Saturday, April 25, 2015


"Reader Beware: SPOILERS"

Pierre Boileau, before he met Thomas Narcejac, wrote eight novels that gave him fame, and among them, too, "L' ASSASSIN VIENT LES MAINS VIDES" (1945).
Like other novels of Boileau, this begins without an introduction: Brunel and his companion, Pierre, who narrates the story, as usual, on the street, are almost run over by a former comrade of Pierre who then greets them warmly and invited them to best coffee on the Champs Elysees, where he will make know to the two cousin, Alex Fontaille. He, grandson of a landowner, Apolline Fontaille, who has grown up as a child, joined romantically with a note dancer of Parisian nightclubs, Monique Clerc. From the first moment, he doesn’t prove to be serene and yet insists that the two friends of his cousin, go with him to the estate of her aunt, Les Chaumes.
While they are in Paris, Brunel realizes that someone is keeping an eye on, and later recognize in this the personal home of the old Apollo, Simon.
The old, newly arrived, mistreats the other nephew, Georges, guilty of not having visited her in recent times, and welcomes newcomers with a lot of fuss.
Had the rooms, after dinner, Brunel, Pierre, Alex and his girlfriend, they decide to play bridge, after they smoked and drank, while Georges walks around outside in the garden. The old asks Alex to go to make an inspection and to close everything, that Alex does, and then returns by fellow: but while they are playing, they hear the loud voice, coming from the first floor, the room of the old:  find her stabbed, in a pool of blood. While Alex is to watch over the corpse of her aunt, Brunel and Pierre share the tasks: each goes up and other goes down. Pierre determines that if anyone had entered from the out in the house, he would be in front of Gustave, who was putting in place the crockery and cutlery used for dinner, so the murderer may be gone just above the second floor, where there are none. From the second floor, dropped only Simon, the domestic staff of Apolline Fontaille, trustworthy, with bare feet in slippers and robe bedroom tucked haphazardly in the pants: unless both he and the murderer, this must have disappeared: in fact, even if the window was open, being summer, the assailant could not have fallen, because on ivy that clings on the outside walls, you do not notice anything that might indicate that hypothesis. The murderer, if he’s not Simon, has “vanished into thin air”. But why Simon would kill the old woman? He had no reason to do it, the more he perceived a very high salary, not commensurate with his duties: if at first you suspect blackmail, then learns that Simon was very dear to the old woman who had raised him since he was little , saving him from the clutches of unnatural parents who beat us mercilessly even at an early age, and he had always countered with dedication and affection the care of his mistress. So Simon is ruled out, but then where is the murderer? And what Simon was doing in Paris? It’s clear, however, that he must know something he  doesn’t intend say, that can be put in connection with the murder of the old woman.
From examination of the body of the old woman, who is undoubtedly dead, we discover two very close wounds, signs of two stabs: the weapon is a sharp letter opener, found near the bedspread, with a handle inlaid, as to eliminate the possibility on it may be fingerprints.
While waiting for the next day the cops arrive, Pierre will watch, alternating with Brunel, the corpse of the old woman, in her room. But, Pierre falls asleep; at some point, however, he wakes, sweating from the tension, because he realizes that in the darkness of the room, there is someone else that moves: he would like to do something but does not have weapons and then thinks about what to do, while the other is taking the cards, which he hears the rustle of. Suddenly, he remembers the electric bell that the old woman had wanted in her room, to call Simon: he presses several times it, and shortly after he hears someone knocking at the door. After his invitation to come in, the light switch is pressed, the light shines in the room: Simon is on the door. But besides him, Pierre, in the room there is only the corpse of the old: unless it is a vampire, this time too the mysterious visitor has vanished.
Possible that is there a secret passage? Impossible. All deny it there is. So? How did the visitor to vanish? Brunel is doubtful, but Pierre insists. He also heard a rustle and a characteristic noise, like something that had been opened. Brunel has an epiphany: the secretaire. Open it, and there, from a drawer, see out a card: it is a holograph testament replacing another precedent: in it Georges Durbans is appointed sole heir. At this point, if you ever brought a growing possibility that he was the murderer (the rest he was in the garden, was the only one of the group, were not together at Brunel and Pierre) now he becomes more real, although Georges seems anything but a murderess. The strange thing is that the old woman had before prepared another testament that appointed Alex her heir: why that testament, then? Brunel curses for not  having examined immediately after the discovery of the corpse, the secretaire, because now is the double possibility: it is a testament true or false? Why did the visitor open the bureau? The testament, penned with calligraphy seems shaky, as if the hand that had thrown down was not entirely sure: the old or the murderer who has imitated the handwriting?
Not even the handwriting expert appointed the next day to make a judgment, will lean much: the testament would seem to be from old woman, but then he is not entirely sure.
While you can not get away from a spider hole by the woman's death, and Brunel concerns that something else could happen, here's a second murder, to disturb the atmosphere: Alex is killed, he also stabbed in the heart with a letter opener, very similar to the first. Pierre sees a shadow that falls from the window, he throws himself on him, but that man avoids him, instead of killing him too: why did he risk being taken, if he killed a man before, and now he did not want to attack Pierre instead?
Brunel investigates and discovers that shadow was someone who had met with Alex, who was the first husband of Monique, a gentleman. If he was not he killer of Alex, who did kill him? Simon, Monique, Gustave, Brigitte, or Georges? Since it wasn’t possible that the force required to launch the stab was from a woman, suspects are three men: Gustave, Simon or Georges?
Moreover, Alex, before being found dead, he had closed twice the door and about this Pierre was sure, because he had distinctly heard the two shots: but then, after the discovery of the corpse of Alex, they found the door house no longer closed: it means that there is an accomplice as well as a murderer, who apparently does not know that the murderer escaped from the window, because obviously the plan assumed that he had to escape through the same exit, so surely will have to go back down to close the door and prevent you might think about him as an accomplice, unless he is not Simon, who as butler, also has the task of asking and open the door in the morning. They will agree to watch over the door so as to catch the accomplice or not, in which case it would be true the other hypothesis. No one will come down. Brunel, after a sleepless night, will be able to name the killer and to solve the riddle, discovering how the robe of the woman had not two but a single cut, which is not properly screened in the reconstruction of the crime. And he will be able also to fulfill from the charge of complicity in the murder of Alex, Simon.
Novel highly enjoyable, it is based on an Impossible Murder and on a Locked Room, which a thief was able to evaporate from.
At the base of the riddle is the result of reasoning by Brunel: "the facts are presented as well: the murderer comes to his enemies ... without knowing exactly what he will do, and these terribly afraid that visit, but without power to predict how it will play . One does not have weapons to kill, others do not have weapons to defend themselves". In fact, twice the murderer has used something that was in the house, and then, it was not premeditated he killed, otherwise he would have brought a weapon. Yet he must have an accomplice, to premeditate to go into the home.Why?
Boileau, as at other times, he climbs on the mirrors: he demonstrates an unmatched virtuosity (equaled only by Vindry and Lanteaume), in proposing a problem and its solution, when he has few ingredients, which, moreover, is a bit the typicality of French novels of the period: insist on the mystery, propose one or more problems, attractive enough, without however enlarge the rose of suspicion, because not from the juxtaposition of alibis and motives must exit the solution, but from the proposition of the problem in itself, because in essence it is based on  the plot and its variations . In addition two other differences with the Anglo-Saxon novel occur: first there isn’t a real introduction, in which matures the crime, that is a typical feature of British detective novel instead (but not the US); and then, as a result, the French detective novel, and particularly that by Boileau, bases its plot on something that is done randomly, without that the reader has already seen or knows or at least images why a particular crime  is consumed: it is a novel, we might say, police-type-adventurous, heir of the atmosphere from feuelliton, a dramatized feuelliton, by Leroux and Leblanc; second difference, I would say, is inherent in the fact that, while the British detective story, just to be different from that of the appendix, where if there was a crime, you had to look for the woman and the butler, tends to present among suspected all the characters with the possible exclusion of the domestics (and this essentially for a social classism, almost racist, presenting the domestics a step lower than the nobility or the upper class, the only one that could consume a perfect crime, which for intelligence can not belong to a lower social order), in the French detective novel, as a consequence of the fact that domestic, bosses, police, investigating judges, all as part of their duties are citizens of the republic, even the servants are to be suspected like the masters.
This broadens the rose of the suspects, that, as we reported earlier, it is always quite small. This of course would lead to a job easier for detectives, and then there is the need to turn and re- turn over the tangle, not only to lengthen the stock (in fact the French novels of the time are not as long as those English) but also not to attenuate the narrative tension which otherwise would weaken naturally.
In the case of this novel, the specific character and insist on the topics that we have just pointed out, reveal a very subtle reasoning, a true virtuosity of the deduction and of the sophistry, I would say by Byzantine kind:  able to turn the problem, giving of each problem two or more possible solutions, from which we have many different solutions, which mainly concern here from: the will, true or false (it could be that the murderer had created a fake to create a perfect culprit, ie Georges; orit is false because posted by Georges, or is true, and then it was inserted long before by the old Fontaille); the thief invisible: how did he disappear; the problem of the lock of the front door and two turns, and about a possible accomplice; the problem of the existence of two wounds and that the robe presents a single cut; how did  disappear the murderer; why Alex did try to defend himself with a piece of wood taken from the fireplace (this was found clutched in his hand); why there is not an accomplice; what the murderer or the thief took from the secretaire.

Doing so, Boileau manages to keep the tension very high, and if so far the reader has had a few suspicions and then essentially was taken to concentrate his attention on very few, because two, Alex and Monique are kept out from their own investigations because they played, together to Brunel and Pierre,  bridge (a game that often appears in the novels of the time, by De Angelis to Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers to Stanislas-André Steeman), precisely during the solution, in which the suspence should cathartically fall, in this by Boileau, instead, it increases spasmodically because in a totally unexpected final, happens everything and its opposite. And everything is explained, as a murderer and a thief, different people, can vanish in an enclosed area without being detected, and as a murder in which there can not be an accomplice, he lacks; and finally as Simon, although not  murderer, let alone the killer's accomplice in the murder of Alex, he is in a sense an accomplice of another murderer, that of the old woman, although he can not in any way be involved in the murder of her.
Boileau really he is, because, and this is the biggest surprise, far from creating a novel based exclusively on clues, just in solution reveals a mechanism very cerebral, with a very pronounced psychological aspect, which concerns the way of shuffling the cards and turn the reader's attention, creating the conditions because, on the basis of acts very obvious, he is led to believe one thing instead of think of another. To give a measure of the mechanism of the highest stylistic virtuosity, I emphasize two particular moments which for me are the measure of true creativity and power of reasoning by Boileau: the closing the front door, and the volatilization of the thief after Simon knocked three times on the door of the room where is the corpse by Mrs. Apolline,  watched over by Pierre.
It is the mechanism of sound illusion, explained in a famous story by Clayton Rawson, From Another World, about which I wrote an article that I have not yet translated into English, in which I wrote that for the first time I had read about a sound illusion, and this had left me speechless. I was wrong. I thought that this was the first time that had been used such an illusion, and instead already three years before a French had used it: Pierre Boileau.
This novel reveals a pattern common with another novel, Six Crimes Sans Assassin, for the way in which the murderer leaves the scene. In this, and we also noticed in the case of La Promenade de minuit and Six Crimes Sans Assassin, Pierre Boileau tends to reuse in later novels, gimmicks and escamotages that he has already used his other previous.

A very magnificent novel!

Pietro De Palma

Monday, April 6, 2015

Margery Allingham : Black Plumes, 1940

Margery Allingham, one of the 4 Crime Queen, was one of the big names of the detective novel of the '900. It is no coincidence. Indeed she probed various subgenres in her long career: from the adventurous mystery to the classic whodunnit, from thriller to the locked room, but everything with great class, and much originality, what's in this novel.
That the wind could become almost a cornerstone of a detective story, we didn’t understand.
Just the wind is the basic element of the novel in which I am going to speak, Black Plumes, 1940: appears in all the key moments of the story and with its appearance it marks the rhythm.
And the wind begins the novel: "The october wind, which had promised rain all day, hesitated in its reckless flight down the moist pavements to hurl a handful of fine drops at the windows of the drawing room in the big Hampstead house. The sound was sharp and spiteful, so that the silence between the two women within became momentarily shocked, as if it had received some gratuitous if trivial insult"(Chapter 1, the first page).
The two women are Gabrielle Ivory and Frances Ivory, grandmother and granddaughter: comparison of two generations: the octogenarian Gabrielle, old physically but with the awake mind and the 20 years old Frances, fresh and naive, ready to fall in love but also to fight. No coincidence that two of the three major personalities of the novel (the other is David Field) are women: this is a real novel of women! Almost all of the most important roles are performed by women: Gabrielle, Frances, Phillida, the nurse Gabrielle, the secretary Dorothy. The men have minor roles or almost, except David who is the hero without blemish and without sin, like a knight of the past, who saves the damsel (Frances) from the mire of the ogre's turn (Lucar). But among the various female figures, in my opinion those I think stand out more and more are precisely Frances and Gabrielle. Not by chance the wind, creeping and producing a sharp sound, is as imposed to the attention of the reader the two figures: the noise separates them, breaking the silence that was in common and defines the contours; but at the same time it unites them, differentiating them from other persons who are waving vaguely in the big house.
Gabrielle is the mother of Meyrich Ivory, gallery owner, master of the Art Gallery at 29, Sallet Square, a paradise of collectors, where you can buy the junk as well as the masterpieces of the great artists. The gallery over time has had ups and downs but on it weighs a tragedy: Dollie Godolphin, famed explorer who had shared with Robert Madrigal and his orderly Henry Lucar, a trip to Tibet in search of fabulous treasures to can bring the Gallery to the  glories of the past, has disappeared. Seems to have been sacrificed, sick, unable to be transported, by an act of personal heroism, allowing to  two companions to escape, leaving him in the midst of perpetual snow. When Godolphin has gone away, was the favorite of Phillida but she after having waited in vain and left for dead, she got married just with Robert, which quickly became a member of the father and his lender. But also, in his absence, a bad manager. The fact is that, in addition, Robert is strangely under the thumb of his secretary Lucar, a slippery and dangerous character, who tries to take advantage of his strong influence on Robert in the absence of the owner of the gallery, to marry his more young daughter, Frances, although she completely refuses him. Why does Robert support Lucar in his attempt to marry Frances and does support him at the climbing to the property of Ivory family? Lucar blackmails Robert and keeps him in his power by virtue of something compromising he knows and that Robert does not want you  know : more, to win the mere strength of the husband of Phillida, Lucar uses real intimidations: he destroys at the last time the catalog of the Gallery prepared for the visit of the Royals, he crashes a precious vase, and irreparably damages a painting of the young painter David Field, protected of Meyrich and much appreciated.
David is the third strong character of the story: is he who saves Frances from the mire of Lucar, simulating an engagement in the eyes of the world, that instead there is not, the more he is refractory to the associations and even more at weddings; however, this union, which initially is fictitious, it will become true because he will win the girl's heart. It is interesting to note that, while Robert and Henry are linked to one another by hatred and by a ratio of psychological submission (of the first to the second), but they tend to act as members of the gallery, trying to become the masters marrying the two daughters Meyrich, , the only one who would not want to bind to the gallery, engaging emotionally, that is David, is he to do so. When David and Frances, they will agree to cheat Lucar, is always the wind to scan the march: “As they went over each incident in that fateful day the motif of the squalling wind kept recurring like the thin blast of a warning trumpet, but they were deaf to it and went on their predestined way unaware” (end of Chapter 3).
Then, at the chapter 6, the wind reappears, just to focus attention and Allingham writes that someone had come out in the dark and in the wind.  

The wind anticipates the first tragic event: Robert disappears after a discussion with David. Then, here is the wind assaults the house, as to bring death and other disorders. The same Phillida talking with Frances, speculates that her husband is mad: and in the short dialogue, the wind takes on a typical characterization of the novels of atmosphere, howling, raising the tension of engraved:“Frances…have you ever thought that Robert might be mad? The question would have been remarkable if only because it came from Phillida and concerned the state of mind of somebody other than herself, but up in the dark-bedroom, with the firelight flickering and the wind chattering round the house, its very directness shot a chill to Frances’ diaphragm” (Chapter 4).
But like a clockwork, while Robert is found, or rather is found his body, already in a state of decomposition, in an old cupboard (hidden by overcoat, hat, as if he had been to go out and then he had been surprised) in that room overlooking the garden, where he had been seen by Frances discuss with David, in the Chapter 9, the wind attacks the house again, with the same irritating intermittently, as if an enemy in the flesh was trying to break into their fortress.
The body has a deep wound: something edgy and sharp, like a long letter opener, hit him in the ribs, catching up to the heart, only that the weapon is not found.
Many suspects: David first; but also Phillida, that at her husband's death, shows her joy; Gabrielle, who despite being invalid,  will be found to be good to walk alone at night; Lucar, who has taken flight, and for this would seem to be the culprit acquired; the same Meyrick, who would be able to return in disguise; and the same Godolphin, that in the same way, would be able to return and to kill the first rival: only that these two would materially excluded.
To complicate the facts, is the discovery that Phillida, before she married Robert, had married secretly with Godolphin, before he left for the ill-fated expedition, and that the witness of the two would be the same Field.
Gabrielle is contrary that the niece fresh widow is going to end up in bed with another, even if he would be her first husband; and so Godolphin and the old, agree to an armistice under the roof of the old house: if Godolphin could find the culprit, could take away Phillida.

After the return of the explorer, and especially after that of Lucar, which convenes in the living room for a series of messages that he wants to launch the murderer, in order to make him understand he knows (and therefore to involve him in a blackmail) , here again the wind that makes the appearance, combined with another criminal event: in the Chapter 15 the wind begins to blow. When ? How ? When the long brocade curtains billow behind Lucar, driven by the chilly breeze coming in from a narrow chink of high sash window.
Whenever the wind appears, something happens: it is like a messenger of something, even of misfortune. The reference to the sash window to me does not seem random, at this time. And Lucar will soon found dead, in the same way than Robert, by means of a sharp and long weapon, like a rapier, but about which there is no trace.
Among all the suspects, David seems to be the most classic among the culprits and for this will also be stopped, after the murder number two. But meanwhile the real culprit when will believe to be safe, it will be unmasked by the Inspector Bridie, that to do so, will have to convince the characters to eliminate false clues that don’t help him to solve the riddle.
At a novel extremely fascinating. Margery Allingham draws from the great classical tradition the theme of the wind, herald of doom when not of messages that are not interpreted in the right way. The interesting thing is that the Allingham, thanks to a very special trick, ie comparing each time the wind to persons or objects,with the mechanism of similarities, gives it a soul, making it a real character like those canonical otherwise presented in the book. A hidden character, but with a very special importance, as it is just the wind to introduce the various sections, to announce to the reader that something is going to happen: it's like an alarm bell. Other times, however, it behaves as if it were an extension of the people's will, for example, when Frances and David are on the roof and he tries to run away to escape an unjust arrest and “the wind attacks with greedy nervousness their clothes and throws soot in the eye”, like you read in Chapter 16.
Sometimes it seems that Margery Allingham recourses to metaphor: when Frances, in the first chapter, prefers to take refuge in the Rolls Royce to escape the ravages of wind, as if to take refuge in the maternal arms to escape to the insistence of a voluptuous and spiteful lover: “Meyrick’s Rolls had never seemed more comfortingly magnificent than it did as she climbed into it out of the irritating wind wich snatched at her hat and whipped at her knees”
Giving to the wind a role that elsewhere it would not have, not destining him to contribute to the creation of the atmosphere, but inserting it in the same mechanism of the action, Margery Allingham undoubtedly insert an element of great originality. For the rest, however, the novel is an undoubted classic Mystery.
First the cupboard in which is placed a corpse: it is a topos that is already in The Yellow Room by Mary Robert Rinehart, in Murder by the Clock by Rufus King, even in The Woman in the Wardrobe by The Brothers Shaffer (although after the release of this novel).
And the presence of the gong, reminds us many famous novels of the Golden Age: from Sax Rohmer to Agatha Christie (And Then There Were None), from Ngaio Marsh (A Dead Man Lied) to Christopher Bush (The Case of the Chinese Gong).
Another interesting feature is how  contributes to the atmosphere, even the house itself, a witness, as the old Gabrielle, of the legacy of the Victorian era, with its furniture, its curtains, its brocades, his paintings: a set of tinsel that, weighing down the atmosphere, also make tangible and striking the contrast between the old and the new, between Gabrielle and Frances (and David).
A great masterpiece by a grandest writer who could write very well.
Pietro De Palma