#812: The Forbidden House (1932) by Michel Herbert & Eugene Wyl [trans. John Pugmire 2021]

Forbidden House

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Nouveau-riche Napoléon Verdinage acquires Marchenoire Manor despite mysterious missives warning him against purchasing this “forbiddin [sic] house” and promising his untimely demise. Learning that the previous owners either died or took the letter writer’s warnings to heart and left, Verdinage becomes only more determined to stay. He only has himself to blame, then, when at the two month deadline given for his departure he is shot dead by a man who apparently vanished from the house…an outcome all the more baffling because the only exit was watched the entire time and multiple searches fail to discover the killer anywhere inside.

The Forbidden House (1932) by Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl joins the ranks of marvellously, deceptively tight almost miniature puzzles that the French seem to have made a speciality during the British Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Taking place, essentially, at the intersection of three rooms and a staircase, there’s something of the stage play about the frenetic antics herein: it could be a magnificent farce if the events weren’t so deadly. With faithful servants within and without vouching for each others’ presence, and with a character whose actions we follow able to assure us that no-one climbed the stairs, how could Verdinage’s killer have vanished in such a small space? A variety of official policemen will take their own swing at solving the mystery, but the solution when it comes will have a source as surprising as it is genre-conventional.

It would be unfair, though, to label this book as a mere puzzle. For one, Herbert and Wyl do magnificent work with effective thumbnail sketches that account for seemingly contradictory characteristics. Verdinage himself is clearly an oaf — witness his comments on filling the shelves of the library with books he has no intention of reading — and yet upon being told of the apparently unspeakable history of his new abode has intelligence to reflect:

The history of Marchenoire Manor wasn’t as tragic as [it was] made it out to be. …Only [one previous owner] had been murdered. All the others had left, frightened by the anonymous letters, but there was nothing to prove that the threats would have been carried out by the writer. There was nothing to prove that it was he who had killed Desrousseaux, for that matter. Maybe the latter’s tragic death after the first letters was nothing but a simple coincidence, exploited by a demented letter-writer to terrorise successive owners.

The catty Marquis Adhémar Dupont-Lesguyères, a noble fallen on hard times and serving as Verdinage’s lackey, is an equally enjoyable presence — his own refinement making his master uncomfortable to the point that the millionaire seeks out the crippled gardener Clodoche, whose own simple ways make him “an obliging listener” who remains ignorant of “any incorrect use of language”. Equally, local policeman Lieutenant Taupinois, who “firmly believed he possessed the talent of a Sherlock Holmes” despite facing nothing more taxing than “the mundane arrests of vagrants, chicken thieves, and uncooperative drunks” is a superb study in contrasts — anticipating the glory he will get for solving the case, without actually knowing how to solve it — and juge d’instruction Claude Launay livens up a similar mindset towards the end by leaping on whatever theory happens to seem correct at any moment.

It’s also a chief fault of the book, however, that the sudden jarring shifts in focus don’t really leave you with someone to get behind. The third section sees Launay and two other policemen enter the fray alongside Taupinois and his colleagues and several lawyers representing the many people who have found themselves accused (that, it has to be said, is bloody hilarious)…and, to be honest, I just sort of lumped them all together in my mind because the multiplicity of law-makers adds little to proceedings. One posturing policeman in the case may be regarded as a misfortune, two looks like carelessness…but three or four (or maybe five?) starts to reek of something altogether less inspired.

Still, to the book’s credit, the professional conversations this enables contain some perceptive points (“Individuals who were even more faithful and devoted than he have committed worse crimes…It all depends on the circumstances.”) and, for a mystery tradition we now know isn’t big on the declaration of clues there’s some very good evidence-by-psychology found in the likes of bibulous butler Charles Chapon. Even the late introduction of a gold-standard detective fiction no-no not only fails to spoil the fun, it also adds in one of the strongest and most damning threads in the whole endeavour. John Pugmire has done a superb job, too, of reinforcing the essential French flavour by using native titles and manners of address (“…messieurs les jurés…”) throughout, and it’s to the credit of that uniquely European air that so simple a situation admitting so much discussion and potential never veers into parody. Every time one of those interchangeable policemen seems to have a hold on what must have happened something emerges to prove that it simply can’t have happened, and it’s always delightful; as whirligigs go, it’s difficult to top.

The eventual solution — not even slightly fair, we would hardly expect that, but hinted at in some nicely subtle ways — is both rigorous and plenty of fun (there’s one glaring event which I completely overlooked), and it’s difficult not to like the ruthless killer’s final words when they are identified and confronted with their guilt. If I’d read this five years ago I’d probably be fuming at its casual disregard of the sacrosanct shibboleths of the detection genre, but with the likes of Locked Room International’s previous translations Death Out of Nowhere (1945) and The Howling Beast (1934) having prepared me for the Gallic slant on murder puzzles I simply cackle anew and rub my hands in anticipation of more to come.

And, boy, I sure do hope there is much more to come…

11 thoughts on “#812: The Forbidden House (1932) by Michel Herbert & Eugene Wyl [trans. John Pugmire 2021]

    • It’s bonkers to think how little of this stuff is translated outside of LRI’s stable. A few back in the 1970s (B-N, Steeman, etc)…then nothing. I guess if the market wasn’t there for English-language puzzle fiction then it was unlikely to be there for translated stuff…but, man, that no-one ever tried a “Like Georges Simenon? You’ll love Boileau-Narcejac!” chicanery like we get these days with every mystery novel being likened to Christie astounds me.

      Ah, well, at least this stuff is coming through at last; and in my lifetime, too. Small mercies.

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  1. The “Hollow Man”-esque premise of this was too strong a hook for me to stay away. However, though the set up was strong and the unfolding story enjoyable, if never engrossing, I found the solution to be quite anticlimactic. I had a far better one hammered out that I was smugly waiting 100+ pages for the in story detectives to cotton onto, only to then get.. that. Bitter much? You betcha. No but I did have fun cogitating over the possibilities behind the vanishing assailant and enjoyed the French flavour of it all, my last taste of which was “Mystery of the Yellow Room” way back when. Always open to more of this stuff, providing the puzzle is sufficiently compelling.

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    • Huh, I completely missed the Hollow Man parallels — servant bringing a mysterious visitor to the master of the house, master shot, visitor vanishes impossibly…man, what’s wrong with me?!

      And I’m frankly impressed that, given all the solutions discussed and dismissed here, you still found space for another one. I did the same thing with Saprkling Cyanide (my solution is so damn good…) but that only has the one provided answer to contend with.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the puzzles in the above-mentioned LRI translations, but I also recognise that the French school is a very different (howling?) beast to its English cousin. Love of one absolutely does not translate (see what I did there?) into love of the other.

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      • My alternate solution in case you’re interested.

        Zl fbyhgvba jbhyq unir unq gur uhfonaq/jvsr freinagf or gur pb-phycevgf. Fur qbaf gur ung naq envapbng, ur yrgf ure bhg guebhtu gur jvaqbj, fuhggvat/obygvat vg oruvaq ure. Fur fheercgvgvbhfyl znxrf ure jnl bhgfvqr gur znabe tebhaqf naq onpx nebhaq gb gur znva tngr, jurer gur uhapuonpx vf jnvgvat. Ur yrnqf ure gb gur sebag qbbe, fur ragref, ybpxf vg oruvaq ure, juvpu vf gur phr sbe ure uhfonaq, jub unf cerivbhfyl fubg gur znfgre qrnq jvgu n fvyrapre, gb abj sver n oynax. Fur obygf hcfgnvef gb trg punatrq, juvyr ur ehaf hc gur svefg syvtug bs fgnvef gura qbhoyrf onpx, naq gur freinag ba gur gbczbfg sybbe bayl ernpurf gur ynaqvat va gvzr gb frr gur uhfonaq ehaavat qbja gur fgnvef. Guvf vf nyfb jul gur jvsr jnf gur ynfg gb nccrne ba gur fgnvef, fur arrqrq n zvahgr gb punatr naq uvqr ure qvfthvfr. Fznyy nzraqzrag, nf V whfg erzrzorerq gur zheqre jrncba jnf sbhaq va gur sbhagnva. Rnfl, gur uhfonaq xvyyrq gur znfgre svefg naq unaqrq uvf jvsr gur tha, jub cynagrq vg va gur jryy ba ure jnyx gb gur ubhfr nf gur zlfgrevbhf ivfvgbe.

        Pretty standard GAD fare but still better than what we got (imho).

        I’ve been dithering on whether or not to get “Death out of Nowhere”. On the one hand I’ve heard it delivers a corker of a solution to its locked room puzzle, but I’m not too keen on paying the asking price for a novel a mere 112 pages in length.

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        • Hey, that’s pretty cool — and, this being a Gallic novel from the 1930s, you don’t have to worry too much about trying to clue the various elements too heavily. Very good work indeed! Maybe this novel will turn out to be like The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and years from now we’ll still be proposing alternative takes on the puzzle…

          As to Death Out of Nowhere…well, I loved it and think it’s worth the money — but then I hate books that are overly-padded, and the one thing that book ain’t is padded 🙂

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          • Thanks! For the record I still hold Sheringham’s solution – the fourth, as I recall – to be definitive. They start to feel silly and overdone beyond that point.

            Regarding DOoN, it does come down to quality I guess. Knowing what I know now, I would gladly have paid over the odds for only the 1911 plot strand of The Gold Watch and ~that~ solution (the GOAT, imo).

            So yeah I succumbed. Four locked rooms set up and, I’m given to understand, satisfyingly resolved within 110 pages, ensuring a brisk pace and leaving no room for padding. Just too enticing a proposition in the end.

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  2. This is an almost perfectly-timed coincidence with both our reviews going up within twenty-four hours of each other, but glad to read you enjoyed it as much as I did. Like you said on my review, we pretty much agree on all the essentials of this splendid, wonderfully imaginative locked room mystery. More of this, please!

    …but with the likes of Locked Room International’s previous translations… having prepared me for the Gallic slant on murder puzzles…

    I’ve always been grateful to Xavier who, all the way back, talked me through the Gallic detective story when I found some Dutch translations of Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe and Martin Méroy. So I had an idea what to roughly expect, but not how huge the gap in quality was between those two and what LRI has translated so far. Even the weakest Halter is a masterpiece compared to Endrèbe’s Elvire Climbs the Tower. Mèroy is an entertaining, softboiled mystery writer, but not great with some very routine locked room trickery.

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    • I was sufficiently blown away by Paul Halter’s ideas to not worry to much about his lack of clewing in the early days, and it’s only through John P’s efforts that I’ve come to appreciate the French mystery tradition a little better. I’m by no means an expert — on anything — but I have a good enough basis now to at least understand what l’age d’or is trying to do and what it’s not.

      Indeed, a Gallic translation of Knox’s decalogue would probably only have two rules…which is an interesting point, now I think of it Hmmm…

      Anyway, I felt the Earth wobble when we agreed on this, so some cataclysm is doubtless due. Apologies, everyone!

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