Through the Walls by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

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.

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

The Howling Beast by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

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

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.

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.

The Double Alibi by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

DoubleAlibi
The Double Alibi
Noël Vindry
Originally Published 1934

Over the past year I have been slowly but surely working my way through the Locked Room International back catalogue in a rather haphazard way, picking titles based on positive reviews comments from blogging chums and on occasion because an element of the premise intrigued me. Though I own The Howling Beast and The House That Kills I decided I would skip over those titles after I read JJ’s review of this title.

There were a few aspects of the novel that appealed to me in advance but what caught my attention the most was the problem of a person appearing to have been in multiple places at once. As TomCat quite rightly points out, this is not really an impossible situation as there are perfectly clear explanations given for each of the sightings but the reader and M. Allou have to work out how these different threads are woven together.

The subject of those reported sightings is Gustave Allevaire, a thief who has been in prison several times to his cousins’ mortification. They are constantly trying to persuade their aunt who they care for and who expects to receive a sizeable inheritance whenever her brother passes away that he is a bad lot but she still sees him as a cheeky youngster rather than a career criminal.

They hear from a family friend that Gustave has been seen in the vicinity of their home so when they wake at one in the morning to discover that the silver and their life savings have been pilfered they instantly suspect him. Things are looking even bleaker for Gustave when his fingerprints are discovered on a few pieces of silver that were dropped in the house. The problem is that at precisely the same time he was supposedly stealing from their home he was also breaking into but not stealing money from his employer’s desk nine hours drive away and in a third location (I’m not spoiling that one for you – it is a great reveal).

Enter M. Allou, a juge d’instruction who takes charge of investigating these cases in spite of their occurring in separate jurisdictions. In the course of the novella he travels to each of the crime scenes, interviewing the witnesses and trying to make sense of how Gustave appears to have been in three places at once.

The novel is at its best in the opening and closing sections as it lays out the facts of the incidents and explains the links between them. I found the scenes with the Levalois sisters and their aunt to be entertaining and their relationship to be well observed. The characterization is strong and I appreciated the time Vindry spends explaining their living situation as it does help bring them to life rather than existing just to serve the puzzle.

Similarly I really responded well to the characters in the office where Gustave had been working and, in particular, to the uncertain interpersonal relationship between the witness who claims to have seen Gustave and the owner’s sister. Even the police officers that Allou works alongside prove interesting and colorful!

Unfortunately while I appreciated the strong character work, I did find that the novel seemed to drag a little for me in the middle. In this section we witness Allou and his colleagues mulling over the different theories about who may be at best incorrect or possibly lying about what they saw, a process that becomes a little repetitive as we wait for a breakthrough to happen.

Happily that does come along with a small locked room problem to liven things up as we get ready for Allou to have his breakthrough and work out what was done and how. Those explanations are quite clever and do make sense of the tangle of links between the three appearances. I certainly didn’t get close to solving this one and kicked myself about not picking up on a couple of points once the explanations were given which is really what I’m hoping to get out of reading an impossible crime story.

Overall, I am glad I finally got around to reading one of the Vindry books I have had sat on my to read pile for months and I certainly appreciated some of the interesting character choices the author made. The puzzle, while not impossible, is clever and stimulating and I did enjoy the way everything is brought together at the end. I will be curious to try the other Vindry novels in the future though I think my next Locked Room International stop will be a return to Halter.