Madame Bluebeard by Bruce Sanders
Originally Published 1951
I first learned of Madame Bluebeard in an advert in the back of a copy of Leonard Gribble’s The Inverted Crime. The copy assured me that the book would appeal to his fans presumably, though the advert didn’t state this, because the author Bruce Sanders was also the author Leonard Gribble. This fact passed me by however and so, intrigued by its premise and the (erroneous) idea that I would be trying a new author I sought out an affordable copy.
The novel begins with a West End agent summoning his nephew Brian Farrud to track down Jaline Grey, his most famous client and the star of the Madame Bluebeard films and stage plays who has unexpectedly walked out of her show and vanished. Brian decides to spin a story about a fictitious proposal from an Italian nobleman who has offered her the Brassogli trysting ring to explain her sudden disappearance.
Later Brian is accosted in the street and taken to a country house where he is questioned about this engagement. His captors reveal that she cannot be away while she mulls over the proposal because her body is in the next room. Soon after Anatole Fox, detective fiction author and the assistant director of the International Bureau of Crime Statistics, appears to investigate Brian’s story about the Brassogli trysting ring which he believes he invented and yet turns out to be a real piece of missing jewelry…
The description I give of the plot above only covers the first five or six chapters of the book and can only hint at the novel’s structure. The author constructs his story so that each chapter ends with a significant revelation or plot reversal, spinning the action off in a new direction or shifting our understanding of what is happening. The closest thing I have read to this is Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Skull of the Waltzing Clown and while I think this is less successful, it is hard not to be struck by the author’s ability to take this story to some really unexpected places.
The author achieves this through his characters’ near-constant movement and this, in turn, drives the plot. He cultivates the sense of a race against time as characters track down the answer to one question, at points moving between locations, only to discover a piece of information that prompts another dash for answers. Throughout the novel there is a sense that things develop not because they are logical outcomes of actions but to serve the need to end each chapter with some new revelation. All this frantic movement makes the piece feel unpredictable while some plot developments feel quite far-fetched. I think it is fair to say that it would be impossible for a reader to anticipate any part of the eventual explanation until they are a significant way into the book.
Just as the plot suffers for a lack of focus, the novel also has problems with its protagonist. There are two characters who might conceivably be considered to be the leading figures within the narrative – the young agent Brian and Anatole, the crime writer. On paper both characters ought to be quite appealing but here too I felt a little disappointed.
Of the pair, Brian is a more recognizable type being established as a slick, professional media relations specialist. I actually warmed to him almost immediately as we read how he works to spin Jaline Grey’s disappearance and I quite enjoyed his surprise at discovering that something he believed he had invented appears to exist. But then he largely disappears, ceasing to drive the narrative.
Instead Anatole becomes our point of focus but where Brian was a recognizable type, Anatole feels strangely remote as though we are being kept at arm’s length from him with the author not really sharing the character’s thinking or state of mind with the reader. For instance Anatole’s motives in pursuing the case are kept back for the reader for some time after his first introduction and neither character struck me as being particularly charming or appealing.
All that being said, the novel does pull off a few pretty exciting moments and revelations. The author lays the groundwork early on for several developments that will take place later in the story and while I think that some aspects of the plotting at times feel a little silly and far-fetched, I did appreciate that many of those moments seem to be supported by the text.
The problem for me was that I was unable to look past some of the more sensational elements and ideas within this plot. At no point did I ever really believe in any of these characters, nor did I find the explanation convincing even if the author did provide clues to support it. The constant movement and string of revelations may distract the reader from some of those issues but in the quieter moments I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the bizarre choices characters made and some really unlikely plot developments which only served to pull me out of the story.
Though it has a few points of interest unfortunately I think it is the least successful of the three books I have read from this author to date.