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.

Whistle Up the Devil by Derek Smith

Book Details

Originally published in 1953
This title is collected in an omnibus edition with Come to Paddington Fair and Model for Murder

The Blurb

Roger Querrin died alone in a locked and guarded room, beyond the reach of human hands. Algy Lawrence …could not explain the mystery of this “miracle” murder. And then, faced with a second crime which could not possibly have been committed, he began to wonder, at last, if somebody had conjured up an invisible demon who could blast out locks and walk through solid walls…

The Verdict

Offers an intriguing opening and some clever points in the solution but I was a little frustrated by the pacing and some of the choices made in the investigative section.

“An uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach? A nasty thumping at the top of your head? I call that detective fever.”

My Thoughts

You find me sitting down for the second time to write up my thoughts on Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil having contrived to accidentally delete all of my scheduled posts that were supposed to go out last week. To say that was frustrating is rather an understatement than better that then my first thought which was that they had gone live and simply no one had found them interesting enough to respond to. That, of course, could still happen…

Whistle Up the Devil has been on my TBR pile for nearly as long as I’ve been doing this blog. That is not entirely unprecedented – I have a bad habit of reading half of an omnibus and leaving the rest untouched for years (for example, The Dead Shall Be Raised and Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs). It may also reflect though that while I admired the ending of Come to Paddington Fair, I found the first half of that novel pretty uninspiring.

The novel begins with Algy Lawrence being asked by Chief Inspector Castle to visit Querrin House in the countryside in his stead after he has been called away by the Yard to work on an urgent case. We learn that Castle is concerned for the safety of his friend Roger Querrin who is about to get married as he is insisting on recreating a family tradition that had led to the death of an ancestor.

Lawrence tries to decline the request but his curiosity gets the better of him and he joins the vigil, assisting the local police in providing a perimeter around the room’s entrances and windows. Inevitably however history repeats himself and Querrin is discovered dead with a knife in his back. The entrances to the room had been under constant observation making the murder seem impossible.

Okay, so plenty to discuss here but before I get into the investigative portion of the novel I do want to stress how well I think the first two chapters set up the conditions of the crime and point to some possible points of interest. One thing I particularly noted is how quickly this material is set up and the clarity of the descriptions of the space and of the various players’ positions. The impossibility is clear and it is easy to see why the conditions of the crime would appear so puzzling to those keeping guard.

I should also say that the family legend of supernatural doom and destruction is a favorite trope of mine in this sort of fiction and while this is not as outlandish as some (for example, Paul Halter’s The Lord of Misrule), I think it is sufficiently simple that you could accept both the idea of the family ceremony and also the reason why a supernatural event might be tied to it. As starting points for stories go, I think this is pretty solid.

Unfortunately, I was less pleased with the body of the investigation. Part of the issue here is connected to the book’s pacing. After getting things off to such a quick start, throwing us into a potential murder case on the day it is supposed to happen and giving us an account of the wait for something to happen, the sudden deceleration that occurs once questions begun to be asked struck me as quite jarring.

Perhaps it also didn’t help that the cast of potential suspects provided is fairly small and contained a character in the form of Uncle Russ, an older man with a predilection for young, attractive women, that I found boorish rather than charmingly roguish as I suspect I was supposed to. Meanwhile the female characters are almost entirely characterized and described in terms of their sexual appeal.

Derek Smith was clearly a huge enthusiast of the impossible crime story. There are references and call-outs galore to writers like Carr and Clayton Rawson that will no doubt be a source of delight to some. I get the appeal of those moments – I am, after all, also a huge Doctor Who fan and get the joy that comes with seeing things I love get name checked. Here however I felt it gets in the way of the story and highlights the artificiality of the detective story format and contributed to the sense that we went from a place of apprehension and suspense to something rather more self-aware. Halter, of course, is just as well read and similarly draws influence from classic works but those parallels feels more like treats for the widely-read impossible crimes enthusiast to spot and appreciate for themselves.

Things do pick up a little with the introduction of a second impossibility which offers another take on the idea of a crime being committed under the detectives’ noses. I do feel that the ultimate explanation of how and why that second murder took place struck me as a little less clever than the first but as secondary crimes go it is solid enough and I do appreciate what it ends up adding to the story overall.

While I may have felt that the middle of this novel seemed to sag, I will say that the solution is at least interesting and I enjoyed some of the developments that occur in the final few chapters. I also appreciate that while the crime may seem complex, the solution to it is quite simple and the tricks worked are pretty clever and make sense – even when the killer seems to be taking some pretty big risks. Occasionally I have complained about problems of motive with impossible crime novels but that is not the case at all here – indeed one of the aspects of the novel that impressed me most was that there was some thought given to the psychology of what was happening in the discussion of the crime at the end.

I also think Lawrence’s explanation is laid out very well. Each aspect of the solution is clearly and logically explained, making it seem all the more convincing. Is it flawless? Perhaps not. The author acknowledges one problem, admittedly more to do with plotting clarity than feasibility, in a letter included in the edition I read where they also describe how they would have made some small changes to tighten an aspect of the solution. Overall I felt quite satisfied, even if it lacked the excitement I felt as the impossibility came into view towards the end of Come to Paddington Fair.

Overall I felt that Whistle Up the Devil offered up some points of interest, even if it didn’t manage to sustain the excitement of its first few chapters. Personally I think there are some stronger titles in the Locked Room International library but it is certainly worth a look for puzzle fans, especially as the omnibus edition represents some excellent value for money.

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 Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Book Details

Stories were collected and published in English in 2020

The Blurb

Few writers of detective fiction can match both John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts at their own game. Included in this superb collection by Tetsuya Ayukawa, recognized as the doyen of the honkaku mystery, are four impossible crime stories and three unbreakable alibi tales. The final story “The Red Locked Room” can lay claim to be one of the finest ever written in the genre. Judge for yourself.

The Verdict

A very strong collection of locked room and unbreakable alibi stories. Based on this sampler let’s hope more Ayukawa will follow!

“It can be confidently stated that there is not one writer belonging to the shin honkaku movement who does not hold Tetsuya Ayukawa in the utmost regard.”

Taku Ashibe, Introduction

My Thoughts

For the first three months of the year I have tried to post a weekly review of a Japanese crime or mystery novel as part of my participation in the Japanese Literature Challenge. This week’s post will be the final one in that series, though of course my TBR pile still contains plenty more Japanese mystery books to read. It is also something of a transition to my next weekly post theme but there will be more on that in a moment!

An excellent introduction from Taku Ashibe provides some background both about Ayukawa and how the stories he wrote fit into the general development of the honkaku mystery. It discusses his two series detectives Chief Inspector Onitsura and the gifted amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage, both represented in this collection, and outlines the differences between them. Essentially the latter’s stories tended to be howdunnit tales while the former blends elements of the police procedural and the puzzle plot, typically focusing on breaking alibis.

There were seven stories selected for this collection – four featuring Hoshikage and three Onitsura and they are alternated which does help to make the stories here feel more balanced between the different styles which is to be welcomed.

The quality of the stories on offer is generally very high and there is no failure in the collection. Even the weakest stories (which I felt were The White Locked Room and The Five Clocks) still had points of interest and each story felt well clued with solid and detailed explanations.

The best stories on the other hand are quite exceptional. The Clown in the Tunnel is a wonderfully worked story where a killer appears to have disappeared while escaping in a short tunnel that was observed at either end. The author is meticulous in charting out the various movements of the characters throughout the house and I appreciated the clever solution.

The other story that really grabbed me was the preceding one – Death in Early Spring. This story about a man found murdered in a construction site is similarly very cleverly timed, presenting a wonderful unbreakable alibi scenario. Ayukawa’s plotting here is really quite ingenious and everything is very fairly clued.

It is a really strong collection that I think should be of interest to anyone who enjoys Japanese puzzle plot mysteries. I hope that further Ayukawa follows in translation as I was very impressed with this sampler of his work. For those interested in more detailed thoughts on the stories contained in this collection be sure to read the second page of this review!

Finally, as I trailed at the start of this post my Monday posts will have a different theme for at least the next two months. After throwing out some suggestions for themes to that small but brave band of folk who follow me on Twitter I can announce that in April and May #mondaysareimpossible as I post about locked room and impossible crime novels. Is there a better way to start the week?

Second Opinions

I strongly recommend checking out this review from TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time who was similarly very impressed with the collection but has some different preferences as to what he considers the best stories.

Also check out Nick’s review @ The Grandest Game in the World for his thoughts on each of the stories here.

CLICK HERE FOR STORY-BY-STORY COMMENTS

Lending the Key to the Locked Room by Tokuya Higashigawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Book Details

Originally published as Misshitsu No Kagi Kashimasu in 2002
Ikagawa City Series #1

The Blurb

Ryuhei, a would-be film director, has just been dumped by his girl friend and his drunken threats to kill her have made him the prime suspect, as she has just been murdered. 

His alibi is that he was watching a film in his friend’s home movie theatre at the time. Unfortunately, his friend has also been stabbed to death in his bathroom, with the door to the apartment locked with a door chain. 

Worse still, Ryuhei was the only other person in the apartment at the time, and passed out until the following morning after he discovered his friend’s body. Fearing that the police will not believe him, because the door chain can only be locked from the inside, he panics and runs away. Not a good idea. 

Lending the Key to the Locked Room is not only brilliantly clever, it is also genuinely funny.

The Verdict

An excellent example of a lightly comic puzzle mystery with some clever plotting.


My Thoughts

Lending the Key to the Locked Room is an example of the shin honkaku ha (New Orthodox school) of Japanese mystery fiction. Works in this style, which began in the 1980s, hark back to the idea and rules of the fair play puzzle mystery practised by the likes of S. S. van Dine and Ellery Queen. Such works can be regarded as a game or contest of wits where the author promises to give the reader all the clues they need to be able to solve the mystery before the detective if they have the imagination to do so.

This was Tokuya Higashigawa’s first novel and it presents us with a complicated situation in which a man finds himself linked to two murders in bizarre circumstances.

Ryūhei joined the film program at Ikagawa University but as he nears graduation he decides that wants a guaranteed job and so he reaches out to a friend, Kōsaku Moro, who workss at a small film company. The work won’t be lucrative or glamorous but he is glad of the security. His girlfriend is appalled as she does not see her future in Ikegawa and dumps him. A few days later he gets heavily drunk and starts a bar fight screaming his girlfriend’s name and saying he will kill her. This will not look good for Ryūhei…

Ryūhei is invited over to Kōsaku’s home to watch a movie together on his home theater system. After the movie finishes Kōsaku offers to get snacks and drinks, leaving him alone in the house while he runs to the store. When he returns he tells him that he saw a commotion and that he had heard that someone had died from falling from a building which turns out to be the one where Ryūhei’s ex-girlfriend lives. We will later learn that she was murdered.

His friend leaves him alone to take a shower. When he doesn’t emerge after a long period, Ryūhei investigates to find his friend dead of a knife wound. He finds that the door to the apartment had been chained and that no one could have gained access or left through any of the windows. It makes for an intriguing scenario, built around a very solid locked room problem. Not only was he present at one murder in a location that no one else could gain access to, there are clear links between the two crimes such as the weapon used. Given that we have followed Ryūhei throughout the events of that evening we can be confident that he is not responsible for either murder yet it clearly looks bad for him.

I felt pretty confident that I had the answers quite early in the investigation but I quickly realized that the solution could not be quite as simple as I was thinking. Even when an idea appeared that it might fit the facts, some point would be brought up that would make me realize that my ideas would not work. While I would work out a few of the key points by the end of the novel, I have to say I didn’t get close to the details of the actual solution.

The best part of that solution relates to the sequence of events that evening. Towards the end of the novel we are given a detailed, step-by-step explanation which does a superb job of laying out exactly why things happened the way they did. The mechanics of the killer’s plan struck me as quite clever and one aspect of it in particular stood out as quite imaginative and original. I enjoyed it as much for the manner it is revealed by piecing ideas together as the audacity of the concept itself.

I did have an issue with the solution which relates to motive. Being as vague as I can be, I feel that the killer’s motive is rather weak. While I accept that some signs of it are clearer once you know what it is, I am not sure that I think it would push someone to act in the way they do and so I did find that reasoning to be a little unconvincing. I will say though that it has grown on me as I have reflected and thought of the indications in the story that I have missed. There are a few points in that solution that struck me as strange when I first read them but as I thought back through the story I could see the clues that could have led me there.

Though I am a little reluctant to label this as a comic detective story, in part because the humor is not frequent enough to feel like the purpose or focus of the story, Higashigawa does approach telling his story in a rather light-hearted fashion. His narration is peppered with little comments that acknowledge that we are reading a detective story, reflecting on the expected structures and plot developments of such works. They prompted more smiles than laughter for me but I still appreciated their inclusion and felt it fit well with the general craziness of the story’s premise.

Overall, I found Lending the Key to the Locked Room to be an entertaining read. The puzzle has some really clever features and I enjoyed the occasional meta asides in the narration which I found amusing and which gave the piece a rather unique style. I would certainly be willing to read more from this series should others become available.

Further Reading

This release does not have either an introduction or endnotes but the translator, Ho-Ling Wong, recently blogged about the release and had previously offered their thoughts on the book. Both are worth reading.

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.

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 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.