Aaaah, the debut novels of celebrated authors. Would anyone read It Walks by Night and predict The Problem of the Green Capsule or Till Death Do Us Part? Does The Mysterious Affair at Styles in any way prepare you for The Moving Finger, or for Crooked House? Often it’s a challenge to look back on the opening salvo of a career that would go on to become notable and find any vestige of that in those first few hundred pages, and it can be even harder when — as in the case of Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills — you’re waiting 80 years to read it in your native language and are told up front of the author’s own huge contribution to the genre. Frankly, it needs to be The Usual Suspects mixed with The Mystery of the Yellow Room (spoilers for that in this, incidentally) as rewritten by David Mamet…and even then it probably won’t match the hype.
On these grounds, I can thoroughly understand the lukewarm reception this, the first English translation of any of Vindry’s novels, has received from wise and experienced heads such as John Norris over at Pretty Sinister and TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time. Fortunately for me, I read the second Vindry translation from John Pugmire’s Locked Room International, The Howling Beast, earlier this year and was prepared for Vindry’s particular stylings: maximum puzzle, a dash of melodrama (there’s a moderate amount of screaming, often at times of high tension), minimum characterisation. Thus I was able to go into this with these awarenesses perched on opposite shoulders and vying for my attention every time something happened to strengthen one point of view or the other.
The Howling Beast benefitted from a creeping sense of dread atmosphere which is largely absent here, but this being the apprentice work it’s entirely forgivable. It’s true that for the casual reader this would be improved with something more than a description of a location and then some confusing stuff happening, but for me the determination in Vindry’s straight-ahead plotting is pretty brave: chapter 1 starts on page 11, and the perpetrator of the impossibilities we witness is named on page 76; by page 93 everything is wrapped up with more than a third of the book to go…oh my fur and whiskers, I’m thinking, please let’s not have 50 pages of goodbyes like The Return of the King. I’ll take an overlong Ewok party over that, slightly out of left-field though it would be…
And then — and here’s what marks this out for me among the field of Debuts of Note — Vindry gives us another impossibility, beautifully motivated and rich in misdirection and suspicion in a way that takes this slightly overripe first half and spins from it a far finer thread that you suspect was the point all along. There’s the undeniable air of consequences, of chickens coming home to roost, and it inspires a retrospection entirely uncommon in this genre at this time. True, his atmosphere near-vacuum robs this second crime of the sense of tension we might hope for, but as a simply-explained puzzle where All Is Not What It Seems I’ve seen few that establish their setup so cleanly and explain it away so cleverly. As a short story in its own right, this would be something of a masterpiece, and I feel that its qualities are perhaps lost or overlooked in the context which it is given.
John Norris made the observation in his own post above that Vindry is likely to appeal to fans of Paul Halter, and I can’t disagree. Both share that level of artifice in construction that takes a situation and, in a way the classically smooth plotting won’t allow, just pushes it and pushes it to the point of insanity, until all the elements required are so tightly packed in on one another that they can’t help but come tumbling out at the moment the strain is simply too great to contain them any more. Their puzzle plots are a delight to me for this reason: I love seeing something exploited in this manner, the creativity required to bend your mind around those corners fascinates me and is what draws me to this type of novel in the first place. Yes, it has its problems for the casual reader, as I say, but this is as essential as The Howling Beast for anyone who has a legitimate curiosity about how the puzzle novel has developed over the years, and especially for anyone who wants to experience the roots of the grand Gallic tradition of such detective fiction.
So, well. On balance, the average reader of this review will like this book slightly less than I do, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and am hoping that more Vindry follows from John Pugmire’s LRI. Just one extra niggle to finish on: the title. Give that the house in question is never suspected as being involved in the murders (they’re all shootings and stabbings) I find The House That Kills an unusual choice…The House of Death, maybe, but maybe that’s also just me…
On a side note, this now means that I have read every single one of the books in my header image on this blog. Is a new photo needed, do we think, highlighting some of the titles likely to come in the months ahead, or have I now nailed my colours to the mast and must remain with the above? Argh, decisions!