The recent, very exciting publication of the brand new Paul Halter novel The Gold Watch (2019, tr. 2019) served to remind me that I still hadn’t read Locked Room International’s previous publication, a translation of Les Invités de Minuit (1935) by Gaston Boca. This is by my reckoning the sixteenth title from the Roland Lacourbe-curated list of 99 excellent impossible crime stories that John Pugmire has brought into English, and his tireless promotion of these books across the language barrier is a continued source of joy for those of us who lament the dearth of great impossible crime fiction being written these days. Pugmire always has something up his sleeve.
Careful you don’t burn yourself on this review, because it’s an exceptionally hot take — I finished reading The Seventh Guest about five minutes ago and am up against a deadline to get this review out for Thursday, so this may be less cogent than usual (I am, of course, assuming that anyone will notice). My immediate feeling is that there’s an emblematically French style emerging from this era: not detection as such, much like The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry we get things resolved by a narrative afflatus, yet also not ‘not detection’ since — cf. Vindry’s The Howling Beast (1934) and The Double Alibi (1934) — there are no doubt the most sedulous efforts behind untangling the skein. There’s a hazy, higgledy-piggledy, helter-skelter aspect to the action which recalls She Who Was No More (1952) by Boileau-Narcejac, and the emotional pitch of everything is about half a terrified scream away from genre classic The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) by Gaston Leroux.
In short, this is very French — not a criticism if you’re into that style of narrative (and I have to say that the sudden changes from past to present tense worked superbly for me) — and written at such a pace and with such a commitment to the propulsion of the plot, with its short sentences and one-sentence paragraphs, that it’s difficult not to get swept along. It would be difficult to call Boca one of the classic authors of impossible crimes on this evidence, but if there’s a school of this sort of thing emerging from France in the 1930s to the 1960s, and John Pugmire’s tantalising introduction makes it clear that there very much is, I’d love to read another 30 or 40 of them right now.
The setup is also not dissimilar to The Howling Beast, with our amateur detective Stéphane Triel and his baggage/narrator Luc Duthiel summoned to the eerie Nanteuil manor and its surrounding parkland, all safely confined within a three-metre-high boundary wall, with entrance through a suitably gothic “wrought iron garden” of a gate that is “nothing but spirals, undulating bars and metal flowers”. Finding the lodge at the gate abandoned and following the sound of a scream, our intrepid duo discover the body Benoit Gérapin, the nephew of the servants who look after M. René d’Arlon’s property, hanging from a rope in a secluded shed. Clearly it’s suicide, as only one set of footprints lead to the shed. Who would possibly suspect anything else…?
From here, hold onto your hats.
In the game that was being played, it was easy to delude ourselves that we were the players. Nothing of the sort: we were the ball.
A night like no other shall pass at Nanteuil. Finding themselves unable to leave the manor’s grounds, our detectives, d’Arlon and his wife Jeanne, the chauffeur Émile, and Inspector Troubert will confront ghostly knockings, apparitions, phantom bloodstains, doors whose bolts — “enormous square pieces of iron buried in monstrous housings” — are so rusted as to defy opening and yet must have admitted ingress or egress to a wraith-like seventh guest who seems set on persecuting them to maximum effect.
Not only is it marvellous fun, but Pugmire also finds in Boca some fabulous turns of phrase to help things along: “There followed here a period of indeterminate length, because the only means of measurement, the steady beating of our hearts, had spun out of control” is one, and is the image of a cluster of attendees at a funeral peeling away from the coffin like “a black garland whose knot had come undone”. Equally, in the superbly protracted explanation — something like the last 20% of the book — when the scheme is unravelled and the scheme-behind-the-scheme revealed, Duthiel’s dismissal of what develops as “a duel of the inept” is, frankly, a masterclass, as is one character’s unimpressed grunt that “Your intellectual illumination doesn’t dazzle me” after Duthiel drops what is simultaneously a bombshell and also something of a damp squib.
The characters don’t really compel, but then the style of French writing in this idiom doesn’t seem too concerned with that. If anything, the way Triel turns out to be a very un-Holmesian presence feels quite refreshing: his sole contribution on the page apparently being to declare that “We’re rather like the passengers on a small boat in deep waters. Sudden movements and quarrels must be avoided” in order to encourage everyone keep a level head as the madness unfurls around them. Triel is in fact off page for the entire explanation, leaving his Watson to tell the story, and so depriving the detective of his grand posturing that would betoken so many strutting peacock amateur detectives and feels boldly innovative as a result. The only real shame is how much happens off-page, depriving the reader of the chance to solve this. Sitting on the sidelines is never quite as good as being in the game, but I feel the French were playing a different game with their detective fiction at this point.
The impossibilities are minor, but they work into a tight scheme that’s intelligently constructed, and the ineffable sense of unease is sewn throughout with minimal intrusion. Yes, everything is done at about a 12 on the Neuroses Scale, but then as Boca acknowledges “The more madmen there are, the more laughter there is!”. Get on board with the twitchy tone, prepare for a dense and gloomy time at the hands of human agency deploying ingenuity in sinister surroundings, and forgive the infelicities in clewing and detection and this is a glorious time. Let’s hope those potential future LRI titles named in the introduction see the light of an English-language sun before too long, and that they’re even half as enjoyable as this when they do.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The Seventh Guest is a nice treat for the avid locked room reader, however, the impossibilities here are simply cogs in the greater machine of the plot and the who, as well as the why, were actually much more interesting than the various impossible problems. And coming from me, that’s saying something. I very much enjoyed the locked room trickery pulled by the invisible guest, but the primary impossible crime, in the wood cabin, could have been a resounding disappointment had it not been for the excellent handling of the situation and murderer’s identity – making it perfectly acceptable. Not to mention the grim, but well-imagined, back-story that lead to this murder and that unforgettable night at the manor house with an invisible house guest.