The Gothic Executioner in Golden Age Mysteries
Keywords:golden age crime fiction, the gothic, execution, John Dickson Carr, Eric Harding
A subset of Golden Age crime writing was focused on a fear of the ghostly figure of the executioner; in narratives including Paul Lancaster’s The Executioner’s Axe (1928), John Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders (1934), and Eric Harding’s Behold! The Executioner! (1939), the crime is committed by a perpetrator who poses as the ghost of an executioner from a previous era. While each story of haunting is ultimately fully explained away, these narratives are also embedded in objects and landscapes that have powerful psychological and historic symbolism. Both Carr’s and Harding’s crime novels are successful as horror narratives, with a genuinely fearful atmosphere created before the conventional revelation that these serial murders were not in fact wrought by supernatural means. Ultimately, these interwar novels express, in different ways, a distaste for the practice of capital punishment, as well as highlighting the way that sensational, psychological force for these crime narratives is generated by the aura of violence surrounding the death penalty. These neglected narratives are precursors of Agatha Christie’s more famous later novel And Then There Were None (1939).