#33: The Killing Needle (1871) by Henry Cauvin [trans. John Pugmire 2014]

Killing NeedleIt is difficult to believe that Arthur Conan Doyle ever intended for his Sherlock Holmes stories to be as influential as they have proven to be.  Not only are we still churning out variations on his characters in print and on radio, television and film but such is the fascination with his detective that something published before Conan Doyle even put pen to paper can achieve retrospective interest because of the similarities between the two.   And so Locked Room International published this translation of Henry Cauvin’s debut novel The Killing Needle, wherein a skeleton-thin genius master of disguise who shuns social norms, declares “In my case, the brain dominates everything and is continually boiling over.  This fire is eating me up and doesn’t leave a moment’s peace.  The mind!  The mind is a vulture that’s eating me alive” and takes opium (though in this case “to help me get some much-needed sleep”) has his adventures in crime-solving related by a doctor who becomes his confidant after being introduced by a mutual friend …yeah, okay, that’s a lot of overlap right there.

Unfortunately, once these similarities have been pointed out – and translator John Pugmire does a superbly even-handed job of this in his introduction – you can’t really take this story on its own terms.  Maximilien Heller – for ’tis he who bears the brunt of these comparisons – is an expert in chemistry, has some previous experience with the criminal classes that proves crucial in untangling the skein he’s confronted with here, and even has the slightly less catchy “I follow the facts and nothing but the facts…I assemble them, no matter how contradictory they may appear to be, and at some point, the light shines” as something approaching Holmes’ “When you have eliminated the impossible…”. It’s like trying to read Gerald Verner’s Lattimer Shrive stories: you can’t do it without superimposing Holmes over every action and event.  Verner has no excuse, coming after Conan Doyle as he did, but Cauvin should at least be given his own two feet to stand on, because he does some very good work.

In truth, though, Cauvin’s writing – and Pugmire can be trusted as an accurate and fair translator – brings to mind that of Maurice Leblanc and Edgar Wallace, which is perhaps surprising given how he predates both of them, too (was this man the most influential person ever in the history of crime fiction?!).  Leblanc certainly shares Cauvin’s obsession with every tiny narrative detail – the extended epilogue here, for example – and his broadly gothic framing of a second half that takes place in a spooky and creaky isolated old mansion with a black bear occasionally let loose in the grounds (see ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, too…).  In fact, this almost works better as a tonal companion piece to Leblanc’s The Eight Strokes of the Clock, but once again there I go not giving Cauvin his due on his own terms.  Right, come on, focus.  Here we go…

The impossible crime here involves a man found dead in his bed with tell-tale traces of arsenic in the cup containing the nightcap that his servant brought him.  Of slightly more interest, and resolved disappointingly quickly, is how one (trustworthy) doctor finds no evidence of arsenic in the dead man’s system and yet another (a well-established quack), performing his test in front of several witnesses, finds an abundance of the stuff.  It’s a very nice little trick, perhaps a little transparent on account of how it’s written, but it shows a lovely degree of invention and interpretation in the exceptionally early days of the form.  You could see it being repeated in a more celebrated book and garnering plenty of praise, and it’s a shame that it is cast aside so quickly here.  Elsewhere, there’s a nice surprise whose form I shall not give away (though its revelation depends on – shock horror – Cauvin actually recycling someone else’s idea from what I shall simply call a famous book published three years earlier) that at least establishes a different pattern to and motivation for the crime than the one you may reasonably have been expecting.

The murder method is resolved before the halfway stage, and the resolution of the mechanics is discussed at the end in a manner that I personally think is fine given the information that you, the reader, has.  You’re not present at the discovery of the body and so there’s only so much to be intuited, and while it is a little brief I’d say that it’s perfectly acceptable.  Interestingly, it’s not the focus of the book at all, which leaves it floundering a little a to exactly what the focus is.  The guilty party is deliberately clear from practically first appearance (did all 19th century villains really behave in such obvious ways?) and the adventures of Heller are strewn with him being confined to bed with fevers and various other maladies, perhaps to heighten his own determination to see this through but instead making him come across as a slightly uneven central presence.  Possibly that would be the idea, were the ghost of Holmes’ driven determination not chasing him down the corridors and standing by gently chiding him as he passes out from fright or allows himself to get sick again.  It’s all a bit odd: given a lack of definite focus, Holmes inevitably creeps in.  Were it not for Holmes this would probably fare better, but if it fared better then Holmes probably wouldn’t enter your head to begin with.  And thus you become stuck and it becomes difficult to ether dismiss it out of hand or recommend it unreservedly.

Overall, though, there is enough here to recommend it.  If you share my interest in the roots of the genre then you should give this a go, and the couple of nice little tricks that it plays on you are worth seeing.  If you have your doubts, it’s probably not quite for you.  But do bear it in mind.  It will fill a rainy afternoon, and should give you some decent material next time someone starts holding forth on Conan Doyle’s creation.  Joseph Bell, you say?  Ahem, I think you’ll find…

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Coming on Friday: Conan Doyle’s grudging triumphant return of Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ …

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26 thoughts on “#33: The Killing Needle (1871) by Henry Cauvin [trans. John Pugmire 2014]

  1. I found this a good and interesting read, though nothing outstanding.
    However, I fail to understand why this book was translated and published by Locked Room International. The impossible crime bit is only a trivial part of the novel and the solution is just glossed over.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed this, Santosh, and I know what you mean, but Pugmire does make an interesting point in the afterword about the workings being a variation of one method mentioned by Clayton Rawson and JDC. From that persepctive it might just be the first ever use of this particular idea, which is quite impressive.

      However, I do get your point – it’s not really the main focus of the story, but then most fiction from this era wasn’t constructed along those lines anyway…anyone not used to late 19th century writing is probably going to have a bit of a struggle with it, hence my rating, but if you know what to expect there’s enough there to enjoy.

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    • He was apparently fluent in French, but while that gives him the chance it obviously doesn’t mean that he read it. I’d like to think that he did, because he was then able to draw out the most interesting and rich parts of this idea and turn it into something decidedly more timeless…and that takes no little skill in istelf, so in no way lessens what Conan Doyle achieved. But then that plays into this very romantic notion I have of crime fiction as this gigantic continuum, with everyone gradually refining and improving what came before, passing on newer and more sharply-realised ideas, gradually crafting their own sinuous paths away from the mainstream and those paths then becoming the influence of more writers who refined and diversivied further and so on and so on… I mean, it’s an unholy mess now, but there was a period where it resulted in something utterly fantastic (around 1920 to 1959, I’d say!) before it all started spiralling out of control and cats became admissible as detectives, or the ideas became stale versions of what had come before rather than better refinements, but you get the idea. I can convince myself of anything that plays into that grand scheme!

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  2. Your theory reminds me of the Ancient Greek concept of mimesis. I also don’t really get along with series where animals sleuth. The exception being the Suzette Hill trilogy where a cat and dog don’t really sleuth but they help their antihero owner who’s a vicar get away with quite literally murder – romantically inclined parishioners can be such a pain. Sort of a series of well-written farcical Patricia Highsmith novels.

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  3. Hmm. Perhaps I will give this a miss, and focus on the other novels published by Locked Room International instead. Are there any good titles released by LRI apart from Paul Halter and Derek Smith?

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    • They’ve published The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (a sort of homage/reimagining of And Then There Were None) which is a huge amount of fun and contains a surprise that almost made me drop the book. There’s also Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills which, to my eternal shame, I have owned for quite some time now – you can see it in the header image on my site – and simply not got round to reading. And one of the earliest of the books was an original publication called The Riddle of Monte Verita, which is entertaining in many ways but far from vital.

      Both the Derek Smith books are awesome, just in case you haven’t read them; we lost a real master of the form when he stopped writing after only two novels. At some point this month they’re putting out another non-Halter called Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, but I don’t know anything about that so can’t recommend it in good faith. But the forthcoming Paul Halter novel out in January – Death Invites You – is a great read and a superb place to start with him if you’ve yet to indulge.

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      • Ah, I forgot about Ayatsuji’s ‘Decagon House Murders’ – which I’ve already read (or rather, stumbled through) in a different language. I’m hoping Ho Ling/ LRI would produce more of Ayatsuji’s novels in English translation, so that I can read them with ease. 🙂 Derek Smith’s Omnibus is still sitting on my shelf, awaiting to be read.

        Have you read ‘Death Invites You’? In French…? 🙂 Incidentally, I think I might have asked you this: but if you had to rank Halter’s novels, which would appear in your top 4? Or even 5?

        P.S. ‘Hard Cheese’ sounds interesting, if only because I cannot quite conceive how cheddar might make it into the title of a mystery novel…!

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        • Rest assured, if I could read French at any higher than a schoolboy level then I’d have torn through a great many more of Halter’s books! No, I’ve read John Pugmire’s English translation of Death Invites You as I’m fortunate enough to be one of the proof-readers (though I promise that I do not benefit in any way from the sales of the book :P).

          As for ranking the Halters…hmmm, give me a little while and I’ll get back to you…

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        • Okay, after taking this far too seriously I’d probably rate the Halters thus:

          1. The Tiger’s Head
          1. The Phantom Passage
          3. Death Invites You
          3. The Invisible Circle
          3. The Crimson Fog
          3. The Demon of Dartmoor
          3. The Seventh Hypothesis
          8. The Lord of Misrule
          8. The Fourth Door
          10. The Seven Wonders of Crime

          I have not yet read The Picture from the Past, but have heard very good things about it.

          I already feel the need to justify this ordering, and possibly even change it…maybe I can do a post on Halter to celebreate the publication of DIY. Will post this now before I bottle out…

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          • Thank you for the Halter list. I’m not a huge fan of impossible crimes, but you have been raving about him so much that I thought I should try at least one. I want to be sure I read one of the best! The only one I could find in our library system is the Crimson Fof, and I have heard that the ending to that one is pretty obvious. So I thought I should one for which I have no previous knowledge.

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          • Haha, delighted to think I’ve convinced someone to give them a go. What’s so good about Halter is that he’s able to still find original conceits and solutions in a field that is now increasingly packed with recycled ideas and situations. Occasionally there is a high degree of contortion involved on the odd point to make it work, but he’s hardly unique in that regard!

            If you’re looking to be convinced about the locked room mystery, I’d advise something a little more classical: maybe Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil with LRI also published and is available moderately cheaply. Or perhaps Rupert Penny’s Policeman’s Evidence, which Jonathan seemed to enjoy and so has already gone down well with someone else who is around to vouch for it! Not that I wish to dissuade you from Halter, of course, but it’s just something to consider.

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  4. Bkfriedman – I enjoyed Rupert Penny’s ‘Policeman’s Evidence’, and I think it’s worth reading by fans of Golden Age mystery novels. However, depending on where you are at, you may not be able to find a cheap copy quite so easily. John Dickson Carr is the grand-master of locked room and impossible puzzles, and some of JJ’s earlier blog entries give a sampling of titles worth checking out. Christianna Brand’s ‘Death of Jezebel’ is good – and has been released by Mysterious Press as an eBook. If my memory holds up, one of Agatha Christie’s only novels featuring a locked room murder is ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’, which I enjoyed as well. 🙂 Happy reading – you have plenty of interesting titles before you!

    JJ – I found your ranking of Halter’s novels very interesting. 🙂 It’s certainly not conventional, insofar as most of the bloggers I follow would concur with me that ‘Seventh Hypothesis’ comes close to the top, together with ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ (though I’ve not read ‘Demon). So an alternative perspective is refreshing. 🙂 Personally, I wasn’t especially enamoured by ‘Seven Wonders’ and ‘Crimson Fog’, and preferred ‘Fourth Door’ over these two titles. Your ranking has made me want to check out ‘Tiger’s Head’ and ‘Phantom Passage’ – so thanks!

    Going back to Bkfriedman’s comment – I don’t necessarily think that the resolution to ‘Crimson Fog’ is easily guessed. There are quite a few layers of twists, and and while I guessed what seems to be the most important one, there were reasons for that – which I won’t spell out for fear of spoiling the novel for you. Most reviewers say that the blurb for ‘Crimson Fog’ contains spoilers, so you may wish to avoid reading it beforehand. It isn’t my favourite title by Halter – but I think Halter’s works are worth reading. It’s a real shame that no English publisher seemed to want to pick up his works, despite Halter’s obvious love for England – thankfully, this has been rectified by LRI. 🙂

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    • Jonathan, Thank you for your nice reply. I think I’ve read most, if not all, of the Gideon Fell books, and I’ve experimented with Henry Merrivale. I found The Judas Window great fun to read for the courtroom scenes, less so for the locked room part. I am a huge Brand fan and have owned Death of Jezebel in hardcover for years. At some point, I will be re-reading all of Brand, including that one. Thanks so much for your other suggestions.

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    • Yeah, Crimson Fog does unfortunately give away its ultimate direction in the blurb…which I kind of get but mainly find a little frustrating because of the superb way Halter gradually works his way around to it.

      Another Christie locked room is Murder in Mesopotamia, and The Pale Horse contains impossible elements…personally I think MiM is the best of these three, but then I read it a looooooong time ago and my memory isn’t the best.

      And I’m delighted to have encourgaed you to check out some of these Halters. I did revieww The Phantom Passage back in the mists of time (like, September) so check hat out for a fuller and spoiler-free discussion if you’re interested. Also, Jonathan, you need to read Whistle up the Devil! Get to it, man!

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  5. My ranking of Paul Halter’s books is as follows:
    1. The Seventh Hypothesis
    1. The Demon of Dartmoor
    1. The Phantom Passage
    4. The Fourth Door
    4. The Tiger’s Head
    6. The Picture from the Past
    6. The Crimson Fog
    6. The Invisible Circle
    9. The Lord of Misrule
    10. The Seven Wonders of Crime
    As already mentioned, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a locked room mystery. Another Agatha Christie novel Evil Under The Sun may be regarded as an impossible crime novel in the sense that everyone has an alibi and hence no one could have done it.

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    • Delighted to see that we agree on the obvious superiority of The Phantom Passage, Santosh! I’ve recently heard of another book that does the ‘disappearing street’ thing, so am interested to see how that answer compares. I shall slightly lower my expectations for Picture… accordingly – though of course something being the 8th or 9th best Paul Halter novel still makes it an exceptionally good book!

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        • The Three Tiers of Fantasy by Norman Berrow. I’ve just read The Bishop’s Sword for review this Wednesday, and given how well – if not exactly originally – he acquits himself there I can believe he might have an interesting approach to this problem, too…

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  6. I thought Ellery Queen’s “The Lamp of God” did a great job with a disappearing house. I was young when I read it and didn’t notice the obvious clue. (Not that I’d fare much better with a first read today.)

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    • Yeah, the disappearance of fixed objects is always a clever one, especially given the range of explanations I’ve encountered in my reading. Read TLoG yeeeears ago and, to be frank, am a little rusty on the details…need to dig it out again and have a read through. Any other miraculous disappearances you’d recommend, Brad?

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      • Other than this weekend (!), I can’t think of any, but then, as I mentioned, I don’t tend to gravitate toward the impossible when I’m picking my mysteries. I will look to you and this very knowledgable bunch around you for suggestions as I seek to expand my horizons!

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        • Ah, well than I must also direct you to TomCat’s blog Beneath the Stains of Time:
          http://moonlight-detective.blogspot.co.uk/
          A treasure trove of impossible (and non-impossible…possible?) crime fiction trivia and recommendations, and an exceptionally knowledgable blogger on the topic – ’twas he who got me properly started on them several years ago (even though we do disagree about Rupert Penny…). If you don’t know it, you should check it out.

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  7. Pingback: #40: Hard Cheese (1971) by Ulf Durling [trans. Bertil Falk 2015] | The Invisible Event

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