#112: The Howling Beast (1934) by Noel Vindry [trans. John Pugmire 2016]

Disclosure: I proof-read this book for Locked Room International in April 2016.

Howling BeastAfter many years reading, talking about, reviewing, and now blogging on the subject of detective fiction I am presented with a real difficulty here: I honestly don’t know quite what to write about Noel Vindry’s classic The Howling Beast for fear of giving anything away.  It is a balancing act of a book that, while probably not completely successful by today’s standards, is hugely enjoyable and absolutely something that those who count themselves as puzzle fans or lay claim to an interest in the emergence and development of detective fiction really should read.  And I’m not just being vague here because I don’t want to criticise it — I really enjoyed it, and there’s one key thing it does absolutely brilliantly, and I’m especially keen to preserve that for those of you who should experience this pure.  So, with that out of the way, here goes.

Pierre Herry, wanted for murder, approaches holidaying examining magistrate M. Allou and demands that the older man listen to the story of his crimes because the events are beyond his comprehension and driving him insane.  In a nice touch, Allou has deliberately remained ignorant of the papers while on holiday and so has no idea who Herry is or what he is talking about.  And so, as the two men sit in a cafe, Herry pours out his tale and Allou listens…

And that, my friends, is as much as I’m going to tell you about the plot.  I really think you should go into this knowing not an ounce more — don’t even read the synopsis on the book or any website you may order this from.  It is a beautifully compact and serenely-composed puzzle that is all the better if you don’t know what the front of the box looks like: so many aspects are drawn into the central setup and mystery that the air of self-doubt and confusion is rather key in getting the most out of this.  And it’s a great read; John Pugmire is an excellent translator, as evinced through his increasingly-superb work with Paul Halter’s back catalogue, and here captures an essence of sharpness and concision from Vindry that is noticeably removed from M. Halter’s works and gives a real sense of how distinctive he must have been as an author.

Vindry, however, will not be to everyone’s taste.  Clearly one of the practitioners of a grand Gallic tradition that Halter has picked up, puzzle and plot rule the day, and I could tell you everything of a personal nature about all of the characters in a few sentences (not each, that is; I mean about all of them).  The cast is necessarily tiny and so the effects wrought on each of them by the actions of the plot are a touch on the melodramatic side at times — when you have to capture this response in only a small cohort, it is often necessary to overplay it, after all.  I’ve not yet read Vindry’s first novel The House That Kills, translated by Pugmire last year, but understand that it has an unusual structure; The Howling Beast certainly joins it in this regard: the impossibility here is something you are made to wait for, though it comes about with an organic inevitability that is seamlessly worked from the characters and this very distinct position they find themselves in.

Flashes of atmosphere fill out the backdrop and setting, and give a tantalising (or, for some, perhaps frustrating) hint of how effective an author Vindry would be if he opted to put a little more emphasis on such things.  Lovely moments sketch in the essentials and give you just enough leeway to add whatever else you need, like with the shepherd character Père Antoine:

He was of medium height and was wearing the traditional smock. His face was covered in white hairs, so much so one could hardly differentiate moustache, beard or eyebrows.

That’s all you get for a physical description, but the manner and the content of his speech allows you to paint in as much of the man as you need within the lines Vindry’s sketching provides.  This is obviously a very deliberate choice on Vindry’s part, and a necessary metric when trying to determine how much someone would enjoy this book.  Rest assured, there is some very good psychology in here — in flashes, obviously, no maundering for M. Vindry — and taken as a character study there is arguably both a lot and not very much depending on how you choose to approach it.

Last week’s review, Max Afford’s The Dead Are Blind, is probably quite a good comparison, actually: the slightly nightmarish overtones, the cleanliness of the construction — Vindry has this, as well as a stir of early Carr and the aforementioned origins of Halter.  A sympathy with or enthusiasm for those authors will definitely help your enjoyment of this, though Vindry’s own iconoclastic streak secures this as so much more than simply another retread of familiar ideas made dull by too much exposure.  And hopefully once you read it you’ll understand the difficulty I’ve had in discussing it while wishing to give nothing away!

I must now go back and read The House That Kills, and we must collectively hope that more innovation is on the way from John Pugmire and LRI — with these first Vindry translations, the introduction of shin honkaku with The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle, Derek Smith’s two masterpiece novels Whistle up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair, and the continued exploits of Paul Halter’s impossibilities surely you don’t need any more convincing that the man is doing amazing work.  Encore, encore!

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Moon.

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17 thoughts on “#112: The Howling Beast (1934) by Noel Vindry [trans. John Pugmire 2016]

  1. Thanks for the review – it’s always exciting to learn about new releases by Locked Room International. 🙂 If I recall correctly, ‘House that Kills’ hasn’t received many positive reviews, so it’s encouraging to know that ‘Howling Beast’ is worth reading. Though for some reason the Vindry novels are just about the only titles that LRI hasn’t released via Kindle?

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    • John Pugmire recently responded to a query along these lines in the comments on the LRI blog: apparently the Vindry estate won’t allow ebooks, only print books — something, I understand, to do with knowing the precise number sold for…reasons. Whatever that is, I’m just delighted to get to read them!

      THTK has received rather mixed reviews, you’re right, so it’ll be interesting to see what I make of that. All in good time…

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    • The framing is very interesting, because a large chunk is one man telling a story to another man who occasionally interrupts — it’s not exactly a trailblazing conceit, but I liked the compactness of it and how Allou is savvy enough to question the key parts. Seeing the puzzle crumble at the end is very entertaining, too, because while the impossibility is a very small and focussed things it’s one of those beautifully simple explanations that you’re like “Oh, yeah, of course…” when it’s resolved. Very satisfying.

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    • Also bear in mind the proviso that your tastes must intersect with mine in some meaningful way, Brad — given our divergence over Rupert Penny and most of Halter it may not quite be up your street…

      Hope NY is good. Remember to spend a lot of money at The Mysterious Bookshop!

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  2. I have read the book and I understand the difficulty you had in discussing it while wishing to give nothing away!
    I agree with your rating of 4 stars.

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  3. Pingback: #150: The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry [trans. John Pugmire 2015] | The Invisible Event

  4. Hey JJ, I’ve just finished ‘The Howling Beast’ – read it in three days, the first two days covering only a chapter each, and the third day consuming the rest of it. I took your advice and got stuck into the novel not having read the synopsis at the back. I enjoyed the novel as a whole, but I wondered if the real puzzle came quite late in the story, with the first half/ two-thirds being more mysterious than being a mystery – if that makes sense? Nonetheless, when the resolution came into view I thought the threads were resolved well, and one or two aspects of the solutions fitted nicely with the background/ milieu.

    The introduction to the novel made some reference to Vindry prioritising plot and puzzle above setting and characterisation, and I did think the novel as a whole was quite similar to what I come to expect from Halter. Incidentally, I shall return to Carr early next week in time for putting together a short review of one of his novels… 😀

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    • Yeah, it’s an unusually-structured novel, for sure, but I’m getting the impression that’s how Vindry rolled haviung now read The House That Kills — I get the impression he was out to challenge the accepted notions of detective or mystery novels to that point, which is what I take from the ‘plot over character’ debate. It’s certainly a more cohesive read than THHK nad the impossibilitiy comes about much more organically, wouldn’t you say (you may not!)?

      Glad you enjoyed it, and congrats on finishing this lot of exams — now on with the important business of reading… 🙂

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