Nightcap (Movie)

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)
Also titled Nightcap in English translation
Written by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol, adapted from ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronic and Anna Mouglalis

When I read and reviewed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb close to a year ago I had nothing but praise for the book, calling it one of the best reprints to have appeared in Penzler Publishers’ American Mystery Classics range to date. Little wonder then that when I learned that there was a French film adaptation, I had to seek out a copy.

Nightcap is faithful to much of the original novel’s situation, making only a few minor changes which I will discuss in a moment. The premise of the story is that a young woman learns that at birth there was an incident at the hospital in which she was mixed up with another child. The parents insisted on switching the children and nothing more was said but when she learns that the identity of the other father, she is fascinated as they are one of the leading figures in her field of study. Determined to meet them, she forces an introduction at his home, meeting his wife and son who all learn the story.

During that meeting she sees that his wife takes an opportunity to purposefully spill a container of hot chocolate that she had just prepared for her stepson. Our heroine is curious why someone would do that and, suspecting foul play, she decides to return to the house in the hope of stopping what she believes will be an attempt at murder.

As I noted in my review, I think that this is a wonderful concept for a story that blends suspense with a howcatchem-type inverted mystery. What I love most though is that this is a concept that sees a heroine knowingly step into an incredibly dangerous situation to protect a relative stranger – in this case, a young man who is quite cold and bitter toward her. Being aware of the dangers to come makes that decision all the more impressive and made me like the young woman – named Jeanne in the film – all the more.

Most of the differences in the initial setup of the story are quite minor and reflect the relocation of the story from America to Switzerland. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to alter the subject Jeanne is studying from art to music – a decision that makes a lot of sense in the context of the shift of medium. Art would naturally work in a visual medium but the use of music allows for the engagement of an additional sense while retaining the opportunity for a mentor-mentee relationship to develop with the man who could have been her father.

The film does a good job of introducing us to the various characters and explaining the rather complex scenario in its opening few minutes. This is the most convoluted part of the story and I had worried that it might seem all the more artificial when seen played out on screen. To my pleasure however I found that the decision is made to play Jeanne’s choice to meet the family she might have had out of curiosity rather than a sincere belief that she was really his daughter. Similarly, I appreciate that the film chooses to have André be excited about the prospect of a mentee rather than taking the idea too seriously.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film experience is that while we are privy to the thoughts of Ione, the stepmother, we are kept more distant from Marie-Claire. We observe her actions but do not learn why she is doing them. This is not just because we have lost the internal monologue – the film never fully explains the story even in retrospect, trusting the viewer to piece the material together.

It is, for me, a rather unfortunate decision as I think it prevents the film from building a sense of suspense as effectively as the novel. I had loved the way that the reader was given knowledge of Ione’s intentions in the book, raising our anticipation to see whether her plans would come off. Without knowledge of that inner voice we are kept from knowing exactly what she has in mind or why, which not only prevents the viewer from anticipating developments but it also means the viewer will likely have questions at the end of the movie, particularly in relation to her motives.

That is a shame because in other respects I quite enjoyed Isabelle Huppert’s performance. It is a little flatter and colder than I had imagined Ione in the book but it fits this setting quite well, making an interesting contrast with Jacques Dutronc’s warmer and more expressive André. Both give strong performances and I appreciated that each underplay their parts, seeming very convincing alongside each other.

The film’s production values, like the performances, are a little understated and few would suggest that this offers much visual appeal. The camerawork and editing is quite simple, favoring long takes observing actors rather than quick cuts – a choice that gives the performances more room to breathe. There are a few moments of sloppiness however, such as a boom mike dropping into shot during a scene between Huppert and Brigitte Catillon. Given this took place in long shot and goes nowhere near the actors, I have no idea why it wasn’t spotted in the edit and a tighter crop or alternate take used.

The biggest changes made between the book and the film all take place in the denouement and naturally, I don’t want to discuss them in any detail for fear of spoiling anyone. The alteration is significant because it changes the context of the ending and means that the movie ends on a somewhat different note, arguably touching on some slightly different ideas. The change itself didn’t bother me but the choice to have everything play out off screen and relayed to us in dialogue did feel a little disappointing.

This is a shame because I think the movie otherwise does a pretty solid job of adapting the source material to the screen. It is easy to imagine how this movie could have indulged itself too much in its premise, losing sight of the characters’ humanity. Instead I was pleased that the movie grounds itself in its characters, focusing on their emotional states as they respond to one another.

The lack of a strong ending, both in terms of the tension created and also the sense of resolution, keeps this from being a really great adaptation of the source material. Still, I liked the casting and performances a lot and I commend it for managing to sell the baby swap scenario so well (it actually adds a little to the novel, helping make sense of that plot strand a little better).

The Verdict:

Nightcap does not match its source material for tension, particularly in its conclusion, but in most other respects it is a very competent adaptation. While I strongly suggest starting with the novel, this is certainly worth a look.

Frantic by Noël Calef, translated by R. F. Tannenbaum

The Verdict

A rather entertaining crime story, laced with ironic developments and a strong sense of tension.

Book Details

Originally published in 1956 as Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud
English translation first published in 1961

The Blurb

Julien Courtois finds himself in a bit of a financial bind. And the only way out is murder. He’s even got the perfect plan. While his secretary believes him to be in his office, he climbs up a rope to an upper floor and stages his victim’s “suicide.” It all works according to plan. But on his way out of the building, he remembers that the rope is still dangling out of the window, leading right down to his office! Rushing back into the building, Julien manages to get stuck in the elevator when the janitor turns off the power for the weekend. At the same time, a young couple steal Julien’s car from in front of the building, and his wife, thinking she’s watching Julien drive off with another woman, assumes the worst. And so begins a torturous set of circumstances. While Julien remains trapped in the elevator, his life gradually becomes unraveled by a vindictive wife and a couple of teenagers playing at being gangsters.

Filmed in 1961 by Louis Malle as Elevator to the Gallows, this classic French novel is a masterpiece of noir tension.

When the noise reached its peak, Julien Courtois, dreamlike, made the gesture he’d rehearsed a hundred times. He put the gun barrel against the loan-shark’s temple and, in the same fraction of a second, pulled the trigger…

My Thoughts

Julien Courtois is a man pushed to his financial limits. He is living well outside his means and has long since exhausted the goodwill and generosity of his friends and family. His most immediately problem however is that he has borrowed a sizable sum from a moneylender that has long since come due. With no prospect of making the payment, his financial troubles are certain to become widely known and ruin seems sure to follow.

Julien Courtois has an audacious plan however that, if it works, ought to erase that debt and enable him to start afresh. He intends to be seen to go into his office at the end of the workday, then quickly scale the outside of his building, murder that moneylender several floors above (retrieving evidence of his debt in the process), and then return to his own moments later to leave for the weekend, giving himself an unbreakable alibi. It seems like a perfect plan and everything seems to have gone smoothly until he remembers he forgot to remove a piece of evidence that will give the whole thing away. Frantically he dashes back inside only to get trapped in the elevator in the now-deserted building…

One of the joys of an inverted mystery for me is trying to figure out what that crucial piece of evidence might be. What makes Frantic particularly entertaining though is that while Julien is focused on that item inside the building, we are made aware of dangers lying outside it that he cannot anticipate. Even knowing what characters are up to, it only becomes clear in the final few chapters of the novel how each of those elements will come together to bring about his destruction. It’s a very satisfying structure which Calef delivers beautifully.

There is lots to enjoy in just the way that this story is set up. For instance, I appreciate that Julien has carefully considered a number of steps in his plan – timing it to perfection and carefully thinking through the problem of how to ensure his debt disappears. It feels like a rather solid plan with lots of attention to detail yet the thing he neglects is, in contrast, so simple that his failure to think of it is all the more striking.

I similarly enjoy the way the other story strands clearly escalate Julien’s problems, often combining in unexpected ways to throw him into deeper jeopardy. There are so many wonderful, ironic moments here and when they are finally brought together it is done brilliantly to deliver a really striking, Ilesian finish.

It should be said that this is not going to be one of those inverted stories where you feel sorry for the protagonist. While Julien clearly exerts a charm on some of those in his life, the book is also clear about his character faults which include womanizing and deceit. Sure, I was entertained following him and I did wonder if he might get free but I never hoped he would get away with murder. What makes it compelling is the tension inherent to this rather incredible situation.

I was perhaps a little more sympathetic to some of the other characters in the story, not least the young woman who takes his car for a joyride with her boyfriend. Though she has committed a crime, I felt I understood her well by the end of the story and also that the resolution of her story was really memorable. I would say that even the most sympathetic characters are still not all that likable and so if you are looking for a mystery story where you will have a character to root for, this is perhaps not the read for you.

Calef balances each of these story strands well, never allowing us to go too long without checking in on the other characters. This not only helps to keep the action moving, it helps balance the tone. This is particularly important given that the characters are in effect operating independently of each other, even if the threads will ultimately overlap, as it allows for a sense of variety.

It was, all-in-all, a rather quick and punchy read. Calef writes in an engaging way, effectively conveying the tension of a situation and describing any moments of action very clearly. Throw in a rather grabbing and imaginative starting point and you have the ingredients for a very readable story which had me engrossed right up to its very effective conclusion.

It’s such a visually-minded story that I find myself excited to go off and watch the movie adaptation. Happily I already own a copy of Elevator to the Gallows (though I have yet to see it) so I will hope to find time to sit down and watch it at some point soon. I will, no doubt, let you know what I think. In the meantime, if you have read the book or seen the movie I’d love to hear what you make of it.

Through the Walls by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

The Verdict

Some very effective early chapters set up an intriguing situation but the subsequent investigative portions feel a little flat in contrast.

Book Details

Originally published in 1937 as A Travers les Murailles
English translation first published in 2021

The Blurb

Commissaire Maubritane is approached by an old acquaintance, Pierre Sertat, who has become terrified by strange noises coming from within his locked and bolted villa, and who fears that the lives of himself, his wife, and his daughter may be in danger. He believes that two smuggling gangs have perfected a technique for passing through walls and will kill him if he divulges any information about them. Against his better judgment, Maubritane agrees to spend the night in the villa. He makes a thorough search of every room, but cannot prevent a mysterious stranger entering and shooting Sertat, who almost dies, and somehow avoiding the commissionaire’s pursuit.

During the following nights and days numerous attempts, some successful and some not, but all seemingly impossible, are made on the lives of the Sertat family. Maubritane fails to prevent them or explain them and thinks he is going mad….

We are faced with a terrible menace and our lives are in grave danger. I am helpless, with no other hope but you. Don’t abandon me!

My Thoughts

Several months ago I had a marvelous time with Noël Vindry’s The Howling Beast so when Santosh Iyer left a comment trailing that another Vindry release was imminent I was understandably excited. I ended up purchasing it as soon as it became available and I would likely have read and written about it immediately if life wasn’t keeping me incredibly busy at the moment leaving me unable to concentrate on much of anything.

Like that novel, Through the Walls is a case for the examining magistrate M. Allou, though he has only a minimal involvement with the case. The story begins with Allou receiving a visit from Commissaire Maubritane in the evening who insists on his help, hoping that Allou can explain a baffling set of events that have rattled him so badly that he has begun to wonder if he is mad.

He tells Allou how he had received a message from Pierre Sertat, a man who had helped him some years earlier on a case he was investigating, asking to meet with him secretly in a back alley late at night. Curious, Maubritane attends the meeting to find his friend in a state of high anxiety.

Sertat tells him how he has become aware of someone entering his home in the early hours of the morning, appearing to search his office each time before leaving. The house’s entrances are fastened and bolted and Sertat insists that no member of his household could be admitting the visitor. Maubritane is initially skeptical, suggesting some earthly explanations, yet when the events repeat themselves and an attempt is made on his friend’s life in his presence, Maubritane finds himself unable to explain how it could be possible…

Over a decade ago I had an incident when someone broke into my house which, though I was absolutely fine (they just took stuff), left me quite unsettled for some weeks afterwards. While other memories from that period of my life have begun to fade, those feelings remain really quite vivid for me to this day and so I found this book’s premise of an invisible intruder to be every bit as intriguing and unsettling as the more traditional horror tropes found in The Howling Beast.

Vindry has Sertat clearly set out the conditions of the various intrusions, then allows Maubritane to attack the problem by asking questions and posing simple solutions. It’s a structure that works quite well, allowing for a broad overview of the puzzle at first with additional details being drawn out in the pair’s subsequent conversations. In addition, it serves to give us an impression of Maubritane’s character and methods as well as build a sense that his efforts to solve this case really have been exhaustive. That is only reinforced in that later section of the story in which Maubritane is present when the intruder attacks Sertat.

Before we can explain how this impossibility was achieved, the book takes the time to explore why. Unfortunately the answer to that is spoiled a little by the blurb which I have quoted above as the process by which Maubritane investigates the matter for himself is quite amusing and was, for me, one of the most enjoyable sections of the novel. I particularly appreciate the choice Vindry makes to have his protagonist behave proactively, once again reminding us that he is fundamentally competent – even though he proves unable to solve this case himself.

The tension builds nicely in those early chapters before it is released in that compelling intrusion sequence which prompts a frantic chase through the mansion. It is superb stuff – tense and easy to follow – but after that burst of action there is a sudden deceleration as the investigation becomes less energetic and perhaps a little ponderous.

There are some points of interest in what follows and while I think the solution lacks the imaginative simplicity of the one found in The Howling Beast, I think there are some interesting conclusions reached here. What’s more, I appreciated the idea that Allou was able to work out his solution simply from listening to Maubritane’s story without any direct interaction or involvement with the case – I am, after all, a fan of the armchair detective trope.

The final aspect of this book that I wish to address is a structural one. One feature of The Howling Beast that I had not cared for was its framing technique in which the entire case is recounted to Allou. In that book I had found the structure highly awkward, particularly with regards the nesting of quoted speech within speech, but I am happy to report that while this also uses a framing technique I had no such problem with the way it was executed here. Instead of having the story recounted in direct speech, it is presented in a sympathetic third person voice which struck me as a far more elegant way to handle it while never losing sight of the idea that this is a character’s account of their experiences.

There are a number of presentational and structural choices here that I think work pretty well. The lively early passages of the novel, coupled with the rather dynamic figure of Maubritane, helped me to feel engaged in the problem while I also really appreciated the way a key action sequence was presented. My problems with it lie largely with the later stages of the investigation which fail to quite match some of the highs of the early chapters while the solution lacks the impact of my previous Vindry read. For that reason, I would recommend that novel ahead of this one for those looking to take a first step with Vindry though this has enough points of interest that it would be a very solid second read.

The Howling Beast by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1934 as La Bête hurlante
English translation first published in 2016

The Blurb

Pierre Herry is on the run. Not just from the police, who suspect him of a double murder, but also from the memory of the circumstances in which two impossible crimes were committed in the ruined castle which is the hereditary seat of the Comte de Saint-Luce, an old big-game hunting friend from the past.

The castle is virtually inaccessible, situated as it is in a high-walled park on a desolate stretch of moorland not far from Versailles. Herry insists he is not guilty of the murders of which he finds himself accused, but claims they were committed right before his eyes in a way that defies explanation… and how can he defend himself if he cannot explain what happened?

The inexplicable disappearance of another guest, threatening letters, and the howling of an unknown beast all serve as pieces in the puzzle, and examining magistrate M. Allou explains everything in this masterpiece of French locked room literature.

‘…Logically, I should be guilty. No reasonable man should claim otherwise. My reason, for what it’s worth, tells me I must be a criminal. And yet I believe myself to be innocent.’

My Thoughts

Last week I found myself in the mood for an impossible crime and so I put out the call on Twitter for friends to select a book for me to read next. This was the title that they picked and I am happy to be able to say that they did me proud – it’s a great read. I should say, before tucking into this, that this is purposefully a shorter review – some of the most interesting aspects of the story occur very late in the narrative and I do not think they can be discussed without spoiling it.

The Howling Beast begins with the examining magistrate, M. Allou, encountering a fugitive who is suspected of being responsible for a double murder. The victims were his friend, the Comte de Saint-Luce, and a woman, both of whom were shot dead in the Comte’s castle which appears to have been inaccessible to outsiders as its heavy portcullis had been lowered earlier that day.

Herry is sure he is innocent of the crime but he is unable to present any other reasonable explanation for what could have occurred. His hope though is that if he explains the puzzling circumstances to Allou, the magistrate may think of something he has overlooked and prove his innocence. Having caught his attention he proceeds to carefully outline his acquaintance with the Comte and the events that led up to that terrible night.

The scenario is an intriguing one as Vindry carefully describes the situation and dismisses many possible lines of inquiry. We learn, for instance, that an ancestor of the Comte had meticulously explored and documented the tunnels beneath the castle and so it can be shown that each entrance is sealed while we also hear that the portcullis creates such a loud sound that it would be impossible to raise or lower it without it being heard throughout the castle.

When we get to the description of the night of the murders, the descriptions are excellent and help make sense of each character’s movements and relative positions at all times. As impossibilities go, the construction here is superb and I have to admit that I came nowhere near the actual solution which is clearly and carefully explained. There are some very clever and entertaining ideas used here, none of which I can really discuss without spoiling the novel but I will say that I really appreciated the ingenuity of the element of the story that the title references. Great stuff!

One of the most successful aspects of the novel is its sense of place. The Comte’s crumbling castle feels as much a character as the man himself and while Vindry is not a particularly descriptive writer, I think he manages to convey a lot about the space and the people who reside there in just a few lines or in the manner of their speech and behavior.

This particularly struck me toward the end of the novel where we reach Allou’s explanation of the case. Once we understand what was actually happening and we look back on the events earlier I felt it was easy to see the evidence of those ideas even though they completely elude our narrator.

The only issues I had with the book relate to the choice to have the case related to Allou by the fugitive. On the one hand I can see what Vindry was intending here as it does focus the narrative onto the essential facts of the case while also building up a sense that these events were truly confounding. It also allows Vindry time to insert a considerable amount of backstory while also providing some vague sense of the crime. That is probably just as well as the murder itself is not discussed in detail until very late in the novel.

The bigger issue I have with this approach is that it isn’t particularly elegant. As the story is recounted by Herry speaking with occasional interruptions by Allou for clarification, whenever characters speak we get nested speeches as Herry tells us what others said. This technique is fair enough in a short story or for a few chapters but given that nearly the entire novel is rendered in this way I wish Vindry had structured his tale a little differently to have whole chapters simply acknowledged as Herry’s account to allow him to dispense with that framing technique. That is a matter of personal preference however and I should stress that it is always clear who is speaking.

Beyond these stylistic choices however I had little to complain about. The Howling Beast is a superb read that offers a cunningly constructed puzzle that is absolutely worth your time to unpick.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event offers their thoughts in a spoiler-free review here.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time also rates this story very highly and points out some stylistic similarities between this and Doyle’s Holmes stories – a point I agree with.

Crush by Frédéric Dard, translated by Daniel Seton

Book Details

Originally published in 1959 as Les scélérats
English translation published in 2016

The Blurb

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine.

When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

Dripping with tension and yearning, Crush is a chilling Fifties suspense story of youthful naivety, dark obsession – and the slippery slope to murder.

The Verdict

Featuring strong and surprisingly nuanced characters, Crush is a punchy and powerful read that I recommend as a starting point with the writer.

People are always saying you should grow to love the town you’re brought up in, but you can tell that’s not the case for me. I’ve always hated Léopoldville, probably because I always saw it as it really was: artificial and sad.

My Thoughts

I have been hoarding my last few Dard works in translation, being all too aware that I will soon run out of them unless one of two things happens. Either Pushkin release some more translations or I need to learn to read French. The latter seems unlikely given four years of secondary school tuition failed to get me anywhere so let me start this review with a plea that someone get to work to translate them. There are hundreds to choose from and I’ll lay down money for any of them.

The reason I felt a strong need to get that plea out there is that of the four works by Dard I have read, this is easily my favorite and that includes a work I nominated as a reprint of the year a few years back. I was seriously impressed, devouring this in a single sitting.

The story is narrated by Louise Lacroix, a seventeen year old who yearns for a better life. A life away from her mother’s brutish drunk of a partner, her factory job, the town’s regimented architecture and the smell of cabbages. One day as she is walking home by an indirect route she happens across a home occupied by an American couple who seem to be living a charming existence. She alters her route home to pass them each day and observe them, noticing that the sun always seemed to be shining there.

Louise gets up her courage and approaches the couple, suggesting that she could work for them as a maid. They are initially a little baffled by the suggestion and so Louise is surprised when the husband, Jess Rooland, arrives at her home to offer her the job. She quickly accepts and manages to convince them to let her live with them.

Soon Louise comes to realize that the reality of the Roolands’ lives does not match the image she had of them and we see that there were tensions within the household that predated her arrival. And Louise’s obsession with Jess grows…

I think Louise is a tremendously relatable protagonist, even if we identify some of her behaviors as selfish or self-destructive. Dard does a fine job of communicating the sense that she is feeling trapped in a routine she knows she will never be able to escape from and her wanting something more from life. The choice to tell the story in her voice is a smart one too, as it not only allows us to get a strong sense of her personality but it also means that we experience the story as she percieves it.

Louise’s age and relative inexperience in life sets her up to appear to be someone at risk, entering a world that she does not entirely understand. There are certainly some moments in the novel that would describe quite well, and yet I think it is a much richer, more complex work than it first appears. That is reflected both in the complexity of the plot but also some of the themes the book touches upon.

Dard’s story begins with the idea that the appearance of the Rooland’s marriage differs from the reality. We observe that marriage through Louise’s eyes and so we read it the way that she does, interpreting it through her understanding and her desires. Understanding that relationship is important and I was pleased to find that it was more nuanced and complex than I had expected with each character’s feelings explored and revealed. Their emotions and actions sometimes appear to contradict themselves but I feel by the end of the novel we have a very good idea of who each of those characters are and why they have acted in the way they did.

While I have obviously enjoyed and admired Dard’s work before, I hadn’t really considered him a particularly subtle writer prior to reading this. Instead he struck me as a writer reminiscent of Cain, delivering muscular prose and plotting with powerful, strong emotions. This book however features a number of wonderfully subtle moments where a character’s thoughts and feelings are hinted at rather than directly announced to the reader. One moment that particularly grabbed me was a throwaway reference to how Louise was asked by Thelma to model her clothing which may have a literal purpose but also seems quite interesting psychologically. Dard embraces the contradictions in characters’ desires and personalities, creating complex characters that reward close examination.

The story does unfold quite quickly with Dard covering a passage of months in just a few pages. In doing so though he is always careful to track the shifts within a relationship and highlights particular incidents that set things in a different path. There are two events that seem particularly pivotal. One of the two is too spoilery to go into here but the other features a party taking place that does not go the way Louise anticipates at all. In each case Dard does an excellent job of exploring Louise’s feelings and responses to what is happening, showing us not only what happens but how it affects her and her relationships with those around her.

The novel gets quite intense emotionally and is very focused on exploring relationships, though there is a more conventional mystery element that gets incorporated in the latter part of the book. This is handled quite well and while it is not particularly complex, I enjoyed trying to unpick how it was affecting the characters psychologically. It builds up to a really strong conclusion that I felt not only tied things up nicely but also packed a considerable punch, ending things in an interesting way.

As with the other Dard novels I have read, I think that Crush is a really interesting work thematically and I appreciated that its characters are more complex and nuanced than they may initially appear. Louise is a superb protagonist and I think Dard does a good job of managing to tell a story in which I found myself feeling rather sad for everyone involved. That takes some skill, particularly given a few of the plot developments here, but I believe Dard pulls it off brilliantly.

If you’ve never read any Dard but are interested, I can heartily recommend this one to you as a starting point.

The Forbidden House by Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1932 as La Maison Interdite
English translation first published in 2021

The Blurb

Regarded as a masterpiece by 1000 Chambres Closes, the central puzzle is one of the most baffling in impossible crime fiction: a mysterious stranger, whose face cannot be seen by the several witnesses outside the house, is introduced inside, where he murders the owner and vanishes without trace.

The several witnesses inside cannot explain what happened. A search of the house fails to find him, and the witnesses watching the outside say he could not have left.

The authorities—examining magistrate, state prosecution, and police—trying to make sense of the clues, cannot agree amongst themselves as to the identity of the murderer…

The Verdict

This highly engaging impossible crime story offers an intriguing scenario, a memorable victim and a clever solution.

MARCHENOIRE, THIS AUGUST 28 IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, LEAVE MARCHENOIRE MANOR IMMEDIATELY AND FOREVER. DO NOT PURCHASE THE FORBIDDIN HOUSE.

My Thoughts

Monsieur Verdinage has accumulated a fortune and decides to purchase a house fitting of his new status. The home he has set his mind on buying is Marchenoire Manor, a beautiful three story building within a private park that is curiously affordable. He tours the property and after making his decision he requests to sign the paperwork in the house’s library. When they enter they discover the threatening note quoted above (yes, the spelling is accurate) addressed to the new owner. Verdinage reads the note but scoffs at it, suggesting it is a prank, and he decides to move his household in immediately.

A short while later he learns from one of the locals about the story of the Forbidden House and why it was available so cheaply. He still does not take the threat seriously and remains skeptical even when a second letter turns up exactly a month after the first, vowing that there will be no further warnings and that the next letter received will be an announcement of his death. Verdinage takes some precautions against the author of the note but in spite of his efforts his murder takes place as announced with the killer seeming to vanish into thin air…

I really love the opening to this novel in which the authors not only do a great job of setting out the nature of the threat and building up the strange history of the house but also of establishing the stubborn (and rather gauche) nature of the victim. Monsieur Verdinage is a superb creation, poking fun at some behaviors of the nouveau riche such as his order to have the library furnished with a huge number of books but not caring what any of them actually are. He is far from self-aware and yet for all his bluster he is quite practical, devising a reasonably sensible plan to protect himself (even if the smarter thing to do would be to call the police).

Herbert and Wyl pace these early chapters really well, providing the reader with important information that will be needed to understand various characters’ backgrounds and to eventually solve the crime without lingering over them for too long. Even before the murder we have an apparent impossibility as the second letter is found behind the locked and bolted door to the house’s cellar although that will not receive serious scrutiny until after the murder.

I enjoyed the series of letters as a device for building tension. Not only does this help to establish Monsieur Verdinage’s character as we see how he responds to each threat, we also learn that each of the previous owners of the home had received similar threats, answering them in different ways. This provides an interesting background to the case and I was certainly curious to learn what was prompting them.

The sequence in which the murder takes place is, once again, very tidily written. The authors smartly use the perspectives of several servants to describe what happens which not only helps to build the tension as we await the moment of the murder, it also provides the reader with at least some detail of the characters’ movements on the night in question. It is very smart, economical writing that keeps things moving well.

The novel’s impossibility concerns the disappearance of the murderer from the mansion moments after the killing shot is fired. The killer had been observed entering the building, though their face was in shadow, but the observers did not see them leave in spite of being positioned near the only exit (in a piece of crazily dangerous architecture, the building only has one exterior door). The police arrive and search the building thoroughly, finding no one, which begs the question of what happened to the figure who was seen entering a short time after midnight?

It’s a very neat problem and one that proves surprisingly tricky to solve in spite of the efforts of several detective figures, each of whom adopt different theories as to the person they believe responsible. There are quite a few characters who take turns at positing theories so I was pleasantly surprised to find that several of them stood out quite well in terms of their personalities. I also enjoyed seeing how their approaches differed from each other and the various ideas each brought to the case.

One character in particular made a pretty big impact almost immediately both in the way he deals with other figures including those who are investigating the case and those who might be interested in its outcome. I felt he was a pretty entertaining creation. I similarly appreciated the ingenuity of the character who finally solves the whole thing.

I felt that the solution to the puzzle was very clever. If there is a problem with it I would suggest that while the explanation is thorough and convincing, I cannot say that it is proved. There is not much physical evidence that would demonstrate the case. Instead the authors rely on the killer admitting the truth themselves at the presentation of the correct solution which feels a little underwhelming, perhaps not helped by the somewhat abrupt way the novel concludes moments afterwards.

Still, while I think that the ending may have been a little rushed, I was very happy with the novel overall. While the central problem of The Forbidden House may not be the most colorful example of an impossible crime, it is all the more puzzling for its apparent simplicity and always engaging.

Further Reading

Santosh Iyer also enjoyed the book and highly recommends it, appreciating its logical solution.

The Lord of Misrule by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1994 as Le Roi du Desordre
Owen Burns #1
Followed by The Seven Wonders of Crime

The Blurb

We are in Victorian London, with its gaslight and fog, not long after the Jack the Ripper Murders. A mysterious cloaked figure wearing a hideous, leprous mask and sleigh-bells is stalking the countryside outside the capital, committing murder wherever it goes, yet leaving no footprints.

This is the first Paul Halter novel featuring amateur detective and aesthete Owen Burns, who regards the impossible crime as an art form.

The Verdict

The chilling seasonal elements work nicely but the solution feels rather contrived.


My Thoughts

The Lord of Misrule was the subject of a bit of a mystery for me last week when I sat down to start reading it. As I opened up the ebook for what was apparently the first time I found that my copy contained multiple annotations including highlighted passages and notes about aspects of the book. This went from the first page to the very end of the book and, what’s more, each thought was largely in line with the things I was thinking and feeling about the book.

Had I perhaps read the book before and, for some reason, decided not to review it and mark it as unread? If that was the case, why had I no memory of any part of it? Were those notes and highlights somehow transferred from the future? If so, given that I didn’t make any new ones should I expect to find myself in a Back to the Future-type situation where those notes would fade from my ebook when I failed to create them… Or was there some sort of Kindle glitch that gifted me the notes of a kindred spirit? Alas, I will never know. Rest assured however that the opinions that follow are my own – those notes were only consulted after forming them!

The book begins by recounting the story of how the narrator, Achilles Stock, got to know the amateur detective Owen Burns shortly after arriving in England for the first time. That first encounter, while somewhat tangential to the story, is quite amusing and does give us a strong understanding of both men’s personalities and characters. This in turn will help to explain the rather far-fetched circumstances by which the pair come to get involved in this crime story.

The next chapter jumps forward a year as the pair renew their acquaintance and Burns seeks a favor from his friend. Judging him to be a man who enjoys intrigue, he asks Stock to take his place at the Mansfield family’s Christmas at their estate on the outskirts of London to enable him to spend time with a young woman he is enamored with. He is supposed to attend in the guise of the fiance of Catherine, the sister of Samuel Piggott, the man engaged to Mansfield’s older daughter Sibyl.

The reason for the deception is that Catherine fears that for the safety of her brother because of a family curse that strikes fatally when the family occupy the estate at Christmas. It appears that the Lord of Misrule, a killer with a white mask and wearing jingling bells, has been responsible for a number of murders in the family over the centuries including three years earlier when Sibyl’s brother was murdered by an assailant who did not leave tracks in the snow. Achilles agrees to Owen’s request and attends the gathering only to find that further inexplicable events occur, all credited to this Lord of Misrule…

Let’s start with the legend of the Lord of Misrule because I consider it to be the most intriguing part of the book. The concept dates back to an old tradition by which someone is appointed to be the figurehead of the Christmas revelries, organizing games and jokes to entertain the party. While this custom may not be familiar to many today, it does help ground the story around the festive celebrations as well as emphasize that this family legend has been around for some considerable time.

The story of the origins of this Lord of Misrule, when it is relayed to the reader, is actually rather chilling and speaks to the idea of wild excesses being committed by the nobility. While we will know given that this is a detective story that a supernatural explanation will not be the correct one, it is understandable why the historical event would cast such a long shadow over the family and why it would be a very effective idea to revive in the present day. Similarly I love the image of the frightful face appearing at the window – it is creepy and fits in with the older concept of Christmas as a time for ghost stories.

I have more mixed feelings about some other aspects of the setup for this adventure. The circumstances in which Stock becomes involved in the case are quite convoluted and while I enjoyed some of the subterfuge this involves, the story does dance around describing what actually happened all those years ago for quite some time. This does mean that we then get a lot of detail compressed into a few dense chapters which meant that the book read more slowly than you might expect for a 180 page story.

On the other hand, I do quite like the mechanism of having Stock on his own at the start of the adventure and I also appreciate that the business with needing to pretend to be part of the family does mean that he experiences events from the perspective of part of the party rather than as an adversary. This had echoes for me of The Hound of the Baskervilles in its structure of allowing the reader to witness things through the unqualified eyes of the Watson-figure with the knowledge that a more brilliant reading of the crime will be given later when the Great Detective character arrives on the scene and explains it all. Just as with that story, the structure does build our anticipation for that happening.

In the meantime, Stock’s account of his misadventures is often quite entertaining and does manage to emphasize how startling and inexplicable many of the incidents that take place during the festivities are. Halter does do a fine job of creating situations that do seem to be genuinely impossible which only built my interest and left me wondering just how he could craft a solution that would pull everything together in a satisfactory way.

Rather unfortunately I think the solution misses the mark. There are certainly some strong ideas here, not least with regards the explanation for the strange circumstances surrounding Edwin’s death, but the crime that takes place in the present has some elements that struck me as highly unsatisfactory. Particularly the reveal of an critical element on the very last page that had me groaning and feeling frankly a little cheated.

Reading this I was reminded what I look for in impossible crime stories. I want a fantastic premise that becomes breathtakingly simple and logical when viewed from a perspective that would never have occured to me. Halter gives us that with the death of Edwin. The setup is superb while its explanation, viewed on its own, would be quite strong. Were that crime allowed to be the focus of the story I would no doubt be writing a very positive review right now.

The book’s problems lie in attempting to weave additional crimes into the mix. While those present day events add some additional complexity and interest to the investigation, they also make the solution significantly more contrived. Instead of taking a fantastic situation and making it simple, the result is that the reality of that seemingly fantastic situation is even more bizarre than it seems, leaving me rather frustrated and disappointed.

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard, translated by David Coward

Book Details

Originally published in 1956 as Le Bourreau pleure
English translation first published in 2017

The Blurb

On a quiet mountain road near Barcelona, a woman steps out in front of a car. When the driver, a well-known artist, stops to some to her aid, he finds she is alive, but without any memory of who she is or where she has come from. As he tries to help her remember her past, the artist finds himself falling in love, but as secrets from the woman’s forgotten life start to come to light, he finds his new romance turning into a nightmare…

The Verdict

A powerful and effective noir story which delivers a suitably punchy climax.


My Thoughts

Frédéric Dard was tremendously prolific author and only a tiny fraction of his work has so far been translated into English. I have previously read and reviewed two of his other novellas on this blog, both of which were also part of the Pushkin Vertigo range, and I liked both tremendously. Happily I am able to say that this my experiences with this book were equally pleasing.

I had found both of the other Dard titles I read to be short but punchy reads and this is no exception. He writes with a splendid sense of economy that helps focus on what he establishes as the themes of his work, really immersing the reader in the dilemma the protagonist finds themselves in.

This novella, like the others I had read, belongs to the noir style of storytelling. Here the protagonist is Daniel Mermet, a French artist who is on vacation near Barcelona. Here he finds himself in a situation in which his actions, though generally well-intentioned, only seem to lead him towards misery and disaster.

Daniel is driving late at night when a woman carrying a violin steps in front of his car. Everything happens so suddenly that he cannot avoid the collision and she is knocked to the ground, her violin and the case smashed in the impact. Daniel is worried but finding that she is still breathing decides to take her back to his hotel and get her some medical attention.

It is easy to empathize with Daniel as he finds himself in a difficult and possibly dangerous situation. We are told in the first couple of pages that the collision was no accident – that the woman had leapt in front of the car. With no witnesses and a very limited command of the Spanish language or knowledge of the area, his choice to take her to his hotel and summon medical attention there is understandable. It may not be the perfect choice but it was certainly not malicious either.

The physical damage from the accident is fortunately quite limited so she makes a swift recovery. Unfortunately though when the woman wakes she has no memory at all of who she is beyond that she is French. When the consulate tells Daniel they are unable to help her, he decides he will piece together the mystery of the woman’s identity.

The mystery of the woman’s identity sits at the heart of the story. Daniel will play investigator, using small clues and observations about the woman and her possessions to try and discover who she is. This is necessary both because he cannot leave her alone without a memory but also because he is falling in love with her. Something within him needs to know.

Based on the circumstances of the injury though the reader will already be aware that the answers will not provide happiness or the closure Daniel seeks. This realization on the reader’s part is the source of the tragedy of the uncomfortable situation he finds himself in. The woman she is now is someone he loves but he will not feel comfortable unless he can be sure of the woman she was.

Dard handles this simple idea extremely well, setting up a credible scenario in which Daniel will have to confront this question. The choice he has is either to abandon her or to see the investigation through in the hope it will enable them to be together. As we follow that brief investigation we are aware of how his discoveries are affecting him and how he struggles with the question of what to reveal to the woman.

Just as it was easy to empathize with the very likeable Daniel at the moment of the accident, it is equally easy to understand how difficult each of his decisions are. Dard is really effective at communicating Daniel’s shifting emotional state as well as that of the woman, all the while building to a dark and devastating conclusion. This emotional journey is really effective and I found myself completely engrossed in the story, aware that what I wanted and what was likely to happen were clearly not going to be the same thing.

I am reluctant to write much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it too much – this is, after all, a very brief work. I should probably take a moment however to judge the mystery elements of the novella in their own right.

Earlier I described this as a brief investigation and what I meant by that is that while the mystery has enormous significance, Daniel will not need to work particularly hard to uncover the truth. This is a matter of following up on the leads he already has – the question is whether he will have the nerve to see the matter through to the end.

The reader may well deduce some aspects of the woman’s past based on the early clues but too much is revealed to the reader right before the solution is given to be able to effectively play armchair detective. I think that fits Dard’s focus on the emotional component of this story and was broadly in line with my expectations but were someone to read this primarily for the mystery I think they would be underwhelmed. For Dard the mystery is a device to instigate uncertainty and drama rather than the point of his tale.

It is a superbly well crafted story with some strong characterization and a compelling problem to explore. I was, once again, impressed with Dard and I am certainly not regretting having previously bought up all the other Dard titles published in translation. It seems I have some good reading ahead of me!

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

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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.

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)

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

The King of Fools
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1952

Frédéric Dard made a strong first impression on me last year when I read The Gravedigger’s Bread, a gritty inverted crime story that I ended up nominating as one of my reprints of the year. Since then I have been eager to experience more of his work so when I received a gift card for my birthday last month I knew precisely whose work I would be seeking out.

The King of Fools introduces us to Jean-Marie, a man who is holidaying alone on the Côte d’Azur. He had been meant to be vacationing there with his girlfriend but they split very shortly before the trip leaving him to take the trip solo.

One morning he returns to his car to find an Englishwoman sat in it. He confronts her and she reveals that she had confused it for her own similar vehicle. Later that evening he meets her again in a casino and his annoyance turns to a feeling of strong attraction. She reveals that she is married but they arrange to write to each other.

A few days later she writes a short note to him, suggesting that he meet her in a hotel in Edinburgh at which she will be staying for a few days before her husband joins her. Impulsively he decides to travel to her but when he gets to Scotland he finds his romantic dreams begin to crumble around him and soon he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the way it manages to switch between several styles of storytelling in a way that feels quite natural. The opening chapters are presented like a romance, beginning with a chance encounter. The reader should anticipate it all going wrong for them (it is, after all, a Dard novella) but the question will be how and why.

This style continues into what might be seen as a sort of bridging section of the novel when Jean-Marie first arrives in Edinburgh, gets his bearings and waits. In this phase of the story the reader will be alerted to things not following characters’ expectations and yet the reasons for that remain a mystery.

To me this bridging section of the novel was its most intriguing and certainly the most atmospheric. Here we get Jean-Marie’s impressions of Edinburgh as a tourist with evocative descriptions of the buildings, landscape, weather and food. Having spent a little time in the city, albeit about fifty years after this was written, I found these passages to be really quite effective and I appreciated that they not only gave us a sense of place but also of Jean-Marie’s own character.

It is harder to describe the sections of the book that follow without divulging too many of the book’s developments. Still, I can say that we follow a murder investigation into the death of one of the characters and this introduces us to a new character, Brett, a Scottish detective who takes charge of the case. While the story continues to be told from Jean-Marie’s perspective, we see enough of him to be able to follow the case as it builds up and justice is delivered.

I found this final section of the book to be really quite compelling and I appreciated that it played out quite contrary to my expectations. Coming into the book I was anticipating something in the style of a James M. Cain story and while I think we do get that to an extent, the story is more complex than it initially appears both in terms of the plot and the themes it discusses.

There are some issues that come with that added, unexpected complexity. In order for the story to work we have to accept a few developments that may seem a little unlikely. Dard actually does address the most problematic of these directly towards the end of the novella and I think I was persuaded that there was a solid rationale behind that choice.

I was less convinced by the way the detective story element of the book relies a little too heavily on coincidence in building to its resolution. Once again Dard attempts to provide justification for those moments but I think less persuasively. This is no problem at all for readers who may be approaching this as a thriller or human drama but those hoping to be dazzled by the detective phase of the novel may feel a little cheated.

Thematically though I found this book to be incredibly strong, packing quite a punch. I always enjoy when a book is able to surprise me with the ideas and issues it raises and this book certainly manages to do that. Questions of guilt and about human relationships abound, some directly suggested while others may simply occur to the reader in the subtext of the ending.

I felt it was a surprisingly ambitious book and a much lighter read than The Gravedigger’s Bread in tone but not in its themes or ideas. It is sharp, entertaining and well worth seeking out. What excites me most about my experiences reading this is that most Dard fans’ reviews describe it as a second tier work so I am even more interested to check out one of his ‘classic’ works such as Bird in a Cage at some point soon!