There are Advent calendars in the supermarkets, but I’m sticking to my guns and committing October to a study of the eldritch and shiversome in detective fiction. We have zombies stalking through, Tuesday was ghosts, Thursday was spiders, and today we’ll look at the legend of Mr. Diabolo.
Like, I’m sure, many people, Mr. Diabolo (1960) by Anthony Lejeune was brought to my attention via Robert Adey’s indispensable guide to the impossible crime in fiction, Locked Room Murders (1991) — though I had to wait for the Locked Room International-enabled reprint, wherein the title was corrected from its original, erroneous listing as “Mr. Diablo”. Adey called it “imaginative” in his introduction, and Brian Skupin, editor of the revised second edition, called it a “fine book” in his own preface. The solution in the back appends a note — and I don’t know whether Adey’s or Skupin’s — saying the book is “almost a classic”, and that combination of praise was no doubt enough to make many eager to track it down. Last year I finally did, and here we are.
Set against the background of the annual academic conference of the Anglo-American Literary and Political Society (“The Alps”), the bulk of the action occurs in and around the College of Western Studies in, as best as I can figure out, an unnamed university town somewhere in England. It is the second week of the conference, having spent time both in London and Oxford already, and one evening at dinner one of the Fellows enquires about the unusually-named Devil’s Lane that runs behind the college and so everyone is told the story of the infernal Mr. Diabolo.
Stemming from supposedly-sinister parties thrown by the young Lord Farrant in the eighteenth century — “His rooms smelled of incense or, some said, brimstone. His servants found the stubs of black candles and once, half burned, a kitten’s paw” — stories of Farrant “indulging in the black arts” reached their apotheosis one evening in that very alleyway, thanks to the experience of the “dull and rather studious” undergraduate Dodson:
“In the path in front of Dodson a figure appeared, perhaps out of the mist, perhaps out of the wall. It was a man — or what seemed to be a man, wearing a tall hat and a cloak. He had a pointed beard and was looking up at the window…[then] the figure slowly turned towards him. That was the worst part of all. It had no eyes. Just blackness, like the eye-sockets of a skull, but what Dodson described as a ‘living blackness’.”
Lo and behold, it is not long before a cloaked, top-hatted, bearded figure with blacked-out eyes appears on the college grounds, and is chased into Devil’s Lane…only to vanish at its apparent mid-point, his cloak and hat left on the ground and witnesses at either end avowing that no-one passed them. When this apparent vanishing is followed hard upon by a murder in a locked room, the police are summoned, but not before narrator and one-time Foreign Office man Alistair Burke has called upon his old boss Arthur Blaise — “He’s a clever man. Good at problems.” — to also poke his nose into things.
This being the 1960s, Blaise leans hard into the trappings of the ‘genius brought in from outside’ trope — though anyone expecting a Gideon Fell or Henry Merrivale-esque presence should cool their jets — as if reminding us how the classically-styled mystery works. He reflects that Inspector Lindsay has the far harder task because “in the nature of his job, [he] has to ask questions before he can think” whereas “I for once am able to think before I ask questions”, and engages in old-fashioned examination of the scenes of the crimes, probing the policemen on duty for details from their own:
“Your sinister questions will no doubt appear in their report,” said Cornelius.
“Good,” replied Blaise. “It doesn’t sound as if there’ll be much else in it.”
There’s also a fair amount of reminding us how the investigator is very much the Outside Man (“I felt acutely uncomfortable at watching people’s private lives ripped open and exposed to view…these being people I already knew and was on polite terms with, I couldn’t regard them merely as impersonal witnesses or suspects.”), plus a reminder of the challenges raised by the investigation effectively taking place in the airless, impersonal setting of undergraduate dorm rooms that have been leased out for the conference (“Normally you can tell so much about a person by just looking round his house or his flat…whereas these rooms actually belonged to men we’d never seen and were filled with their possessions.”). It could only be more determined a classic mystery homage if there was a meta reference to detective stor–
“My own taste in mysteries leans towards detective stories. I like puzzles that have a solution. It’s so pleasant in this confused world to find something that can really be wrapped up neatly and settled, even if it’s only who stole the Rajah’s diamond or who was careless enough to leave a body in the library.”
With all the ingredients in the mix, it’s a shame to report, then, that the book as a whole simply didn’t work for me. Blaise is a quite astonishingly dull figure for all his apparent japery, possessing not the cavalier intransigence of Fell, Merrivale, or the other interesting examples of their kind, and Lejeune’s detection and investigation falls into tedious habits whenever the narrative threatens to get going: interviews establishing who-was-where-when, lots of disbelief, more interviews, more interviews, even more interviews. Any interesting threads — Blaise suggesting that Mr. Diabolo’s appearance “sounds to my suspicious mind like a distraction” and could have been cover for a different crime, Burke’s suggestion that Blaise is not above stepping outside of the law to achieve his ends, the minute examination of Devil’s Lane intended to bring some intelligence an interest to bear upon that disappearance there — are snuffed out double-quick, or simply left as an unfired Chekov’s gun. Two chase scenes are supposed to liven events up, but you know exactly how they’re going to end, so you can honestly just skip to the last page of the chapters in question and save yourself ten pointless minutes.
It is, to say the least, disappointing.
Those impossibilities, too, are baffling — not for their complexity and brilliance, but for why someone thought they would support a narrative of this length. Both have been used before in a manner that isn’t anywhere close to as unsatisfactory as here (the locked room is a variation of a trick so old I’m surprised the witnesses in the adjacent rooms didn’t hear the novel creaking, but John Dickson Carr placed it in one of the three books he published in 1935 and made it far, far less frustrating), and I think my chief frustration stems from how little the book does that’s actually interesting. The last line of chapter seven is good, even though it pays off in a way that I’m pretty sure you cannot anticipate, but almost everything else feels so pedestrian. Simple things like how many keys might be able to lock the fatal bedroom are never really resolved, the vanishing does nothing to challenge your very first assumption because that’s the correct solution…it’s a book written like it’s five times as clever as it actually turns out to be, and I can’t think of a single interesting observation or development in the whole thing.
Oh, wait, no: there’s a good bit of negative evidence in a witness not being asked the correct question. That’s perhaps the highlight. But even that feels like a back-handed compliment.
The book is not without merit — the discussion about the purpose of education is full of cool free-thinking 1960s fads, but makes some relevant points, even if it has already undermined itself with the ‘sceptic vs. believer’ debate from earlier — and some wonderful dialogue jumps out unexpectedly from amidst the tedium:
“One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” said Stubbs.
“This was more like a regular migration, though.”
The central romance, too, isn’t close to as fatiguing as these things can be…but even that’s something of a pyrrhic victory. The characters are a largely unmemorable bunch, but I did enjoy Professor Cornelius, “a truly hideous man, like a vast and benevolent toad”, especially in the moment when he can be found “holding forth to a group of disciples” who might simply be “gazing awe-struck at the monster”. Were the cast a little smaller, and were more time spent with them as a group bouncing off each other, it would doubtless be a better experience. I suppose we should be amazed that this sort of book was published in the 1960s at all, but, overall, the Luciferian legend of Mr. Diabolo ultimately left me rather cold.
John @ Pretty Sinister: Thankfully, when the solution comes there is one brilliant surprise — perhaps a nod to a famous Anthony Boucher novel which also shares a similar trick — that redeemed the book for me. With such a great opening, the macabre legend, and the baffling vanishing of a ghost-like killer Lejeune’s novel aspires to true greatness and promises to dazzle the reader. Sadly, he only manages to raise a faint glow of surprise just falling short of a book that might have been a real classic in locked room mysteries.