Some very effective early chapters set up an intriguing situation but the subsequent investigative portions feel a little flat in contrast.
Originally published in 1937 as A Travers les Murailles
English translation first published in 2021
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….
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.