- By Noël Vindry
- First published: France: Gallimard, 1936
- English edition: Through the Walls, Locked Room International, 2021, translated by John Pugmire
Noel Vindry drew on his experience as an investigating magistrate when he wrote a dozen romans-problèmes featuring M. Allou, his juge d’instruction sleuth. Admired in France, but not hitherto available in English, LRI has translated four; this, the most recent, was published in November.
Michel Lebrun believed Vindry could have been a French counterpart to Ellery Queen had he written more books, while Roland Lacourbe ranked him with the greatest French writers: Marcel Lanteaume, Pierre Boileau, and Thomas Narcejac. Boileau and Narcejac themselves thought Vindry “invented mind-boggling riddles and displayed unparalleled virtuosity”.
Vindry’s stories overflow with imagination, and the rigour of construction touches perfection thanks to his deep knowledge of legal matter; the plots are technically flawless. For the reader keen on oddities and the unusual, his work is a guaranteed delight and satisfaction.Roland Lacourbe, 99 chambres closes (1991)
But Vindry may not travel well outside France; the novels by him I have read (The Double Alibi, The Howling Beast) underwhelmed me, rather. They are almost police procedurals rather than Carrian puzzle plots. Here, for instance, we watch the Commissaire disguise himself as a waiter, spy on suspects, and order his lackeys to follow them. Like other Vindry novels, the characters are underdeveloped; instead of a circle of suspects, we have a series of incidents.
Even Boileau and Narcejac had reservations: “His books, dry and spare like mathematical demonstrations, nevertheless conclusively prove that when the detective story cannot be a novel, it sinks into artifice.”
Little M. Sertat believes somebody is entering his house, and summons Commissaire Maubritane. But is Sertat telling the whole truth? The policeman soon discovers that Sertat is being frightened by the Sanglier gang, who want the secrets of another group of smugglers. Before long, Sertat has been wounded by a man who disappears from a wounded house, and the next night, a victim is stabbed dead.
It rapidly turns into a massacre. A woman is shot in the street with high walls on either side, but claims she saw nobody. Another victim is stabbed, and the only other person in the room claims a man suddenly appeared, committed the murder, then vanished into thin air. And another is knifed. The murderer can come and go through the walls; is the devil at work?
In desperation, the Commissaire, fearing he is going mad, calls on M. Allou, who solves the case without leaving his armchair.
Roland Lacourbe awarded Murailles four stars as a locked room mystery; Soupart, Fooz, and Bourgeois (Chambres closes, crimes impossibles, 1997) gave it three and a half stars.
But Anglophone readers have been less enthusiastic.
On Goodreads, Santosh Iyer complained “several portions are dry and dull, and make for tedious reading; moreover, the solutions are underwhelming and disappointing”. SuedePuzzler also found the solution “underwhelming”.
For my part, I found the explanation unconvincing. M. Allou’s reasoning is entirely hypothesizing (i.e. guessing); my Anglo-Saxon taste wants facts. French reason vs. English empiricism!
As other readers have observed, there are two separate villains – one of whom only appears on a single page. Moreover, several of the ‘impossible’ attacks and murders are self-inflicted, and the rest are impossible because three ‘innocent’ characters all lie.
ROT13: Fregng yvrf nobhg gur ohetynel; ur unf znqr gur jubyr guvat hc gb senzr uvf qnhtugre’f oblsevraq (jubz ur ungrf, for no adequately explained reason). Uvf jvsr’f ybire jbhaqf uvz; gur arkg avtug, Fregng, fgnof ure gb qrngu. Gur jvsr’f ybire fubbgf Fregng’f qnhtugre; fur yvrf, gb cebgrpg ure sngure. Fregng fgnof uvzfrys; gur vairagbe yvrf. Naq Fregng’f oebgure-va-ynj fgnof uvzfrys, naq yvrf.
But Lacourbe maintains that the plot is not artificial; the subtlety of the motivations of each of the protagonists perfectly explains and justifies their behaviour at all times. Chacun à son goût.
While I can’t recommend this, unfortunately, Locked Room International has published many excellent French detective stories, including Paul Halter’s Madman’s Chamber, Devil of Dartmoor, and the astonishing Seventh Hypothesis; Herbert & Wyl’s Forbidden House; Marcel Lanteaume’s Thirteenth Bullet; and Gensoul & Grenier’s Death from Nowhere.
Commissaire Maubritane is approached by an old acquaintance, Pierre Sertat, who has become terrified by strange noises coming from within his locked and bolted villa, and who fears that the lives of himself, his wife, and his daughter may be in danger. He believes that two smuggling gangs have perfected a technique for passing through walls and will kill him if he divulges any information about them. Against his better judgment, Maubritane agrees to spend the night in the villa. He makes a thorough search of every room, but cannot prevent a mysterious stranger entering and shooting Sertat, who almost dies, and somehow avoiding the commissionaire’s pursuit.
During the following nights and days numerous attempts, some successful and some not, but all seemingly impossible, are made on the lives of the Sertat family. Maubritane fails to prevent them or explain them and thinks he is going mad….