Friday, 18 March 2016

Forgotten Book - The House that Kills

The House that Kills was the first detective novel published by Noel Vindry, a major French writer of the Golden Age who was unknown to almost all English-speaking fans until recently, simply because nobody translated his work. Now, John Pugmire of Locked Room International, has repaired the omission,and published a nice paperback edition with an intro and appendices.

As John says in the intro, at one time Vindry (1896-1954) had a reputation to match those of two Belgians, Georges Simenon, and Stanislas-Andre Steeman (whom I've discussed previously on this blog). I was fascinated to learn that Boileau-Narcejac were huge fans of Vndry, speaking of his "unequalled virtuosity". Narcejac even went so far as to suggest that Vindry surpassed Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. I have to say that - on the evidence of Vindry's debut - this seems over the top, but Narcejac studied the genre in depth, and his opinions on it certainly command respect. So I look forward to reading Vindry's later work.

Vindry trained as an examining magistrate,and put his professional know-how to work by giving the same occupation to his Great Detective, Monsieur Allou. Vindry's focus was on puzzle rather than character,and Allou is not drawn in great depth (but then, you might say the same of Hercule Poirot). His speciality is solving impossible crimes, and here he is confronted by a bunch of them.

This is a clever book, if dry in style when compared to John Dickson Carr's atmospheric writing. Vindry was certainly ingenious, and Locked Room International have done a great job in making his debut available at long last. They also publish Paul Halter, a present day exponent of the impossible crime story who has attracted many admirers. Halter's work is also worth seeking out, and if you liked miraculous murders, I think you'll enjoy The House that Kills. Will you be able to solve the various puzzles before Allou? They aren't easy to crack believe me..  .


J F Norris said...

Ironically, Vindry wrote this is an essay that is included as an appendix in that edition: ""...if logic dominates the work degenerates into a game, a chess problem or a crossword and it's no longer a novel." And yet for me THE HOUSE THAT KILLS is nothing more than a logic exercise. This is the French equivalent of a humdrum mystery in that all that mattered was the puzzle. The characters are symbols and archetypes, no real personality to any of them. Allou is the only one who vaguely resembles a person. But so disappointing to me was the utterly transparent identity of the killer. It should be obvious to anyone who's read a handful of mysteries from any era. I've been told that two of Vindry's detective novels -- THE HOWLING BEAST and THE NECKLACE OF BLOOD -- are much better than this debut. I wonder if we will see English translations of either one of those. I'd give Vindry a second shot if only because Boileau and Narcejac (my heroes of French crime fiction) admired his work.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, John. I agree that this has some of the flaws one associates with a debut, and I can well believe that his later books were meatier. And of course I share your admiration for Boileau and Narcejac. I wish their earlier solo efforts were also readily available.

dfordoom said...

"This is the French equivalent of a humdrum mystery in that all that mattered was the puzzle. The characters are symbols and archetypes, no real personality to any of them."

It's interesting that the idea that the novel should be about character rather than plot is very old-fashioned. Even in the 1920s, at the beginning of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, this was a very old-fashioned idea. It's basically a 19th century concept of what a novel should be.

The shift towards "psychological crime novels" was in some ways a step backwards, a return to the Victorian ideal of the novel.

The idea of characters who are symbols and archetypes is much more in line with modernist views of literature.

Of course old-fashioned ideas aren't always bad but it's amusing that the proponents of the psychological crime novel thought they represented the new and the radical when in fact they were trying to turn back the clock.