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

house-that-killsAaaah, the debut novels of celebrated authors.  Would anyone read It Walks by Night and predict The Problem of the Green Capsule or Till Death Do Us Part?  Does The Mysterious Affair at Styles in any way prepare you for The Moving Finger, or for Crooked House?  Often it’s a challenge to look back on the opening salvo of a career that would go on to become notable and find any vestige of that in those first few hundred pages, and it can be even harder when — as in the case of Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills — you’re waiting 80 years to read it in your native language and are told up front of the author’s own huge contribution to the genre.  Frankly, it needs to be The Usual Suspects mixed with The Mystery of the Yellow Room (spoilers for that in this, incidentally) as rewritten by David Mamet…and even then it probably won’t match the hype.

On these grounds, I can thoroughly understand the lukewarm reception this, the first English translation of any of Vindry’s novels, has received from wise and experienced heads such as John Norris over at Pretty Sinister and TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time.  Fortunately for me, I read the second Vindry translation from John Pugmire’s Locked Room International, The Howling Beast, earlier this year and was prepared for Vindry’s particular stylings: maximum puzzle, a dash of melodrama (there’s a moderate amount of screaming, often at times of high tension), minimum characterisation.  Thus I was able to go into this with these awarenesses perched on opposite shoulders and vying for my attention every time something happened to strengthen one point of view or the other.

The Howling Beast benefitted from a creeping sense of dread atmosphere which is largely absent here, but this being the apprentice work it’s entirely forgivable.  It’s true that for the casual reader this would be improved with something more than a description of a location and then some confusing stuff happening, but for me the determination in Vindry’s straight-ahead plotting is pretty brave: chapter 1 starts on page 11, and the perpetrator of the impossibilities we witness is named on page 76; by page 93 everything is wrapped up with more than a third of the book to go…oh my fur and whiskers, I’m thinking, please let’s not have 50 pages of goodbyes like The Return of the King.  I’ll take an overlong Ewok party over that, slightly out of left-field though it would be…

And then — and here’s what marks this out for me among the field of Debuts of Note — Vindry gives us another impossibility, beautifully motivated and rich in misdirection and suspicion in a way that takes this slightly overripe first half and spins from it a far finer thread that you suspect was the point all along.  There’s the undeniable air of consequences, of chickens coming home to roost, and it inspires a retrospection entirely uncommon in this genre at this time.  True, his atmosphere near-vacuum robs this second crime of the sense of tension we might hope for, but as a simply-explained puzzle where All Is Not What It Seems I’ve seen few that establish their setup so cleanly and explain it away so cleverly.  As a short story in its own right, this would be something of a masterpiece, and I feel that its qualities are perhaps lost or overlooked in the context which it is given.

John Norris made the observation in his own post above that Vindry is likely to appeal to fans of Paul Halter, and I can’t disagree.  Both share that level of artifice in construction that takes a situation and, in a way the classically smooth plotting won’t allow, just pushes it and pushes it to the point of insanity, until all the elements required are so tightly packed in on one another that they can’t help but come tumbling out at the moment the strain is simply too great to contain them any more.  Their puzzle plots are a delight to me for this reason: I love seeing something exploited in this manner, the creativity required to bend your mind around those corners fascinates me and is what draws me to this type of novel in the first place.  Yes, it has its problems for the casual reader, as I say, but this is as essential as The Howling Beast for anyone who has a legitimate curiosity about how the puzzle novel has developed over the years, and especially for anyone who wants to experience the roots of the grand Gallic tradition of such detective fiction.

So, well.  On balance, the average reader of this review will like this book slightly less than I do, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and am hoping that more Vindry follows from John Pugmire’s LRI.  Just one extra niggle to finish on: the title.  Give that the house in question is never suspected as being involved in the murders (they’re all shootings and stabbings) I find The House That Kills an unusual choice…The House of Death, maybe, but maybe that’s also just me…

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 Policeman.

~

On a side note, this now means that I have read every single one of the books in my header image on this blog.  Is a new photo needed, do we think, highlighting some of the titles likely to come in the months ahead, or have I now nailed my colours to the mast and must remain with the above?  Argh, decisions!

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21 thoughts on “#150: The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry [trans. John Pugmire 2015]

  1. As a rule, I love pure puzzle plot mysteries, but after reading your review and scanning through my old one, I can honestly say I barely remember anything about the book. I recall the attempted murder on the detective inside his locked apartment, but barely anything about the rest of the story. So the plot failed to leave an impression on me.

    However, I read The Howling Beast is a huge improvement over this one and I’ll have a look at that one somewhere in the future.

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    • Yeah, I can’t say this is going to live for ages in my memory, but the structure and intent are enough to make it a notable if flawed addition to the subgenre. Vindry is problematic, but he deserves a lot of kudos for trying something new.

      THB is a definite improvement, though the impossibility — while brilliantly organic — comes very late on. I really do advise that you go into it knowing as little as possible, don’t even read the synopsis on the back cover. The less you know going in, the more there is to be taken from it.

      One can only hope that more Vindry novels follow. Get buying, people, and make it happen!

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    • The Howling Beast is definitely a stronger first experience…but go in knowing as little as possible: in fact, you already know the author and the title — that’s more than enough! No more!

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  2. I’ve been curious to try ‘The Howling Beast’ since you first reviewed it, but I’m also trying to stay away from expensive print-only books… 😦

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    • Erm, kinda. But the first “case” is done so quickly and with such compactness that I honestly think Vindry isn’t trying to hide the culprit too much…I legitimately believe the entire purpose of the book is the second impossibility, and he’s simply playing around with the form and setting up this with that opening problem.

      As for the second impossibility…well, it recalls a particular novel in its culprit (and possibly not the one you may think of…), but I don’t want to say too much for risk of spoiling it — Vindry really does seem to write those kinds of books where the less you know the better off you are!

      In short, if you’re looking for a superlative piece of guilty party-hiding then this isn’t the book for you. It’s much more rewarding as a different perspective on detective fiction of this era, and an insight on innovation in a genre that was running the risk of becoming stale if new things weren’t tried.

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  3. Unlike TomCat I sadly remember *everything* about this and I must reiterate that anyone well versed in locked room mystery novels and stories will most definitely see through all the artifice in the first half of the book. Instantaneously. It’s not a mystery to hardcore mystery fans, IMO.

    But here comes a confession… Reading is one of the most subjective activities any person can experience. We all come to books from such different perspectives and histories. I can’t help but allow previous reading to intrude and often ruin what may otherwise be an inventive book. In retrospect I guess I wasn’t allowing for the solution arrived at the midway point and the other impossibility that turns up in the last third as an innovation. But you are correct. It is. This review is more fair minded than mine. (hangs head in shame)

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    • Aaah, you’re too kind to me and too hard on yourself, John: that subjectivity is important, which is why so many of us get to do this bogging lark and get to engage in so many great conversations about it.

      I read Vindry and see him doing what his contemporaries like Carr and Queen did, but he approaches it in a more cautious way, almost as if he’s feeling his way carefully around the conventions to see what can be probed and altered and still confrom to an accepted ‘detective novel’ form. Now, this is just because I’m fond of reading into this kind of thing, because the different approaches used in essentially the same undertaking is my particular fascination. I also see a direct line from Vindry to Halter, they’re both challenging the form in their own ways, and anything that provides some background to Halter is equally going to be of particular interest to me.

      In this way, I’m allowing my previous reading to intrude in the same way you are in what you read (as, I’m retty sure, do most people who read in any volume). I’m just predisposed to certain things that happen to be different to your certain things, or Brad’s, or TomCat’s, or Kate’s. No harm in that!

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  4. Enough, enough! Just ordered The Howling Beast! Won’t read the back cover before I read novel! If it directly links to Halter, fully expect it to unleash my inner howling beast! Then you’ll be sorry . . .

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  5. Pingback: #158: The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) by Akimitsu Takagi [trans. Deborah Boehm 1998] | The Invisible Event

  6. I remember this one. First part is dull, but the second half is pretty neat, if…pulpish. That’s the word. I honestly found it interesting that that person’s action blew up so badly, not something you’d see even in today’s crime dramas (they just make the law do whatever they dang well please whille being impossibly smug about it and that’s a rant in waiting).

    Also that feeling when someone says, “Eh, it’s easy” and I’m going, “Well I only figured the culprit out…” XD

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    • There’s certainly an excess of melodrama in the first part which can be a little hard to bear, but I love the way it establishes the almost complete reboot of the plot. If anyone did this today they’d be heralded as a genius, I’m tellin’ ya! 🙂

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  7. I see that ‘The Howling Beast’ has been made available as an ebook… Any idea if this one would be too? I happened to glance at your twitter side bar and espied the publication of a new Halter novel – which I promptly bought off my local Kindle store… 😀

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