“It’s possible that Sonia believed it, but she’s a woman and it’s only to be expected.”
There’s nothing more satisfying on a rainy holiday weekend than to curl up with a good mystery. Make it a classic tale from a prolific author of the 1930’s, dripping with atmosphere and stocked with a perplexing impossible crime of two.
If you guess that I’m talking about John Dickson Carr, you would, in this case, be wrong. Yes, the Master of the Locked Room began his career in 1930, and by 1934 he had penned an astounding eleven novels. Meanwhile, back in France, a juge d’instruction named Noel Vindry embarked on a similar writing spree in 1931, and by the end of 1934 had published a mere ten mysteries (it might actually be eleven, if Les Canjuers was also a mystery.) All ten novels featured a mild-mannered and brilliant investigative judge named M. Allou. Locked Room International has translated both the first of Vindry’s Allou tales, The House That Kills, and the sixth –the one I just finished – The Howling Beast. This edition includes a wonderful foreword by publisher John Pugmire and several “afterwords”. These editions offer much information on an author that I suspect deserves a far more international reputation, as well as providing information on the fascinating differences between the French and British/American criminal justice systems.
I can understand why the eminent literary Frenchman Roland LeCourbe called Vindry “the French John Dickson Carr.” Reading Beast put me in mind of Carr’s debut novel, It Walks by Night. We think of Carr as an American who wrote mysteries in the British style, but of course his first detective, Henri Bencolin, was – you guessed it – a juge d’instruction, making his living by solving baffling crimes. Both novels possess the aura of a horror story, centering on large houses where terrible crimes occur and where the past haunts the present. Both writers are startlingly frank about sexual matters, and both display expertise at creating a dazzling enigma of a crime that has, at its heart, a pretty straightforward solution.
Where do the two works differ for me? Well, first of all Carr, in his early years especially, had a tendency toward ponderous prose that reflected his love of late 19th century Grand Guignol melodrama. I enjoyed It Walks by Night, but it was sometimes slow going. The Howling Beast moves with the speed of a vicious animal on the prowl! Pugmire’s excellent translation reveals a text full of fast-paced dialogue, crackling with thrills but spare on the minutiae.
The other thing – and far be it from me to call myself an expert in these matters – is that the book seems so gosh darned French to me! The attitude towards men and women, both as individual genders and in terms of the complex ways they interact, struck me as intensely Gallic in its sensibilities.
Like It Walks by Night, Vindry’s novel begins in Paris as M. Allou, on his way to a favorite restaurant, is accosted by a starving man in the street and invites him to dine with him. This act of charity becomes something far more interesting when the man reveals himself to be Pierre Herry, the object of an intense manhunt for a double homicide. After three days on the run, broke and starving, Herry has had it with the fugitive life, for reasons that intrigue M. Allou:
“No, the worst of all is the silence! Needing to confide, needing to know whether one is going mad or not, whether one’s reasoning is normal. That, you cannot imagine. I was in need of a confidant, monsieur, even more than a meal. If I’m mad, then please tell me, for pity’s sake! I prefer to know, rather than wallow in this uncertainty.”
Herry then proceeds to tell Allou his tale, which takes up most of the novel. And what a tale it is: about his meeting a fellow big game hunter, the Comte de Saint-Luce, in India, and of Herry’s decision when he returns to France to look up his old comrade at the Count’s ancient chateau, a decision he comes to vastly regret. The place is huge and forbidding and barely habitable, clearly more a fortress than a home. And at first, his host at first seems downright hostile to Herry, a man to whom he actually owes his life due to an incident in India involving a tiger. But the Count gradually warms to his old friend and invites him to stay, despite the troubling presence of other guests.
These include a Slavic beauty named Sonia. All the men love Sonia: her husband, the Count, Herry, even the servants follow after Sonia. It must have something to do with her eyes and her cheekbones because the woman seriously doesn’t utter a sentence until page 91! A lot of tension is built around all these men eyeing this woman, not unlike a pride of lions. Some of this made me a little tired, but then we Americans have recently been inundated with much evidence of men in power demeaning and belittling women and reducing them to sexual objects. Maybe it makes this all feel more French that these guys elevate Sonia to an object of intense desire, and one of the questions we ask throughout is: just what sort of game is this chick playing? But far more interesting to me was the interplay amongst the men who desired her: the jealousy, the gamesmanship, the desire to appear both honorable and to win the prize!
The other fascinating issue that arises here is the notion of male honor and what it means to be morally brave. You may or may not agree with these guys. For example, one man would rather be arrested and executed for a crime he insists he did not commit than to be thought of as a coward. As it turns out, the various male characters here fall on every notch of this moral scale; the fun is in discovering where, for Vindry does a fine job of making us wonder about Herry and the Count, about the other male guests and the servants. The author himself makes no bones about the fact that, within his chosen genre, there is little to no room for characterization. This is a common factor in classic mysteries, but certain elements like this one go a long way to replacing the standards of characterization that modern readers often look for. Sonia struck me as more of a plot device than a woman, but the men are more individualized in terms of how they stand as men – at least in the way that the men of this era and place define manhood.
I’m rattling on about side issues that fascinated me without dwelling too much on the plot. Honestly, part of the fun for me was in discovering just where this story was heading, so I don’t want to ruin that for you. There is the notion of a beast on the loose, but whether it is something savage imported from the old country or perhaps “a beast that walks like a man” is a matter of some contention. There are several impossibilities to ponder here as well, taking place within a range of four years. The first one – well, I defy anybody to possess the knowledge needed to figure out the location of Sonia’s husband.
As for the big double murder at the end? Solved it! I won’t tell you I got every detail correct, but there seemed to me to be only one way this all could sort itself out. This happened to me in It Walks by Night, too, so maybe I have a propensity for figuring out 1930’s mysteries that begin in Paris and move to the countryside. At any rate, don’t let my massive intelligence about these matters scare you off. I guarantee that The Howling Beast is a fast-paced read that will provide you with beaucoup de plaisir! Yes, my TBR pile is toppling, but I have a feeling a purchase of The House That Kills is imminent!