Disclosure: I proof-read this book for Locked Room International in February 2018.
There will come a time when my love of the puzzle novel will result in me having to recuse myself where reviews are concerned, I think, because my response to the machinations of the most complex of GAD is simply not that of a normal human being. Until such a time, however, I shall continue to frolic and bask in the joy of the likes of Noel Vindry and his pattern-obsessed kin because, frankly, it’s just so much fun. The Double Alibi (1934) is doubtless the most twisty yet translated into English by John Pugmire, and if anything approaching this level of ingenuity remains then, dude, I hope we get to see that as well.
As the title suggests — and, you know me, I’m keen to preserve as many surprises as possible going in and therefore recommend you know little beyond what I’m going to mention below — someone falls under suspicion for a crime and has not simply one alibi to excuse themselves from consideration but, somehow, two. That Gustave Allevaire is a no-good sort and definitely guilty of something is beyond doubt, but the difficulty remains in how three separate events can be accounted for when each implies the man’s simultaneous presence at scenes remarkably unproximal to each other. The moment this is revealed is such a clanging surprise that you almost wish Vindry had found another title, perfect though this one is.
Interestingly, it is not this situation that presents the impossibility we know Locked Room International trades in. Vindry’s implacable examining magistrate M. Allou is on the case once more and suggests several interpretations fairly quickly that would account for the situation he is landed in — at a later point Allou even suggests the case is becoming too simple for his conundrum-loving brain, to the extent that he’s bored with it — but precisely what Allevaire has done must still be established. And this is where Vindry truly excels. His preternatural talent at spinning a web of ever-increasing complexity from an already complex setup, all the while maintaining clarity at the eye of his storm, is a talent matched by only a few at the peak of the genre.
If The House That Kills (1932) was rather short on character and The Howling Beast (1934) richer but rather sparse, here at least we get something approaching a set of individuals who come at their actions for definable reasons. If you want fully-complex and alive portraits then read the Booker longlist, but alongside all his plotting and counter-plotting Vindry does give you here a cast that commends more than the usual ciphers to the memory. From Allou’s at times beautifully terse colleague Sallent, to the well-meaning-but-lazy Inspector Proto, to the conflicted Marthe Clermon, to the villainous Allevaire himself, there’s plenty here to appease anyone who disdains the absence of such in these books. And Vindry excels himself with the wonderful “Misses Levalois” and the lawyer Epicevielle with who we start the book. I’d read a whole novel of just them, to be honest.
It’s not perfect, of course. The use of an unnamed person as a MacGuffin towards the end is something of a masterstroke for not over-complicating his narrative, but then to the same ends some of the reasoning doesn’t quite hold water — those letters being found where they are, that makes…no sense. The late introduction of a key piece of evidence, too, means you’re not really going to solve every aspect of this fairly, even if Vindry is clearly straining to make it as solvable as possible in advance of this revelation. And the impossibility here is fun but minor, with the slight disappointment of how it works unfortunately timed to overshadow a far keener piece of misdirection.
You don’t come to Vindry to carp at the slight falseness of it all, however; you come to watch a master spin circles through smoke-rings in mirrors around the houses at the end of the garden path. In the ranking of the three current Vindry translations, I’d place this first for plot — a retrospective review of this highlights just how freakin’ clever a game has been played — but second to The Howling Beast for that book’s dread atmosphere of venomous unease. Either way, it’s a must for puzzle-lovers, a must for those interested in how other countries responded to English-language GAD masterworks, and definitely one for those who fail to see how character and dense plot can co-exist.
You don’t have long to wait: the book is published by Locked Room International on April 3rd. And, hey, with any luck there are still plenty more like this to come…