#638: Death Out of Nowhere (1945) by Alexis Gensoul & Charles Grenier [trans. John Pugmire 2019]

Death out of Nowherestar filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars
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 Adey and 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!

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See also

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.

23 thoughts on “#638: Death Out of Nowhere (1945) by Alexis Gensoul & Charles Grenier [trans. John Pugmire 2019]

  1. Interesting! I was looking forward to reading what you would make of this and your review didn’t disappoint.

    I loved the pacing which really keeps the action moving almost constantly. The solution struck me as utterly crazy and yet I felt that most of the aspects were clued, albeit quite subtly except a key aspect to the solution to how death number three took place. Not that I had the slightest idea what that solution was – I got nowhere near this one and was kicking myself for not recognizing the significance of some remarks or choices of words.

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    • There’s something undeniably French about how this unfolds, too — as I say above, I get the impression that there was a school of “make it entertaining, worry about the rigorous clewing” thought in this subgenre at around this time…and I’m all for it! This, the translated Vindrys, and the Boca that LRI has brought to us have all had that slightly fervid air about them, and somehow the French make it work in a way that the English or the Americans simply wouldn’t.

      Good grief, I hope there’s some Michel Herbert, Eugene Wyl, S.A. Steeman, Pierre Very, Marcel Lanteaume, or any of the others mentioned in the afterword here on the way before too long.

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  2. I admittedly walked out of this one not entirely sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it was fast, but well-paced, and clearly written by someone who understood the genre and wanted to have some fun with it. On the other, the solution to it all just kind of made me shrug. Which surprised me, since I’m usually always on-board with any kind of solution, provided it’s, at its core, entertaining. And even though my brain told me “this is totally up your alley and the kind of goofy shit that impossible crimes live for,” I still didn’t FEEL entertained. A weird experience. Probably still worth reading even if I feel like the asking price could’ve been toned down by a dollar or two, given the far shorter length (even if you count the short story in.)

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    • I think the experience isn’t helped by some of the obfuscation — for instance, when one of our amateur sleuths finds something shiny on the ground and we’re only told that: they’ve found something shiny. Not what it is — which we could be, since they recognise it — merely that a shiny thing has been found. And then you find out what it is right at the end and…why not just tell us when he found it? Anyone who could work out what happened from that information is a freaking genius.

      Equally, all the “investigating” towards the end, where we’re told that conversations are had but not what’s said in any detail at all. That’s what knocked a star off for me — it’s too easy to introduce anything that way, without even trying to clue your audience in. It’s a shame, too, because that diagram of the first and second murders is hilariously good fun, and probably one of the highlights of the book.

      So, in short, yeah. I get where you’re coming from!

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  3. You and Aidan beat me to the punch here; the book is sitting on my nightstand table, beside the unfinished honkaku, the iPad with the half finished Rutland, and the YA dystopian third-part-of-a-trilogy with one chapter read. I’m doing very well here, but then I’m in panic mode with all the articles about COVID-19 blasting my e-mails and the president saying this pandemic is merely a Democratic plot. We live in fun times!!

    Anyway, I won’t really read this until I’ve read the book myself, but it’s good to see that both of you seem to like it very much! Does anyone know what the next Halter title to come out of LRI will be?

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    • When we have access to wildly inventive fiction like this and A Eulogy for Reason, and Seishi Yokomizo being translated into English and more Paul Halter on the way…I honestly wonder why anyone bothers with the real world.

      No idea myself what the next Halter will be, but fingers crossed we’re not too far away from a translation of Le Tigre Borgne…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You know, JJ, I was tired of waiting for Le Tigre Borgne, so I ended up reading it in french and… It’s pretty good, actually!
    I’d put both Tiger novels in my top ten (maybe five, even) Halters.
    The grim eastern tale surprised me and showed me that Halter was capable of strong characterisation and descriptive imagery. Who would have thought!
    It’s really close to an adventure novel with gripping mysteries thrown in for good measure. The main dish was fine, but the rope trick steals the show. I can’t wait to hear your opinion on this one.

    Well, in contrast, the french novel you reviewed today is kinda barebones when it comes to characters and setting. It’s all about the puzzle. Being so short and geared towards functionality, it feels like reading a prototype. I would recommend it though, because the ending is so deliciously infuriating, so bonkers it will stay with you.

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    • I am slowly — verrrry slowly — working on improving my French, and am coincidentally heartened by all these amazing French novels from the GAD era that have thus far gone ignored by the English-speaking firmament. 27 years from now, I too may be able to read a novel in French. And then be thoroughly confused when I don’t have the understanding to comprehend the explanation come the end. Something to look forward to, hein?

      Le Tigre Borgne gets raves from seemingly everyone, so I’m now almost concerned that it won’t live up to its billing. Frankly, whatever Halter comes across I’ll be excited to read…as Ben says, there’s a list of titles that still puzzle the imagination, and anything we get to read will no doubt be a joy.

      And, hey, The Gold Watch showed that there’s life in the old dog yet — so who’s to say another new novel won’t come up at some point, too?!

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  5. The set up for this sounds fantastic and I’m beyond curious about the solution. Between LRI and the recent Pushkin translations my gift wish lists are beyond stocked for the year.

    But yeah, we need more, right? That list of untranslated Halter novels gnaws at my brain.

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    • The nature of the focus on the puzzle makes the solution here pretty tantalising. It’s…damn, it’s weird. Not quite The Stingaree Murders weird, but equally delightful in how it’ll either make you guffaw with delight at the creativity of it or make you “Tcha!” impatiently and hurl the book aside.

      There’s a lot of good work here besides, though, and when you consider the brevity of what unfolds it’s actually pretty spectacular that it gets to be as involved as it does. Such a delightful, twisting skein; loads and loads of fun to be had discussing this down the years.

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      • You have me thinking of the strangest / most audacious impossible crime solutions that I’ve read. I think I’d go with The Devil Drives and Night at the Mocking Widow.

        And you’ve reminded me – I do have The Stingaree Murders camping out at the bottom of this stack of books…

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        • It’ll be a while since I’ll read The Night at the Mocking Widow since I’m reading Carter Dickson in order and quuuuiiitttte slllloooowwwwlllyyyyy. But when I looked up The Devil Drives, all I found was a biography of actor Richard Burton. What gives?

          I think the solution to Queen’s The Player on the Other Side is pretty nuts, and I have great fondness for Brand’s Tour de Force and the way it turns everything around. But I have a feeling you guys are talking crazier still! Can’t wait to see what you mean. The concept of crazy solutions to crazy problems vs. simple solutions to problems that seem crazy is worthy of our time. Who’d like to meet for coffee in a central location to discuss?????

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        • Great, now you’re going to set my brain teeming for the next 48 hours over What’s the Most Audacious Impossible Crime Solution? Thanks, Ben 😆

          And I presume that’s the rare Dell/Pan/Berkley co-published mapfrontandback edition of The Stingaree Murders that you own — y’know, the one that only had 150 copies printed, 138 of which were destroyed in a fire, and the remaining 12 of which Jesus carried out of his tomb and signed with Evel Kinevel’s blood. And you found in pristine condition for $0.0000000004

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          • Ok, Stingaree Murders definitely qualifies for top five bizarre impossible crime solutions – although it’s unfortunate that the impossible nature of that crime isn’t played to its full potential.

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            • Ha, I know, right? Although the sheer chutzpah of the clue that keys you in to that final impossibility is pretty impressive, no?

              As for potential, I also know what you mean. That first killing, for instance — is it ever really established how it’s done? I know they discuss potential methods, but I feel like all of the incidences of how are sort of hushed up, on the way to the grand reveal of the Final One.

              Still, for sheer bonkers it takes some beating, and that’s gotta count for something…especially in this subgenre 🙂

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  6. I’ve only glanced at your review, but good to know it’s a playful and wildly creative mystery, crammed with impossible crimes, that sounds like the French equivalent of John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner! And look forward to your review of Killed on the Rocks. DeAndrea is one of the writers who convinced me that not everything published after 1950 was garbage.

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    • From my limited exposure to Fearn, he may not actually be a bad comparison point. It has the same sort of looseness where declaration is concerned, and that same creative wildness were plot mechanics veer around all over the place to potentially mixed results. I can see this being divisive, but for anyone willing to sign up to what it’s doing this is going to be manna from heaven. Really looking forward to your take on it.

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