Death Out of Nowhere by Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier, translated by John Pugmire

Originally Published as La Mort Vient De Nulle Part (French) in 1943
English translation published in 2020

Is Breule Manor cursed? Can a strange incantation predicting the time of death release an occult spirit to murder time and time again, in impossible circumstances and with no clues? As the terror gets closer, an amateur detective stumbles across the astonishing solution. Recognised as one of the great books of the French Golden Age, the story will grab you, baffle you and amuse you.

Death out of Nowhere begins at a gathering of four friends – a journalist, novelist, school supervisor and clerk – at the manor belonging to another of their mutual friends, the Baron Pierre de Maleves.

During a discussion about crime fiction Beaurieux, the school supervisor, makes a bet that he can commit a ‘perfect crime’ at the hour of a friend’s choosing. The friend accepts and tells him to do it immediately which he does, performing a small series of actions involving a handkerchief, a funnel, some playing cards and exclaims “and the Emperor be damned”. Moments later a shot rings out and a short while later the Baron’s great-uncle is found dead in a locked and bolted room with no weapon to be found.

Let me start by saying that the opening chapters of this novella are an absolute hoot. The book opens with the group bickering about crime stories with the dialog poking fun at some of the conventions and excesses of the genre. This is one of my favorite tropes in crime fiction – the self-aware discussion of the genre to make us aware that these characters are already aware of the tricks and promising, hopefully, something fresh. Gensoul and Grenier handle this well and I think the resulting novella does a fine job of fulfilling that promise.

The idea of the impossible crime bet is an appealing one and, once again, introduced quite effectively. Beaurieux has been highly animated in conversation and when he grabs LeBellec, the clerk, by the wrists and declares “All of a sudden, I feel like killing someone” I felt energized and excited by what struck me as a moment of quite wonderfully controlled yet dramatic madness and I wondered what that moment was setting up.

The ritual itself is interesting in its simplicity and immediately raises a number of questions about what happened, whether the murder was supposed to happen and what might happen next. I was highly engaged by the questions posed and while I had some guesses, I didn’t come close to answering them. Well, except that last one. There will be more murders…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the breakneck storytelling engaged in by the authors. From the start this book is constantly throwing ideas and story developments at the reader. This is not only highly effective in terms of keeping the reader bewildered as the pace barely lets you think, it also helps to add to the unsettling effect created by this series of murders as it does seem that things are continuing to accelerate and become more dangerous for the remaining house guests.

On the topic of those guests, it should be said that this book does not have a character formally designated as the sleuth and in whose good nature and truthfulness we can wholeheartedly trust. This does open up the possibility that any of the small cast might have been involved although the nature of their various alibis makes finding a suspect who had means and opportunity seem almost impossible.

I would also say that as you might expect from a work of this length, characterization of the various suspects and victims is fairly simplistic. The four friends do all have distinct personality types but exist mostly to fill functions in the story. I think in this case it works well and ultimately suits the tone and style of the story the authors were seeking to tell. In other words, come to this book for its plot and ideas rather than its characters and you won’t be disappointed.

The solution, when it is revealed, is one of the more audacious I have encountered in impossible crime fiction yet I think it is mechanically credible, particularly given the way it is executed here. It is perhaps the type of solution that it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with organically but I do think it is justified when you look back at the material with knowledge of what the solution will be although few of the most important clues are signposted.

My only complaint with the plotting comes with a mechanical reveal that takes place in chapter fourteen which hinges on an understanding of how something works that I didn’t think had been described. Had that been critical to understanding all of the murders I might have been less willing to forgive it and I will concede that this may just hinge on my own ignorance and may have been more apparent to other readers.

Putting that complaint to one side, I loved many other parts of the conclusion and think it did a fine job of making a complicated series of events understandable and credible. The explanation occurs after a flurry of excitement and here, once again, the authors do an excellent job of conveying both a sense of energy and intellectual curiosity.

Overall I must once again give John Pugmire and Locked Room International credit for translating this work and making it available for us to enjoy. While it is short, it has so many fantastic ideas at work that I felt thoroughly satisfied with my experience reading it. I had never heard of this novella or its authors prior to the announcement of its release being made so it was a particular delight to get to come to this with no foreknowledge or expectations and I can only hope that they continue for a long time to come.

The Verdict: Though short, Death out of Nowhere is packed with superb ideas and a genuinely astonishing solution. Highly recommended.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event liked this overall, saying that it won’t be for everyone (and suggesting that it doesn’t really play fair).

(Apologies if the formatting is off on this post – I edited it on my cell after posting to add the link)

16 thoughts on “Death Out of Nowhere by Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier, translated by John Pugmire

  1. Yeah, K think we see pretty much eye-to-eye on this one — it rollicks along, pausing for breath maybe twice, and then resolve all the madness in a slightly deflating and yet ingeniously creative way that’s very difficult not to enjoy. Man, the French were good at this sort of thing, hey?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the amazing thing about this one is usually I finish a book feeling it made sense and then slowly find myself remembering details that didn’t add up. The more I think about this one, the more I feel the solution really works. Which possibly reflects the explanations for the first two deaths which I thought was quite clever.
      Give me another hour and I might even be prepared to say that in terms of the case and solution this may be my favorite LRI. Which is clearly madness as The Seventh Hypothesis exists…


      1. Oh, dude, What’s the Best Impossibility Solution from an LRI Translation? is a great game. At present I’d be willing to narrow mine down to one of the no footprints puzzle of The Gold Watch, all the murders in Death in the House of Rain, and the second shooting in The 8 Mansions Murders…


      2. So difficult! I would have said 8 Mansion but I may have seen something similar from much earlier recently.

        Sounds like a starting point for a post from a much more seasoned locked room specialist to me… 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Mmm, best impossibility solution from an LRI translation…? I’ve read less of these than you and JJ, but some favorites that come to mind:
        1. The impossible defenestration in The Demon of Dartmoor.
        2. The victim in the locked room from The Picture from the Past.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Aidan. After reading some mixed reviews about this one, at the same time having reservations about value for money given the paltry page count (not usually a concern), it was ultimately yours that got me to bite the bullet and pick this one up. Four locked rooms set up and resolved within 110 or so pages, ensuring a brisk pace and leaving no room for padding.. as I type that out, I begin to wonder why I didn’t get this sooner, as on paper it ticks all my boxes.

    P.S. The Gold Watch is and will forever remain the greatest impossibility solution LRI ever put out. Simply insurmountable.


    1. I am glad that it didn’t lead to buyer’s remorse! Definitely no room for padding, as you say.
      I will have to check out The Gold Watch soon. I own a copy – I just need to find the time to actually read it! Your comments make me all the more keen to do so though.


      1. I’m probably guilty of beating the drum for GW a little too much around the blogging community but I do consider it to be the last word in impossible crimes of the no footprints variety. Most appear to agree on the excellence of that aspect; it’s the rest of the book that divides opinion. Can’t wait to read your take on it in due course.


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