- By Marcel Lanteaume
- First published: France: S.E.P.E. Le Labyrinth 1948, as La 13e balle
- Availability: Locked Room International, 2020, translated by John Pugmire, introduction by Roland Lacourbe
A serial killer is picking off harmless men in France. There seem to be no clues; what connection could there be between a retired railway worker in Nancy, a librarian in Dijon, a carpenter in Rennes, a violinist in Marseille, and so forth – other than the bullet in their hearts? There is one suspect: a young man in a gray overcoat and trilby – a description that could apply to a million men. At last the police find a lead: an enormous Russian accomplice of the criminal. They lock him in a concrete bunker, guarded by two men … yet next morning Gregor is dead, shot through the heart. The police are bunkered. It falls to clever young Bob Slowman and the renowned criminologist Professor Richard to solve the riddle.
Lanteaume wrote three detective stories to divert himself while a German prisoner-of-war. Orage sur la grande semaine (1944) involves a murder in a locked bathroom that may have been a temple of human sacrifice; the secret society of the Nine; a mesmerist with terrible powers; gangsters; magic cabinets; and mutilated portraits. Soupart, Fooz and Bourgeois give it four out of four stars; they consider it the classic example of a particular solution, where the extraordinary mise-en-scène, built on a precise and well-oiled mechanism, dumbfounds all the witnesses of a diabolical plot.
In Trompe l’oeil (1946), a diamond is whisked away under the noses of six detectives – possibly by a mad scientist, or by a sect of magi. S, F & B call it an inimitable masterpiece which it would be inexcusable to miss; the stunning sleight-of-hand would surely have delighted Carr and Rawson.
La 13è balle has much to amaze and delight, but it seems to be the weakest of the three books. S, F & B give it only two and a half stars out of four: “Lanteaume, wanting at all cost to astonish the reader, offers a solution impossible to believe in.”
This is a wild, whirling ride in which imagination leaps confidently over probability. The mystery gleefully crosses into fantasy; Blake & Mortimer would be at home amongst the pseudo-science, archaeology, and lost Egyptian secrets. That said, as with all serial killer novels, a feeling of routine sets in around the fifth or sixth victim; these dead men are names, functions, cities, not people.
The explanations are ingenious, even brilliant, but the actions are far-fetched. The factor the victims share, for instance, is simple and fairly-clued – but I can’t see why a certain character would write a document in such a way. The solution to the locked bunker is a devious sleight-of-hand, and the murderer is entirely unexpected; few readers, I would bet, will correctly name X. But the red herring is too smelly to swallow; it sticks in the craw. Na vaabprag punenpgre vf va gur ivpvavgl bs rnpu pevzr; guvf pbvapvqrapr vf arire rkcynvarq.
But let us not carp at a detective story whose major flaw is too much invention. If only more detective stories were so guilty!