#548: The Seventh Guest (1935) by Gaston Boca [trans. John Pugmire 2018]

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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.

~

See also

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.

6 thoughts on “#548: The Seventh Guest (1935) by Gaston Boca [trans. John Pugmire 2018]

  1. If all you say here matches my own perceptions then I am certain to enjoy this one. I indirectly described Maurice Renard’s Hands of Orlac as “very French” a few months ago when I drew comparisons to the elements and motifs that resonate in early 20th century French crime fiction. My immeasurable appreciation for that “very French” atmosphere, mindset, and narrative technique extends to nearly all the crime fiction writers of France working during the Golden Age. But of all the French crime writers it is Boileau-Narcejac who impress me the most. Drawing on Golden Age motifs they practically invented a new subgenre — the crime novel situated not in any real place or locale but rather deep within the narrator’s troubled mind. I found much to fascinate me in the surreal nightmare world depicted in She Who Was No More. I’ll have to check out Gaston Boca.

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    • For simplest comparison, I’d say this falls somewhere between The Howling Beast (for sinister air and general setup) and the first half of The House That Kills (for emotional pitch). There’s a mix of the surreal madness of SWWNM, but it’s more sedentary in its actions: a surprising amount of this takes place in three rooms — it could, if done right, make a fabulous stage play, in fact.

      But I completely agree, even on my very narrow reading, that there does seem to be this commonality of atmosphere, motif, and technique that’s emerging from the Francophone authors of this stripe and era. And, I have to say, it fascinates me…

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      • Xavier Lechard, of At the Villa Rose, once explained that this “very French” mindset of the Gallic detective story was a response to their British counterparts, which they thought were often too cold and technical in nature.

        Anyway, glad you liked it! And let’s hope LRI will one day publish a translation of that ambitious impossible crime novel we’ve all been waiting for.

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        • It would be interesting to know how widely read (and/or translated) the English GAD stuff was in France. I’d wager you can see fingerprints of some of the French ’emotional’ detection writing in the HIBK and EIRF schools that emerged towards the latter end of GAD, so the cross-pollenation would make interesting research,

          I hope LRI will simply continue to publish these wonderful books, though, yes, there is one title that stands out in the minds of everyone eagerly awaiting announcements of each French title John Pugmire brings across…

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  2. I can’t quite blame you for spending my money here – another review had already placed this on my gift wish list – but, man, now I definitely need to follow through. Let’s hope that Pugmire doesn’t let up until all non-English titles from the list of 99 are available. It’s funny though to imagine all of the other non-English titles that didn’t make the list. The equivalents of, say, Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Solid Key or John Dickson Carr’s The White Priory Murders.

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    • When you consider that Paul Halter’s The Madman’s Room didn’t make that Lacourbe list, and that Pugmire lists a bunch of titles in the introduction to this that aren’t on the list — though in most cases the authors are — it’s quite exciting to think what’s out there. Buy some LRI books, people — we need to fund this ongoing voyage of discovery!

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