Perhaps the most important scene in The Lost Gallows is paradoxically one in which nothing much happens plotwise: It contributes nothing to either the mystery or the solution and might as well not be there – and this is why Carr chose to write it nevertheless that makes it so crucial.
I’m referring to the discussion that takes place at the end of Chapter VII between Jeff Marle and Bencolin, after that the former caught the latter perusing a detective novel instead of trying to solve the case at hand. Marle chastises his friend for indulging into what he sees as « low-brow » reading in a time of more pressing matters. What is Bencolin hoping to learn from such nonsense? After all, truth is always stranger than fiction… This cliché prompts a heated (by the character’s standards) rejoinder from Bencolin which is basically a defence of imagination against the tyranny of realism and verisimilitude and more broadly detective fiction against its « literati » detractors.
This is no doubt Carr himself speaking through his character’s mouth, something he would do many times afterwards and on many subjects, most specifically in The Three Coffins‘ famous Locked Room Lecture. Carr’s loathing of realism was nothing new; he had expressed it in several opinion pieces in his boyhood then college years. This scene however is one of the earliest instances of his views sneaking in his fiction and in a seemingly gratuitous fashion as, once again, it serves no clear narrative purpose.
One might object that the Locked Room Lecture too doesn’t advance Coffins‘ plot in any way and is so distinct from the rest of the book that it has often been reprinted separately without harm: it’s only Carr seizing the occasion to indulge in locked room geekery and do some padding incidentally. The seasoned Carr reader, however, knows better. The Lecture’s main raison d’être is twofold. First, Carr/Fell lists all the solutions and methods used by earlier writers including himself then rejects them, adding thus to the reader’s confusion – but he is also bragging in a very subtle way, hinting that the solution to the Hollow Man mystery is completely novel and doesn’t belong in any of the categories he set forth, which turns out to be true.
The Bencolin-Marle kerfuffle on the other hand appears to be completely gratuitous – but is it really? The Lost Gallows was Carr’s third novel in less than two years, and the fact that it was published is proof that the young (very young) writer already had a solid fanbase. He also already had his detractors however, with British novelist Arnold Bennett being perhaps the most vehement. Carr’s books, they said, were overwritten, too heavy on atmosphere and – you guessed it – their plots lacked any kind of realism or verisimilitude. Another Carr skeptic, his old foe Raymond Chandler, would reiterate the same criticisms twenty years later. As seen in that context Bencolin’s tirade becomes something else: a writer’s defiant reply to his critics and even a miniature manifesto: The bugs are features folks, they are the point.
Bencolin also speaks for his creator, this time on a more personal level, when he talks about the ennui burdening him and how detective novels help him get through. Carr in later life was subject to bouts of depression and unrest borne out by his increasing inability to accept and deal with the changing times he was living in, but this suggests the seeds may have been sown much earlier and that reading and writing probably had a managing if not healing effect. It may also explain the overall darkness of the Bencolin Quartet and their utter lack of what would later be one of Carr’s trademarks: humour.
His meeting his future wife Clarice was probably the reason, or one of the reasons, why he eventually left Bencolin and his nightmarish world behind in favour of the much friendlier one populated by Gideon Fell and Henry Merrivale. Still, the Bencolin Quartet remains the most enigmatic part of his work, one that comes with many questions that probably will be left forever unresolved, the most pressing one being « Who was John Dickson Carr? ».