Thursday, May 28, 2020

Paul Halter: Le Cri de la sirène, 1998

 "Reader Beware: SPOILERS"

Le Cri de la sirène is a 1998 novel. As the title mentions, it talks about a mermaid, not the mermaid of course with a fish tail, but a demonic being who usually kidnaps sailors and attracts them to the bottom of the sea.
The Alan Twist that we find here is an Alan Twist of origins, so much so that someone with a lesser imagination than Paul could have entitled the novel: The first case of Alan Twist.
The novel begins in an extraordinary way: a snowy night. Two doctors conducted who assist two women in two distinct places: however the two girls who are born, of the same father but of a different mother, seem to be twins. One of them is taken to the father's home and entrusted to him by the doctor, on the same night that his wife Hela dies in childbirth. However the two girls at the age of four are separated: one will live in the environment and will bear the surname of the Cranston, the other will be the shepherd's daughter and will live among the sheep. She will be identified by the village gossips in the siren that with her tears disturbs the consciences of the locals.
Alan Twist is an occult scholar who is primarily concerned with exposing charlatans. He was called to Jason Malleson's castle, to solve his problem: there is an ectoplasm, a spirit, a ghost that is to be said that terrifies him: since he returned to the end of the war, four years earlier, first in lightly, then more and more markedly, he heard footsteps in the attic. But obviously there is nobody in the attic. Not only. There is also a so-called forbidden room, in the castle, since an event attributed to the devil occurred many years before: the old landlord had challenged the devil, and in response, a wardrobe, one of the feet of which he was so eaten but it had never given problems, in the middle of the night it overturned and fell with everything it contained, including books, from one of which came out a very compromising letter, which clearly showed her husband's betrayal of Lottie, the wife. From that moment the room had remained closed, and the only key was kept in a specific place. In recent times, Malleson had encountered light from below, and therefore feared that a demonic presence was there.
Twist, welcomed at the castle, checks the condition of the places, and above all the pink room, which, open, proves not to be dusty and full of cobwebs as you would expect, but neat and clean, and indeed fresh and fragrant, throughout and for all a room that could have hosted a guest in the canopy bed. Twist finds one thing above all: the landlord is truly frightened and prostrated by these "presences". Moreover, the castle has been a cursed place since other times: in fact, both the one who had challenged the devil and his son were the object of the attentions of the Banshee, a demonic being, who repeatedly made his presence felt in Moretonbury: she appears with a broken comb in his hands, and utters a heartbreaking scream. The legend says that whoever does not hear it is destined to die. Both old Cranston and his son hadn't heard Banshee's tears, and were dead on time.
However, these demonic presences are not the only ones that catalyze Twist's attention, but also other things. The young Scotland Yard Hurst inspector, met by chance, with whom he befriends, talks to him about another puzzling fact, which he deals with: various voices raised even on the occasion of the arrival of Malleson, tend to speculate that Lydie Cranston's husband not the real Malleson but an imposter, a fellow soldier, Patrick Degan, who killed him on the front by stealing his identity and memories and passed himself off as a husband. This is evidenced by various clues: the fact that he became a great chess player while before he was a mediocre player, the fact that he dresses carefully and above all wears beautiful ties, that he uses seduction and charm to seduce his beautiful wife, who reads obscene books, that he curls his mustache with his fingers, but also at the expense, that his dog has not recognized him. Therefore they subject Malleson, with the help of his cousin William Lucas, a traveling salesman who sells women's stockings, and of Dr. Jeremie Bell, lexicographer, a supersympathetic type who knew all the boys of the place many years before, to a series of tests, after which Malleson shows himelf to be just what they said he was: the Malleson that Jeremie had known many years before.

In the meantime, inexplicable facts continue to happen or seem to happen at the castle: Malleson hears footsteps, has frightening nightmares, and above all he sees each time a model of a sailing boat approaching or distancing himself from a light, on the edge of the fireplace, despite the fact that he is fussy that is, reposition it every time. The nightmares that haunt him are those that make him plunge back into the frightening life in the trenches every day, or during the sinking of the Argo, in which more than two hundred people had died.
Also disturbing the atmosphere is the not quite idyllic relationship that Jason has with a cousin of his wife, Edgar Rice, who has lived with her from an early age, since Lydie remained an orphan had been entrusted to Aunt Rebecca, the mother of her cousin . Now, it is he, without a family anymore, who lives in the Mallesons' house, doing nothing but composing poetic verses.
Moreover, there is also another very strange relationship: that of the two "twin sisters not twins" Lydie and Ingrid, daughters of Ian Neilsen and his wife Hela. Twins not twins, because despite being very similar, they are actually half-sisters: they are the daughters of two different relationships, which Ian has had with two different women. The one with Hela spawned Ingrid, the one with Julian Cranston's wife, Mary, instead Lydie. However Lydie was apparently adopted by the two Cranstons, and so what is her natural mother becomes her stepmother. But only because at the time of the adoption, the most tame girl was taken while the most irascible one, Ingrid, remained at the stake. One fine day it happens, after finding the beautiful Lydie passed out in the Pink Room, that Edgar crosses the castle tower and after a frantic shout from the Banshee that appears to him, he falls from the parapet of the tower and dies. A short time later the same fate will happen in Malleson. Twist after acquiring other clues, will give his own version of the facts, crediting the track of the suicide of the two. But then a long time later, when Hurst has already become a famous face of Scotland Yard, going to visit Lydie, an unmarried widow, he will reveal the true dynamics of the facts, and how a certain person had been the cause of Edgar's death and that of Jason, and how he protected her. For this reason he does not feel like accepting the attentions of the beautiful widow and decides to devote himself to criminology and the capture of heinous and mysterious killers.
Let's say right away that the novel is one of the most fascinating that I have ever read, out of Paul's pen, not so much for the puzzles per se, as for how the stories are described, and how he manages to explain in detail all the events narrated, even the least comprehensible: e.g. Who was the Pink Room used for? It is evident that someone from the castle other than Malleson used it, namely Lydie or Edgar. But everything acquires a different flavor when it is discovered that the room was not used either by one or the other, but by both, for extramarital encounters. That is, in simple words, the wife cheated on her husband at home by giving herself to the lover who lived under the same roof. Or why Jason Malleson (Jason) was so obsessed with the cursed shipwreck of the Argo? To remember is the myth of the Argonauts, of Jason and of the ship Argo, and of how Jason had been the cause of the death of his companions: even in literary reality this is true.
In short, the novel fascinates for its ability to narrate, for how the narration in itself fascinates. It reminded me of what I thought before reading this novel, being the best novel for the narrative structure, that is Le Brouillard rouge: both novels have a very intense ability to narrate and both have an explosive beginning. Le Brouillard rouge also has an absolutely extraordinary ending, as much as the beginning while Le Cri de la syrene, to justify Twist's abandonment of occultism and his dedication only to solving mysteries inextricable from a criminal point of view, I must say that he proposes an alternative ending that does not seem to me to be of the same weight as the first: in other words, if the two deaths could be explained by suicide, or rather by accidental fall, taking into account the highly emotional nature of the two victims and the danger of the roof and the absence of a parapet of the old medieval tower, and of the cliff, not otherwise you can think of the alternative ending, with the attribution of a murderous paternity, albeit difficult to judge, to a person who simulating a cry would have scared to death the two and he would have made them fall one from the tower, the other from the cliff. Even more in detail, even the first death could still be explained in this way, but the second is difficult for me to explain with the appearance of the murderer disguised as Banshee that scares the victim enough to make her commit suicide by the cliff. Sometimes, to justify something highly difficult to explain, Paul climbs the mirrors: it had already happened in the explanation of the crime of The Demon of Dartmoor, with the camera broken. Beyond this detail (it seemed to me but I can be wrong, that the second ending was added later), the novel is magnificent and indeed, in a certain sense, the double ending responds to the need for the murderer to be something else sex compared to what was believed to be responsible. What do I mean? That reading the novel it seemed to me, regardless of the precise identification of the person in charge, that sex should be a very specific one, and indeed I was amazed that the story went in another direction: instead the ending that overturns the revealed truth, has to its time sanctioned that I was not wrong.
It is, however, at the same time a very cerebral novel: the insistence on genealogy, on family crossings, on the theme of the double, both male and female, both in the meaning of the double (Patrick Degan / Jason Mallesot) and in that of the "Twin not twin", with all the annexes and connected: that is to understand who is the real bad of the two, and who is the bad of the twin girls. In this I undoubtedly find a decidedly French flavor: if in fact the theme of the impossible crime on a tower had already been laid out by Carr in two of his novels (He Who Whispers, The Case of the Constant Suicides) and despite the novel has decidedly Carrian atmospheres, and indeed one of the characters, Jeremie Bell is outlined in the same way as the literary tradition reminds us of the character of Gideon Fell (large black cloak, glasses with pince nez, mustache, gigantic, great beer drinker, and pronouncer of famous invectives that they have historical or mythological subjects: "for Mercury's sandals" for example), the subject of the double shot and turned over brings us to Boileau and his magnificent La Pierre qui tremble, while Edgar's clandestine love for his cousin Lydie, more great of him, wife of a soldier who went to war and then came back to me, makes me think very clearly, Raymond Radiguet's Le diable au corps, an extraordinary novel very passionate, brought to the screen equally suggestively by Gérard Philipe in the eponymous film by Claude Autant-Lara.
Another reason that characterizes this novel compared to the others of the same hand, is the fact that it presents a similar trend to Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery. In fact, those who have in mind the novels of the two cousins, will remember how Ellery's characters change more and more as we move away from the very first, but that unlike other novelists, the first adventure of Ellery Queen that we would expect was the first to to be published, that is, The Roman Hat Mystery, is not that but rather The Greek Coffin Mystery, which was the fourth to be published, and which was presented as the first extraordinary case of Ellery Queen. Here we have the same trend: after several previous novels, in which we had already met Alan Twist criminologist, and in one even a former policeman (La malédiction de Barberousse), here we see his genesis as a detective committed to solving crimes (therefore even before La malédiction de Barberousse), on his first meeting with Archibald Hurst, and even on his first and last love adventure. It will be precisely this disappointment (and the consequent developments) that will channel in a very precise direction his will to devote himself to crime instead of occultism.

Pietro De Palma


  1. Thanks for your review of what seems to be a very strong title. I believe this is the first review of this specific title that I have read.

  2. Soon I'm going to post another analysis, that about Le geant de pierre (= The giant of stone). A true masterpiece, very hard to read for the different reading plans that continually intersect generating disorientation and amazement