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!

The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter, Translated by John Pugmire

The Tiger’s Head
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1991
Dr Twist #5
Preceded by The Madman’s Room
Followed by The Seventh Hypothesis

It has been a surprising amount of time since I last read and wrote about a Paul Halter novel though I have had several up near the top of my TBR list. The Tiger’s Head was my selection mostly because I was tantalized by its premise of a murder committed in a locked room by a genie. As it happens though this is just one of three mysteries within the novel.

Each of those three mysteries is presented as a separate case and yet have considerable overlap as they involve the same community and cast of characters. The first is the murder and dismemberment of several young women, the second is the murder of a retired major in a locked room and the final one is the ongoing series of thefts of seemingly random items of limited value around the small village of Leadenham.

Let’s start with the least of these – the thefts. Though it is introduced almost as a background storyline, Halter does not treat it as such. While it may not be the case that brings Dr. Twist to Leadenham, it has plenty of points of interest (not least that everyone in the village has an alibi for one or more of the crimes) and could easily have made for an entertaining short story in its own right. I certainly enjoyed the resolution and discovering how it played into the other story threads.

The second story thread, the murder of the Major, is the one that the novel is named for and it presents us with our most traditional locked room elements. There is, ostensibly, a supernatural element at play: the Major had told a story about how he had won the Tiger’s Head cane from a fakir while in India and that it contains a genie that can kill. The Major had challenged a friend to stay with him in a room where every door and window is locked from the inside and wait for the genie to appear. When their friends get worried they break into the room to find the Major dead and the doubter lying unconscious from head injuries, claiming that he saw and was attacked by the genie.

Now, I will say that I do not love the conceit of a room with the locked doors under observation by individuals – it is too obvious how this sort of a puzzle can be broken. Happily Halter gets on with it, almost immediately acknowledging that not everyone’s story can be true and getting on with trying to unpick people’s alibis.

This puzzle is, in my opinion, the cleverest of the three mechanically (while it plays fair, I would be astounded if anyone was able to deduce exactly how it was achieved) and if the book has a fault it may be that it chooses to present the solution to this three-quarters of the way through rather than at the close. Structurally there are some good reasons for this because of the ways the three stories connect but it does mean that the most intriguing and complex aspects of the narrative are already done as the book enters its endgame.

Twist and Hurst’s original reason for being in Leadenham is to hunt the ‘Suitcase Killer’, who has dismembered young women and put their limbs into suitcases which have been left at train stations. The premise is usually gruesome for Halter but I think he sets up the situation quite brilliantly, reminding me in some aspects of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries. Unfortunately it is one of those cases where I can’t really reveal which story it is without giving away some of the parallel plot points. I can say though that there are some really satisfying moments, not least one that comes at the end of one of the early chapters that actually had me gasping in surprise.

Readers may feel that this story thread does slide into the background a little too easily at points in the narrative given that we are talking about the actions of a serial killer who we should expect would strike again. I think though that Halter does present a credible reason why Twist and Hurst get distracted from this case and focus in on the other mysterious events taking place in Leadenham.

The explanation given for what happened and why is clever, particularly in how it relates to the other storylines. There is some very clever plotting and narrative sleight of hand at play here and while I think it plays its strongest surprise a little too early (and is mechanically fairly straightforward), I found the solution to be significantly more satisfying than I expected though I share Brad’s dissatisfaction with an aspect of the ending that does leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

In spite of this however I have little difficulty in pronouncing this a triumph and one of the most satisfying experiences I have had with Halter to date. The quality of the run of books Halter produced between The Madman’s Room and The Demon of Dartmoor is truly impressive and while I think The Seventh Hypothesis is a more satisfying read overall, I think this is a close runner up winning points for its creativity and imagination.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event has not written a review of this on his blog but he did discuss it on an episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast. He also includes it on his Five to Try: Starting Paul Halter post. Finally, it places highly on his Top 15 LRI publications list.

The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel also recommended the book, albeit with some reservations. These include feeling that one of the locked room resolutions is ‘utter rubbish’ and thinking a motive is over the top. I do agree with his general sentiment that Halter’s problem is often that he throws too many elements in, not giving them the room to be properly developed.

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog is not always Halter’s biggest fan but he says that he was pleasantly surprised for the first three quarters of the novel and loved one of the explanations for a locked room. Unfortunately his experience was spoiled by a final scene reveal and by Halter not really trying to hide whodunnit.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was responsible for pushing this book higher up my TBR when he reviewed it toward the end of last year. He comments on how no individual solution is brilliant but the way they are brought together is ‘misdirection at its finest’.

The Invisible Circle by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Circle
The Invisible Circle
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1996

Several months ago in the comments section of my review of The Seventh Hypothesis I came to a realization about Paul Halter’s novels. I have sometimes struggled with the theatrical, gothic elements in his novels because they seem contrived for the reader’s entertainment rather than because they make the killer’s plans better.

The Invisible Circle, like The Seventh Hypothesis, is a consciously theatrical mystery. What I mean by this is that the theatrical elements of the scenario Halter creates are intentionally created by a character within the story to appear theatrical rather than to try to convince us that supernatural events are actually occurring.

There are multiple theatrical aspects to Halter’s scenario which are introduced early in the story, each evoking Arthurian legends. Before the characters even arrive on the island off the coast of Cornwall they are aware that the area is reputed to be the real location of King Arthur’s castle. Later the eventual victim gives each of the characters an Arthurian name, tells them that he will be murdered within an hour, identifies a killer and proceeds to lock himself within a room telling everyone that he must not be disturbed within that time. When he is discovered, he is found stabbed to death with a sword that they had previously seen firmly lodged in a stone.

Though I had been worried that those theatrical elements would be an afterthought or used as little more than color for this mystery I was very pleased when I realized that they had significance to piecing together what was happening and why it was happening. By the end of the novel we understand why the killer decides to create an apparently impossible crime and even if we think their actions are improbable, they are at least logical.

The puzzle of the murder itself is rather brilliant, benefiting in part by the other characters being able to clearly establish the geography of the room and its contents prior to it being sealed with the victim inside. This is a side effect of the theatricality or artificiality of the premise of the murder – because it is announced by the victim the characters are able to state definitively what they witnessed within the room and that no one interfered with the door during the hour in which the murder took place. The reader has to not only work out how the killer gained access to the room but also how they extracted the sword from the stone during that hour.

My usual stumbling block with these sorts of impossible crimes, particularly from Halter, is in understanding the killer’s thinking. My expectation is not that the crime is likely to have been committed in the way described but that the characters’ actions make sense given their motive and the resources at their disposal. I think Halter does a very good job of creating a solid explanation for why the killer decides to carry out a murder in this fashion and that he plays absolutely fair with the reader in laying the clues for us to deduce what is going on. I may not consider such a murder likely but I could understand how it might make sense to the killer to commit their crime that way.

Mechanically I think there are some aspects of the crime that work extremely well. Certainly I think the mystery of how the sword in the stone could have been used is cleverly explained. Also I was in no doubt of the killer’s movements and that they had the opportunity to carry out the murder which helped make the solution even more credible.

Now that is not to say that isn’t at least some coincidence and luck involved in the killer’s plans coming together. Their plan ultimately has some flaws, one of which is that once you attack the situation logically the killer’s identity becomes clear even if their motivation is not immediately so. Still, while I correctly guessed at the killer’s identity very early in the story it took me a while to feel like I could prove it.

The bigger issue is that there is a key aspect of the plot that relies on some astonishingly poor observational skills on the part of the cast of characters. Reviews by Puzzle Doctor and Ben both identify this as something that would be hard to believe could work as effectively as it does here and they are each right to do so. It didn’t bother me given that Halter signposts the theatricality of this scenario and that once you understand what has happened it can be used as evidence to solve the bigger mystery but I would agree that the killer gets extremely, almost unbelievably, lucky in that moment.

Having voiced my appreciation for Halter’s plotting and use of the Arthurian legends, I must say that the novel is less impressive in terms of its cast of characters. With the exception of Madge, the host’s niece, they feel functional rather than three-dimensional. I think this is appropriate for the type of plot Halter creates here but I mention it because this approach to characterization is not to everyone’s tastes.

So, where does that leave me overall? The Invisible Circle is not my favorite Halter novel but I think it is one of the most enjoyable. The pacing is brisk and each chapter seems to end with a fresh revelation that spins the case off in a new direction or makes the scenario seem even more dramatic.

Though I think the killer’s plan was enormously risky, I think Halter does explain the reasoning behind it and I appreciated that it plays fair, providing a solution that the reader can work out by a process of logical deduction. For those reasons I could overlook the killer taking what seems like several enormous risks and appreciate what they brought to this otherwise very cleverly constructed story.

The Man Who Loved Clouds by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Clouds
The Man Who Loved Clouds
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1999
Dr. Twist #14
Preceded by Meurtre dans un manoir anglais
Followed by L’allumette sanglante

I recently had an excellent time with The Seventh Hypothesis, naming it my Book of the Month for July, so I was excited to learn that Locked Room International would be releasing a translation of another Twist and Hurst mystery.

The novel concerns events in the coastal village of Pickering and the mystery surrounding a young woman who lives there.

The book begins with Twist relating a story he has been told by a young journalist who had visited the village on a whim, following a group of clouds. During that visit he had a brief encounter with that young woman in which she made a big impression on him, leading him to make enquiries about her with some of the locals.

Her name is Stella Deverell and she is reputed to have fairy-like powers including the ability to predict the future and to disappear into thin air. On a number of occasions she had been observed walking into a small wooded area only to disappear and though several people have attempted to catch her and find her secret, including the local police force, none had managed it.

She claims to have been clairvoyant since she was a young child and locals can point to several predictions she made that had come true as proof of her abilities. One of those predictions concerned the death of her father, made several days before he was discovered dead at the foot of a cliff having apparently committed suicide. Shortly after the journalist arrives she makes further predictions of deaths and in each case they come true, the victims appearing to be hurled to their deaths by strong gusts of wind.

Unlike the other Halter novels I have read and reviewed, it is noticeable that this is not structured around an obvious case of murder. We are aware of several strange deaths from the beginning of the book but at the point the investigation begins it is from the perspective of trying to understand a seemingly inexplicable set of events and to prevent further deaths rather than to solve an event already established to be a crime.

Stella is an intriguing character and wisely Halter avoids giving us too much time with her, having her discussed more than she is shown. We hear several accounts of incidents involving her and her powers, each making her powers seem simultaneously more convincing and puzzling. We may think of individual explanations for each of the incidents but it is harder to understand the bigger picture of how and why she is accomplishing these feats.

Some of the explanations can feel a little anticlimactic if viewed in isolation and only in terms of the mechanics of the puzzle but I was impressed by the way they tie together. In the past I have sometimes questioned the psychological consistency of Halter’s stories but here I think each small puzzle contributes to our understanding of the wider dynamics within the village and helps us get closer to identifying a killer and their motive.

While I would always caution readers not to expect too much in terms of the characterizations in a Halter novel, I do think this is one of his richer and more rewarding works in that respect. Certainly there are a number of characters who exist to impart information or to flesh out the population of the village but the characters at the heart of the narrative are given back stories, clear motivations and time is spent establishing their relationships.

In addition to resolving the puzzle elements of the plot, the ending also manages to include a whopping great revelation that I think is executed superbly. There is no trickery involved, nor does it feel like an afterthought but rather that element of the story was clearly planned from the beginning and hinted at throughout the novel. It ties in strongly with the themes Halter develops throughout the book and I think it makes for a surprisingly powerful conclusion.

I was less impressed with the mechanical explanations of how the wind had killed several villagers though I think it would be hard to imagine any explanation that could live up to the strangeness of that idea. I was a little more confused about why Twist does not seem to more actively attempt to disprove that could be the case and I do agree with Nick Fuller that it does seem odd that the sleuths spend more time reacting to events than actively pursuing leads or trying to disprove what a supernatural explanation for those deaths.

Neither of those issues substantially affected my enjoyment of the book and while I need a little time to reflect, I certainly think it is in the conversation to be one of my favorite Halter stories (The Seventh Hypothesis probably still has the edge but it is close). It is intricately plotted and I became even more impressed once I could see how each of the elements fitted together so neatly in the conclusion. Very highly recommended.