Monday, January 20, 2014

John Sladek : Black Aura, 1974

John Thomas Sladek

When John Sladek wrote Black Aura was 1974: up until then he had written only  science fiction novels .
The " conversion" to the Genre Mystery ,  it had occurred two years before, when The Times had announced a competition for the best unpublished mystery story , “The Times Detective Story Competition” - and bear witness to the high quality of selection
conversely would have guaranteed the high quality of work winner , there was also the presence of Agatha Christie among the jurors:  He was awarded winner, with a flattering opinion by A.Christie .
The story was called By an Unknown Hand (in Italy it  is still unpublished): a locked room of extraordinary level, as the best by Carr or by Rawson.
Sladek had a feature (he died 12 years ago of pulmonary fibrosis) , typical of science fiction novelists : his novels had some fantastic plots , verging on the bizarre and on the visionary ( like some by Fredric Brown ).
The plot and the staging of the impossible crime is one of the most exciting in the flow of crime fiction in general, and more specifically of the locked rooms, I 've ever read. Because, even if the substance would be impossible (the subject enters into a hotel room, and then when you enter into, he is strangled to death . And there was only the detective to guard the front door and he swears that no one came out of it. But someone has murdered a man , in a room from which no one left or entered from the outside) , but the solution is reduced to an orange chair and to an old trick as the world . The detective , Thackeray Phin , with the help of readings by Carr and by Chesterton,  finds the key to the problem and reveals very ingenious premeditated murder, by virtue of an unprecedented imaginative virtuosity (except Fell, Merrivale , Bencolin , Don Diavolo , Merlini , and a few others ) .
I mentioned the story, because Black Aura, the first between two novels , takes up a lot from the story : the first, Sladek entrusts the investigator part just to Phin , and he prepares an ingenious  plot.. Then , he disseminates a series of impossibilities  really impossible. In essence, what we can say to introduce the novel is that Sladek was an author so intelligent than a simple and straightforward reading is never enough to understand the mechanisms that conceal the plot : you often resume reading and go to re-read what you just read, to have a mindset and to be able to follow the author and his detective, in the labyrinths of the plot.
Black Aura is so.
The birth of a visionary fantasy . But at the same time it is a clear-cut answer to own convictions . Sladek was a positivist and as such, a materialist subject : everything did not fall within the scope of demonstrable , it was discarded. For example the occultism . His intellectual conception , had already been released in his sci-fi works in the form of irreverent and sarcastic judgments .
Phin works within a community of spiritualists , conducted by a medium that prides to get in touch with many otherworldly entities , and so doing seems she ensnared some of her members; and he suspects that in this community there is not just plagiarism or circumvention of the weak and incompetent persons, but also real crimes . Therefore, he who does not believe to mediums and seances, pretends to want  join , although some of the followers of this cult know very well he is a detective.
To heterogeneous group , a company of the ethereal Mandala, part several persons: there is a reverend, a psychologist, a retired military officer , a pop singer , and, of course, the medium, and a scientific researcher .
Everyone is there for a purpose : there’s who exploits the gullibility of others, who in order to avoid any interference of entities that are not beneficial, who really gets in touch with the ghosts by his dead . It’s the case of Lauderdale , who lost his son Dave . It is said that his ghost has appeared to the pop singer . Dave was a drug addict , who had come into possession of an authentic Egyptian talisman , which is said to bring bad luck, a cursed talisman in the form of a beetle .
He died for a drug overdose: this is the verdict by the police. But some is not convinced . The fact is that Phin begins to investigate . He knows nothing about Dave, but he wants go to the bottom of things and he starts asking questions . At one day , Lauderdale, in front of everyone , including Phin, goes to the bathroom : Steve Sonday , the pop singer and his friend , is out.  Some time elapses, but he does not come out . Eventually they decide to go to see if he felt bad, but they found the empty room, without he has been able to get out without the others could not see : vanished into thin air.

Phin is the most worried . And while others persons are scrambling to look in all the corners of the building , he is increasingly concerned , as the time passes and Sonday is not found : did Sonday dead? This fact becomes apparent when they found him in the shed , in a kind of vertical caisson , sitting and strangled .
Is not the only disturbing thing, though. Some time later, just Steve Sonday , the friend of Lauderdale, organizes an experiment in which he can prove to the group, even disbelief , that he can levitate in the air, in front of their eyes , to the height of the balcony. Too bad! He precipitates and he remains stuck in the gate . In short, too many criminal events . To which again it is associated the attempted poisoning of the medium, and the extraordinary disappearance of Reverend: he comes to pray in the mortuary chapel of the funeral company , although there are no other means by which he can come out, if not precisely the coffin, he mysteriously disappears , he vanishes into thin air , only to be found elsewhere, in a state of unconsciousness.
To Phin will be hard to find the key to the problem , and nailing a slippery and unpredictable murderer.
Again Sladek demonstrates a capacity to surprise, playing with the readers: by directing them in one direction and then making fun of them with pure conjuring tricks : for example, the disappearance of the reverend. How did he vanish into the chapel ? The two doors were guarded : the first  by  two pallbearers , the second by the other persons of the Company spiritualistic: someone obviously is not telling the truth. Or .. is it possible that the coffin might contain two bodies. The reality will be less gruesome than you might think, but the  possibility that in the coffin there could be two bodies, it drews The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen ( and I'm sure that this remembrance Sladek  had in mind when he designed the situation ) .
The levitation that is an optical trick : which writer does it bring to our mind who put a famous optical trick at his very famous novel? J.D.Carr , at The Hollow Man, but also at a short story with Colonel March: The New Invisible Man .
The trick of the bathroom is a variation of a locked room he designed in the case of Invisible Green: in the first novel, Sladek devised a locked Room, making finding the victim locked in the bathroom; here, he invented a disappearance from a closed bathroom.
But the best thing about the novel is the literary quality , the suspended tone between the satirical and the ironic , with some good joke;  the rhythm is smooth and the style is flowing , very light. The inventions are wasted , and so the tension remains very high until the end .
But like any good final, at the manner by Fredric Brown, Sladek is astonishing : where Mrs. Webb was defended from the charge of stealing the ring from a dead , citing the fact that a martian entity Martian had given her it  , Phin fixes a spaceship : it will not be true that the Martians really exist ? , is as
Sladek wants tell us .
Talking between us, if we must say, the two disappearances from the bathroom and from the chapel they are not much, because the astute reader directs his gaze in the right direction: it is the levitation levitation the real trick who leaves us completely astonished .
Then when he will explain the trick, someone will can say, of course, could not be otherwise.
Strange nobody has thought before, though.

Pietro De Palma

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pierre Boileau : Six crimes sans assassin, 1939

"Reader Beware: SPOILERS"

A few years ago it seemed that in Italy the crisis of the classic detective novel was irreversible: was created on the Blog of the  Publishing House Mondadori an acrimonious debate that sometimes transcended , at which soon I became the standard-bearer for those who wanted to read still kind of classic detective novels ( and not necessarily hard-boiled terrorist plots , mafia, espionage , etc. .. ) . After ups and downs , now in Italy we are experiencing a new golden age , but especially thanks also to the initiative of another publishing house, Polillo , who is publishing an amazing number of novels, never before published ( Parke , Berkeley, Betteridge, Wynne, Chambers, Morrah, Sprigg, Penny, Witting, Brady, Rhode, Connington, Adams, Kyd, Snow, Ferguson, etc. .. ) . In these days are published a novel by Paul Halter, never published before ( Le diable de Dartmoor ) and “idem” one by Peter Lovesey , and next month will be published  an unpublished novel , in Italy , by Berkeley, a novel by Charlotte Armstrong and one of Julian Symons . Last month instead was published an unpublished novel by Pierre Boileau, Six crimes sans assassin.  
Pierre Boileau is , to most readers, famous because with Narcejac Thomas , he formed one of the most innovative and supportive marriages literary detective genre , signing countless masterpieces , from Celle qui tait plus ne'e  to D' entre les morts , from L’ Ingenieur aimait trop les chiffres to Les louves and many others. If, however, the novels signed by him and by his friend , probed victims and perpetrators , focusing primarily on personality disorders , thereby generating an intensely psychological narrative and suspense , until he had published under his own signature, i.e.until  the meeting with Narcejac on the occasion of the award of the novel of the latter, La mort est du voyage at the Grand Prix du Roman d' Aventure in 1948 , his novels were just marvelous examples of classical Mystery.

He was born in Paris in 1889. After various jobs , he began to write and collaborate with some newspapers , signing for the newspaper " Lectures pour tous " his first detective story with André Brunel : Deux hommes sur une piste, 1932. Since that time, he wrote some novels all with this character : La Pierre qui  tremble , 1934; La Promenade de minuit 1934;  Le Repos de Bacchus 1938 (Grand Prix du Roman d' Aventure); Six crimes sans assassin, 1939; Les Trois clochards 1945. From 1936 to 1942 he published several short stories for the magazine Ric et Rac , and some of them were republished during the Second World War and the occupation of France , under the pseudonym Anicet.. After the war, Boileau published yet ; L'Assassin vient les mains vides , 1945;  La bete du bois sans nom ,1949; Les Rendez- vous de Passy , 1951.
The last three novels signed by him individually , however, came after he had formed the association with Narcejac .
He died in 1989 at Beaulieu- sur- Mer.

Six crimes sans assassin , once again tells about a tragedy within a specific family group and about the biggest success by André Brunel investigator called , along with the narrator his friend, to locate an invisible killer.

A tragedy took place in an apartment building , a woman was seen calling for help , looking out a window, and a moment later, fall back , while a fight scene between two people is glimpsed behind her. People flock , and, primarily, the caretaker of the building which, however , reached behind the door , he realizes to have forgotten the pass- partout : when he comes back on, with the master key , and he opens the door, he  is located in front of a terrible scene : a man dead with two gunshot wounds , one woman dying , who can not hurt herself , the gun is missing, and the disappearance of a murderess…from a closed apartment : the murderer can not be passed to the front door because various other people and caretaker of the building are fumbling behind the door; none is found into the other rooms ; the windows are so high than they can’t have been used for the escape , and for the most they are guarded by many onlookers in the street and in neighboring buildings; the only door that opens on the scale of service, it is locked from the inside by a bolt. So where did  the murderer escape?

The question that arises after examining the crime scene , is this : she lacks the maid of the couple, Adèle Blanchot, whom was supposed to be there but there is not. Commissioner and the gatekeeper go to the sixth floor of the building , where are the servants' rooms , but in the room of Adéle they don’t find the woman and anything that serves to give a track. However, they leave a policeman on guard .

An hour later Brunel , the narrator and Charasse go to view the room of Adéle looking for rogue elements to the Commissioner, but Roland , the first to enter the room is faced with a terrible scene: Adéle dead on the bed. After an initial moment of dismay , the other two reach the companion and found the maid , killed by a gunshot to the heart.

The policeman on guard swears that he didn’t move even a moment from his seat and in the meantime , however, a corpse has materialized : obviously no trace of the murderer . Also in this case there is no output to the outside of the door .

You believe at this point that if the maid was killed , the same fate could happen to Julien Blanchot , the husband , the butler , who is at the villa of Vignaray . They phoned him and tell him to barricade himself in the house, not to open to anyone, as long as they will go to find him the day after. The next day Charasse does not show up : Brunel and the narrator, alarmed, go to look him and find him dying in his study, poisoned. So with a taxi Brunel , the narrator and the Special Brigade Brigadier Girard go to the villa but some warning signs put them in alarm : a telephone cable cut , scratch marks of the heavy door of the study. The door is closed inside ,  and also a heavy desk was pushed against the inside. No one is responding to their calls . When with great difficulty they manage to open the door , they are faced with another corpse:  on a couch the poor Julien lies. He was killed by a pistol shot , and there’s no trace of the murderer . And also in this case there are not outputs which may have allowed the escape.

Now we are faced with a catastrophe : the two domestic and Marcel Vignaray dead, Simone Vignaray in a coma with a bullet in the liver, and Roland Charasse poisoned. At the study of Vignaray they found traces of a possible blackmail: receipts of  many payments for substantial fees and an address, which you think be bt the mysterious blackmailer : his name is Alfred Rupart .

They place the house under surveillance , but just when there is no cop in the vicinity, the narrator-friend of Brunel assists , entered in the house of Rupart, thanks to the pass- partout provided by the concierge already been contacted by the police, listening at the door, to conversation between Rupart and a mysterious another individual, probably the murderer , whose Rupart must have known somehow the name : the two are going to meet in a villa on the outskirts of Paris.

The narrator tries to warn his friend and goes to the meeting place where he finds Brunel and a little time later , Charasse, recovered thanks to the care of doctors : the three men agree to keep the three outputs of the villa, but at some point he feel shoot: after entering , they find Rupart dead and the murderer again ... disappeared. It 's too Brunel ! He thought he had finally found a track and now it is in his hands a handful of flies . After yet another murder, Brunel will be able to give a name to the killer and to explain everything in the last few pages , thanks to his little gray cells .

The common wisdom that the critical reserve for this title is extremely flattering, especially on the part of critics of the French language. But I want to emphasize that if the virtuosity of the plot is very important ( especially for the time) , presenting no less than 5 Locked Rooms in the same novel and therefore a very high level of difficulty , we must also say that the 5 situations do not present the same degree of difficulty ( the first , the second and the third are considerable , the fourth and the fifth .. puerile ) . For more, among the top three , only the first Locked Room is really spectacular , while the third is very good and the second seems to me to have the defects found in the degree of difficulty, really high : in fact , the explanation would convince the reader that there was the time to make the illusion , but it is very little compared to the action to extract the body from the place where it is inserted , lift her up ( this is a 40 year old woman , not a girl! ) and then lay it on the bed, all in a matter of seconds. It seems to me that here Boileau climbs on mirrors , while the third explanation is quite convincing (somehow approaches the explanation by Carr in He Who Whispers ) . In addition, in the case of  poisoning , not describing the nature of the poison, but simply to say that " the coffee was poisoned " , it just means deliberately cheat the reader , removing clues concerning the poison , as the murderess procured it, and who sold it to him .

But all the plot is affected by a specific intent : to reject the British novel, and: the search for the excuse (because it is never mentioned in the novel) , the search for a person to which  was interested the death ( the so-called “Cui prodest” ) for a his profit, the search for a physical evidence , fingerprints, etc..

And all this because in the end, the search for the culprit is obtained only solving the puzzle : only understanding how the murderer managed to kill, Boileau says you will be able to nail the murderer. All against the backdrop of a Paris completely estranged from the contingencies of war, in an a-historical dimension , as if we wanted to take refuge in the dream to escape the grim reality of every day, and recognizing an absolute value to the figure of the murderer , revaluing him in moral terms , taking away all evil ambitions , and instead , assign the license of murderous necessity. It’s as if the survey were substantiated in a game of chess between the murderer and the detective, and the victims were nothing more than pieces sacrificed necessarily.
Moreover, since every murder is different and contributes to the capture of the murder only in terms of its resolution , the absence of any transition element , if not indeed the only murderess , the number of Locked Rooms is directly proportional to the length of the story: if there had been not five Locked Rooms  and related murders , the story would lasted not so many pages and would have been reduced to a long story. Magistral therefore more than anything else it seems to me the ability of Boileau to guide the reader through the journey that extends to the end.

However the intent of Boileau is distinctly reactionary: he eschews all the literature until it had been produced , branded English , referring specifically to the narrative strand - adventurous Leblanc , Allain & Souvestre , Ponson du Terrail , but perhaps in a manner even more closed : in fact, Leblanc , while presenting always - enigmatic narrative of the adventurous type , creates a great atmosphere lacking in this novel by Boileau . It 's like the French author had decided in 1939 to refuse to lock everything up to that point had been produced , recognizing only the absolute value of his myths . Moreover, even sometimes incidental phrases and interjections , hark back to a time much earlier than his own, and lack both psychological insights , both the suspense though present in other major French writers of the period ( Steeman , Aveline , Simenon ) . The thing that surprises me is that , reasoning in such a manner , Boileau, at Narcejac meeting , decided to radically change the style.

On the sidelines it seems interesting to finally see how the merit of Boileau is have reversed the sequence logic that anyone who is led to the establishment : by creating a logical trend opposite to that which had followed until then , Boileau through Brunel shows how his author of reference , even more than the writers mentioned previously , Jacques Futrelle : without the aid of anything outside of his own brain , the true investigator is able to solve the rid.

Pietro De Palma