Today’s post is not so much tinged with irony as soaked in it. Many months ago, Kate Jackson invited me to be part of a sort of “contest” designed to cast a light on some of the marvelous re-issues of classic mysteries that have occurred this year. We were asked to name our poison, so to speak – the books we wanted to cover, and I immediately responded that I intended to spend both weeks celebrating the 2018 rebirth of Patrick Quentin through the Mysterious Press. Last week, I fulfilled half that bargain, but at the last moment, I changed course with my second choice. So here I am to discuss the latest offering by small press Locked Room International: publisher John Pugmire’s translation of the 1935 French classic by Gaston Boca, The Seventh Guest (1935).
And there’s the rub! Irony #1 is that I turn out to be the blogger who calls special attention to Locked Room International! LRI, as you may know, is responsible for the first time publication in English of French author Paul Halter’s books. When it comes to my relationship with Halter’s work, well . . . I am Margot Channing, he is Eve Harrington, and our journey together has been a bumpy ride.
So . . . Which man do you trust . . . . . ?
But seriously, that is beside the point. Like so many mystery readers, I have been the beneficiary of Locked Room International’s singular goal. I believe that John Pugmire deserves a medal for not only calling attention to the wealth of impossible crime fiction that has been published world-wide over the past century, but for making available to English-speaking readers for the first time works from France, Japan, China, and Sweden.
Gaston Boca, the latest forgotten author to receive the LRI treatment, was an engineer whose mystery output sadly totalled only four novels and one short story. In Pugmire’s introduction (which is sure to delight LRI fans with a survey of French Golden Age of mystery that teases us about possible future offerings), We learn that Boca’s first published mystery, 1933’s The Shadow Over the Garden and The Seventh Guest, his third, have long been regarded as classic puzzle mysteries. (The other two, not so much!) As French critic Rolande Lacourbe notes, the timing of his writing “make Gaston Boca one of the great French pioneers of the (impossible crime) genre.” The question is: can Guest surpass its national acclaim and attain world-wide status as an impossible crime novel? And what will readers make of what Pugmire describes as:
“. . . Boca’s very personal style: a distinct preference for strings of sentences rather than paragraphs, creating a stream-of-consciousness effect; and suddenly jumping from past tense to present, to give a scene a sense of urgency.”
The writing is certainly propulsive, giving this eighty-three-year-old novel a distinctly modern feel and plunging us at once into the mystery. On a stormy spring night, Stephane Triel, Boca’s “dilettante detective” is relaxing with his friend and Watson, journalist Luc Dutheil, in Dutheil’s chilly Parisian rooms when a letter arrives from the Countess Jeanne D’Arlon, inviting both men to Nanteuil Manor, just outside the city, to spend a few days with her and her husband, Rene. Checking out the Who’s Who, Triel learns that the manor belonged to Jeanne’s family, that husband and wife are locals, but that Rene grew up in Saigon where his family did business and that the couple are recently returned from there to reclaim the decrepit chateau.
No sooner do Thiel and Dutheil arrive at the manor when they are swept into an atmospheric mystery. The estate seems deserted, and the concierge’s lodge is abandoned, with food cooking on the stove. And then they hear a series of cries in the park – “short, sharp moans which choked in a few moments for lack of breath. They rush to investigate . . . and stumble upon a dead man hanging from a rope in a cottage. Only his footprints are visible in the muddy ground surrounding the dwelling. Clearly it is suicide, n’est pas? If you believe that, you’re reading the wrong blog!
The pacing of these early scenes is wonderful, even if Boca’s style takes a little getting used to, particularly in the Kindle format, where you have to carefully observe things like quotation marks to note when there is a change of speakers. The author paints a clear portrait of the crumbling estate, and as the impossibilities begin to add up – a man’s revolver is stolen from his pocket without anybody being there; a door creaks open and nobody is there, and yet the room beyond is empty and nobody living could have opened the door – the fun is in watching how the evil genius behind these events manipulates the characters into literally smaller and smaller spaces and plays upon their fraying nerves.
Things quickly come to a head, and then . . . and then they end. The third and final section is pretty much an extended explanation of what happened and why. Which brings us to Irony #2: I came into Kate’s “contest” to win, and yet I have to offer some reservations about this book. I’m not saying it’s not thoroughly enjoyable, but don’t expect to find your typical GAD plot, no matter how much the narrator protests that it very much resembles one! What The Seventh Guest is, is a très, très French mystery. You don’t believe me? Let me bring in an expert.
When I was first grappling with Paul Halter’s work, my friend Xavier Lechard, from le fabuleux blog At the Villa Rose, offered me some insight into the relationship between French readers and the mystery genre:
“We French are a very peculiar lot, especially when it comes to crime fiction, and that’s one of the reasons why the English-speaking market eludes us. French crime writers, even the most ‘orthodox’ ones, have no interest in the kind of foolproof, solidly constructed plots so prized in the anglosphere, which they find dry and dull. They prize imagination over reason and their books must be judged accordingly.
“Another peculiarity of French crime fiction that sets it apart from the English-language variant is the relatively minor importance of the “Who”, the focus most often being on the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’. French crime writers don’t aim for Christie-like shock revelations; there is usually a very limited pool of suspects and the culprit is often obvious for anyone paying attention. What matters to them is rather to create an intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary problem and then come up with an imaginative, if not always plausible, solution. That’s one of the reasons why impossible crimes have been and remain so popular with French GA-minded crime writers. Also, French crime writers don’t see their craft as a game of wits between them and the reader so they don’t always ‘play fair’.”
Xavier’s counsel is invaluable when approaching a book like The Seventh Guest. His words above read like a checklist for what you will find here:
- A move away from the “dry and dull, foolproof, solidly constructed plots so prized in the anglosphere”? Check!
- A focus on “imagination over reason”? Check!
- Minor importance of the “Who”, major focus on the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’? Check!
- An intriguing, out-of-the-ordinary problem? A very limited pool of suspects? An imaginative, if not always plausible, solution? Check, check, check!!!
The plot is almost dreamlike here; there were a few moments where I almost did not understand what was going on so much as I followed characters’ deep felt reactions to events. Characterization is no more problematic than in any mystery of the period; some characters work, while others don’t. The Count and Countess D’Arlon are fine in that they remind me of similar characters in 1930’s John Dickson Carr novels: they are melodramatic but effective figures, and there are many interesting reversals along the way in our expectations of them. But there are other characters who I would consider vital to the plot and yet who remain offstage, ciphers until the end.
As for our team of sleuths, Pugmire describes Duthuil as a particularly dense version of Watson, but I liked him. In a très French manner, he falls into a sort of romantic trance whenever he was in front of the countess – and this relationship actually serves the plot. Even better was the visiting cop from the Surete, Thoubert, – I guess you would call him the Lestrade of this tale – who leavens the proceedings with humorous commentary throughout the whole affair. Most disappointing in terms of character was arguably the most important figure in a mystery – the detective. Thiel is a curiously remote figure throughout. We almost never see him in action; instead, he disappears and reappears with his mysterious errands complete. Even at the end, the conventional explanation of the solution comes not from his lips but from Duthuil, acting as emissary to clear up the matter for certain concerned parties. Frankly, this choice baffled me.
I’m not the locked room expert here, so I can’t really tell whether my impossible crime friends will find the solution to each miracle satisfying or not. The one with the footprints? I thought that was pretty meh. The one with all the shenanigans involving the bolted door and the ghost – probably cooler but by no means easy for puzzle-solvers to detect. You need to go into this one not expecting to play the game. Just settle in for la course folle– the crazy ride – and enjoy yourself.
This is a rare glimpse for English readers into a completely different cultural point of view of our favorite genre. The final irony for me? Coming out of this book, I found myself missing the relatively solid structure, the clues, and the all-around English-puzzle-solving fun of . . . Paul Halter!!!!!
Ah . . . . c‘est un miracle! Can these two find happiness together at last?