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.