature found in Carr’s writing at this stage of his career is the rejection of naturalism, which in Carr’s case takes a decidedly darker turn. The Bencolin stories also deviate from Chesterton on philosophical grounds. Theirs is a godless and humourless universe in which justice is served in a cold, merciless way – Bencolin is often described, and behaves, in a devil-like way – and conventional human feelings barely do exist. The Bencolin Quartet often comes as a big surprise to readers coming to it after being acquainted with later and (comparatively) tamer Carr. It is very difficult to believe the same man wrote, say, The Lost Gallows and The Case of the Constant Suicides.
Chesterton’s influence began to creep in in that often neglected and yet crucial book that is Poison in Jest. As Douglas G. Greene noted, the book was probably intended to bring Bencolin to America – Jeff Marle, his « watson », is the narrator of the story – but somehow Carr changed his mind and decided to replace him with an entirely different character, a bubbling and apparently foolish fellow named Pat Rossiter. Other than being much more human and likeable than his predecessor, Rossiter also fulfills a different narrative role, that of restoring order and casting away evil* – an eminently Chestertonian mission for an eminently Chestertonian character. It’s unknown why Carr never summoned Rossiter again and I for one regret it, but the charming gadfly opened and paved the way for Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, two paradoxical (and thus Chestertonian) characters hiding sharp brains under their deceptively bumbling appearances.
3. About Plague Court
This is in many ways the real final entry in the Bencolin series – the last of Carr’s « dark » novels and it seems a cathartic experience for him as it summons every of his literary influences and past mannerisms and take them to the max. The plot, while boasting one of Carr’s adroitest misdirections, is also one of his wildest, and the atmosphere is one of permanent tension and fear (poor Ken Blake’s nerves suffer a lot throughout the book) Also the murders are quite graphic for the time, and the murderer one of the nastiest pieces of work even encountered in the Carr canon. The only – mild – comic relief comes from H.M. though he is not yet the slapstick figure he’d become later; there is no love story to lighten up the mood.
Yet the book is – predictably – not without some flaws. Ken Blake narrates the story but witnesses very few of it; he is told about the events and he in turns tells us what he’s been told. This strange and gratuitous narrative structure damages the book’s readability despite Carr’s storytelling skills being as sharp as ever. The atmosphere is sometimes a little overdone, with some descriptions reaching Lovecraft-levels of hysterical terror. These are minor qualms however and are easily forgiven considering the many other things it has to offer and also the fact that its author was only 28 and with seven books (in four years) under his best when he wrote it. Carr at this stage of his career matured extremely fast as a writer if not as a man, and some of his best work was yet to come.