Disclosure: I proof-read this book for Locked Room International in April 2016.
After many years reading, talking about, reviewing, and now blogging on the subject of detective fiction I am presented with a real difficulty here: I honestly don’t know quite what to write about Noel Vindry’s classic The Howling Beast for fear of giving anything away. It is a balancing act of a book that, while probably not completely successful by today’s standards, is hugely enjoyable and absolutely something that those who count themselves as puzzle fans or lay claim to an interest in the emergence and development of detective fiction really should read. And I’m not just being vague here because I don’t want to criticise it — I really enjoyed it, and there’s one key thing it does absolutely brilliantly, and I’m especially keen to preserve that for those of you who should experience this pure. So, with that out of the way, here goes.
Pierre Herry, wanted for murder, approaches holidaying examining magistrate M. Allou and demands that the older man listen to the story of his crimes because the events are beyond his comprehension and driving him insane. In a nice touch, Allou has deliberately remained ignorant of the papers while on holiday and so has no idea who Herry is or what he is talking about. And so, as the two men sit in a cafe, Herry pours out his tale and Allou listens…
And that, my friends, is as much as I’m going to tell you about the plot. I really think you should go into this knowing not an ounce more — don’t even read the synopsis on the book or any website you may order this from. It is a beautifully compact and serenely-composed puzzle that is all the better if you don’t know what the front of the box looks like: so many aspects are drawn into the central setup and mystery that the air of self-doubt and confusion is rather key in getting the most out of this. And it’s a great read; John Pugmire is an excellent translator, as evinced through his increasingly-superb work with Paul Halter’s back catalogue, and here captures an essence of sharpness and concision from Vindry that is noticeably removed from M. Halter’s works and gives a real sense of how distinctive he must have been as an author.
Vindry, however, will not be to everyone’s taste. Clearly one of the practitioners of a grand Gallic tradition that Halter has picked up, puzzle and plot rule the day, and I could tell you everything of a personal nature about all of the characters in a few sentences (not each, that is; I mean about all of them). The cast is necessarily tiny and so the effects wrought on each of them by the actions of the plot are a touch on the melodramatic side at times — when you have to capture this response in only a small cohort, it is often necessary to overplay it, after all. I’ve not yet read Vindry’s first novel The House That Kills, translated by Pugmire last year, but understand that it has an unusual structure; The Howling Beast certainly joins it in this regard: the impossibility here is something you are made to wait for, though it comes about with an organic inevitability that is seamlessly worked from the characters and this very distinct position they find themselves in.
Flashes of atmosphere fill out the backdrop and setting, and give a tantalising (or, for some, perhaps frustrating) hint of how effective an author Vindry would be if he opted to put a little more emphasis on such things. Lovely moments sketch in the essentials and give you just enough leeway to add whatever else you need, like with the shepherd character Père Antoine:
He was of medium height and was wearing the traditional smock. His face was covered in white hairs, so much so one could hardly differentiate moustache, beard or eyebrows.
That’s all you get for a physical description, but the manner and the content of his speech allows you to paint in as much of the man as you need within the lines Vindry’s sketching provides. This is obviously a very deliberate choice on Vindry’s part, and a necessary metric when trying to determine how much someone would enjoy this book. Rest assured, there is some very good psychology in here — in flashes, obviously, no maundering for M. Vindry — and taken as a character study there is arguably both a lot and not very much depending on how you choose to approach it.
Last week’s review, Max Afford’s The Dead Are Blind, is probably quite a good comparison, actually: the slightly nightmarish overtones, the cleanliness of the construction — Vindry has this, as well as a stir of early Carr and the aforementioned origins of Halter. A sympathy with or enthusiasm for those authors will definitely help your enjoyment of this, though Vindry’s own iconoclastic streak secures this as so much more than simply another retread of familiar ideas made dull by too much exposure. And hopefully once you read it you’ll understand the difficulty I’ve had in discussing it while wishing to give nothing away!
I must now go back and read The House That Kills, and we must collectively hope that more innovation is on the way from John Pugmire and LRI — with these first Vindry translations, the introduction of shin honkaku with The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle, Derek Smith’s two masterpiece novels Whistle up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair, and the continued exploits of Paul Halter’s impossibilities surely you don’t need any more convincing that the man is doing amazing work. Encore, encore!