Seventeen. John Pugmire has now, through Locked Room International, published 17 previously-non-Anglophone books from the Roland Lacourbe-curated Locked Room Library list, all but one being his own translations. This brings LRI’s roster up to 38 books, a frankly incredible achievement (and hopefully a long way from finished yet), comprising among others Paul Halter, a shin honkaku renaissance, and a reprint of Locked Room Murders by Robert Adeyand a completely new follow-up. And still the great titles keep on coming, including this unheralded little gem from Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier — one of three books Gensoul wrote in 1945.
Last week we had too little content spread over too many pages, this week it’s the reverse. There’s a lot of material here, and it’s barely a novel — take out the diagrams, a handful of blank pages (since chapters start on odd-numbered pages only), the list of characters, and the contents page, and the actual prose of the plot probably only just fills 100 pages, probably around 30,000 words in total. The advantage of this is that it really does not hang around — though there’s still plenty of time for Gensoul and Grenier to enjoy themselves amidst the impossible shootings and mayhem that unfolds — and the action moves quickly and with a loopy air to it that the French seemed to make their own.
Stylistically we’re in Noel Vindry territory, with semi-cipher characters less important than the actions they’re overseeing…and with an ending that comes so far out of let-field that I think it was a different game altogether. Essentially a simple story of four grown friends — Dublard, Darlay, Beaurieux, and Le Bellec — taking their annual holiday at the isolated Manor of the Baron Pierre de Malèves when, in a bet with the famed detective novelist Dublard, Beaurieux acts out a simple series of actions with three playing cards, invokes the curse “And the Emperor of China be damned!” and someone ends up dead…just as Beaurieux promised. Of course, the shooting in the locked, bolted room could be a coincidence, and so the ritual is re-enacted, only for a second death to occur. And a third…
Dublard being a detective novelist, we naturally have a lot of fun at the expense of the puzzle plotter:
“Bright sparks, all of you. You decide the denouement before you start the story… You put together snippets of mystery, studiously withholding any details which would allow your readers to work out the solution for themselves. When the joke has gone on long enough, you end the story with two shakes of a lamb‘s tail and casually write THE END at the bottom of the one hundred-and-eighty-first page….”
Dublard, of course, also has his fun, such as the extended treatise following the first shooting in which he makes a case for the how and why of every single person at the Manor committing the crime, or his unimpressed attitude when Commissaire Machaux fails to seek his opinions on the murder: “[A]ll those policemen are the same. I‘m right to describe them in my books as not very bright and not very polite”. The interplay between the friends as they rag and dismiss each other gives events a solid core to build around, and the small cast is made up of nice thumbnail sketches of people who you really don’t want to be guilty.
As the murders continue, with an ever-shortening suspect list and no-one apparently free to have committed them, Dublard is also the voice of rationality in the face of rising, ineradicable hysteria. “They‘re up to their necks in this cock-and-bull story,” he laments at one point, “In the twentieth century!” — of course, we know there must be a rational solution, and charged with “find[ing] a solution which makes the readers happy” Dublard and Darlay team up, examining the scant clues that can be found — and Gensoul and Grenier obscure a good one early on, but, seriously, you’ve not going to solve this — and drawing some good inferences from whether or not the gunshot could be heard inside the house, and the proximity of the weapon to the victim in each case.
The solution to all this is…delightfully infuriating. It’s nowhere close to fair play in declaration — not even in the same country — but I can’t deny its charm, especially the reasoning for how the first and second crimes differ, and how these two inform the commission of the third. Taken as a series, they’re brilliant, and there’s a devilish ingenuity at work here to tie these actions together so tightly. Some of you aren’t going to love it, though, and that’s fine. I get the impression that the French school was a little less concerned with elements of, er, commission than was the English school at this stage of the game, though I of course welcome the translation of more of the titles mentioned in the French Golden Age appendix to disprove this point (fingers crossed, we get some Marcel Lanteaume before too long…). I mean, LRI has to get to at least 50 books, right? What’s the point of starting otherwise?
Some lovely moments of repose are captured gorgeously by the authors, and brought across nicely by Pugmire’s translation, such as the police arriving at the Manor to find virtually everyone has fled, or the moments when things slow down enough to give us a brief description before racing off again at speed:
The rays of the setting sun caressed his forehead and gave his sparse blond hair the appearance of a halo, of the kind sported by stained-glass saints.
Death Out of Nowhere might be a footnote in the history of the genre, but one of the more enjoyable footnotes, full of playfulness and wild creativity, with a distinctly French joie de vivre about the hoops it pushes you through. A few years ago I would have taken this too seriously and enjoyed it half as much, but now I’m delighted to have just been swept along for one of the most purely enjoyable rides I’ve been on for a long time.
Worth noting, too, for reasons John Pugmire explains, that the final 20 pages of this are the short story ‘House Call’ (1854) by Alexandre Dumas, previously included in LRI’s The Realm of the Impossible collection. I’ve written about it here, and stand by what I said back then: it’s charming, and an enjoyable enough time. A shame not to have something new included in here, but I can see how rights issues would be complicated enough as it is. Not everyone has the British Library’s means to include a rare short story when the opportunity arises!
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the breakneck storytelling engaged in by the authors. From the start this book is constantly throwing ideas and story developments at the reader. This is not only highly effective in terms of keeping the reader bewildered as the pace barely lets you think, it also helps to add to the unsettling effect created by this series of murders as it does seem that things are continuing to accelerate and become more dangerous for the remaining house guests.