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…