Through the Wall (Cleveland Moffett)

  • By Cleveland Moffett
  • First published: US: D. Appleton and Company, 1909; UK: Andrew Melrose, 1909

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Les mystères de Paris, Belle Époque vintage: murders in luxury hotels; the most brilliant detective in France; supervillains who control the French government; psychic maidens at Notre-Dame; wrongfully arrested lovers; fortunes obtained by fraud; death in fiery furnaces…

Through the Wall is superb; its admirers include Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, and Mike Grost. (Barzun and Taylor didn’t like it, though.) It is also largely forgotten, like most of Cleveland Moffett’s books except The Mysterious Card (1895), quasi-mystery, quasi-supernatural. Moffett (1863–1926) was an American journalist and foreign correspondent in Europe, and he knows France well.

US first edition cover, for sale from Buckingham Books.

Paris in the summer, at the start of the century – a hot day in July, the hottest day of 1907. French detective Paul Coquenil has been offered a brilliant job in Brazil, heading the police force there, but at the last moment, he refuses to go. He suspects that someone wants him out of the country; he believes that a truly great criminal is about to commit a great crime. The sky is blood-red, the same red as when murders were committed in the rue Montaigne. Alice, a girl who sells candles at Notre-Dame, has a premonitory dream that unsettles Coquenil when she relates it to him. That night, a Spanish billiards player, Martinez, is shot dead in a private room at the Ansonia hotel on the Champs-Élysées. A chain of circumstantial evidence ties a young American, Lloyd Kitteredge, Alice’s lover, to the crime, and the police swiftly arrest him. But Coquenil is certain he is innocent; he believes Martinez and Kitteredge are both pawns in a much bigger game. But his efforts to bring the criminal to justice soon put him in deadly danger…

This is not a whodunnit, but the detection is excellent, particularly for the age: focused and intelligent, and always clear. Moffett is not in the same league as his more famous contemporaries. G. K. Chesterton, standing his detective plots on their head, and knocking the reader head over heels, was more ingenious; R. Austin Freeman was more scientifically rigorous, and had novel ideas around inheritances, impersonation, and incineration; and A. E. W. Mason gave us a more surprising culprit.

But Through the Wall is a superb piece of storytelling. It has breadth, scope, grandeur! It is kaleidoscopic; it changes genre: romance, detective story, courtroom drama, thriller, and a battle of wits between hero and supervillain. It is long (more than 400 pages), but unputdownable – the sort of book one devours (I read 200 pages in a sitting), but which one also wishes would never end.

The culprit is a true Napoleon of crime. Conan Doyle’s Moriarty was a piddling little mathematics tutor who never seemed to profit much by his crimes; Moffett’s is a colossus. The villain is the most powerful man in France: a billionaire who controls the banks, the bourse, and the government, he can have police officers and magistrates dismissed at will. He is untouchable.

Half the great men of this world are great criminals. The Napoleons of war murder thousands, the Napoleons of trade and finance plunder tens of thousands. It is the same among beasts and fishes, among birds and insects, probably among angels and devils, everywhere we find one inexorable law, resistless as gravitation, that impels the strong to plunder and destroy the weak.  

Ch. XXVII

Coquenil’s quest to defeat him is truly heroic: he loses one of his closest friends; his mother and his home are threatened; and he and a friend nearly die in a death-trap worthy of Blofeld. But the novel ends with virtue rewarded, and right triumphant over wrong. Splendid stuff.

Mike Grost suggests that the book had few literary offspring, and did not influence by many writers. But I think it influenced Agatha Christie: The Big Four (the job offer to get the detective out of the country), The Murder on the Links (the rivalry between the two detectives), and “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest” (the auger). It reminded me, too, of John Dickson Carr’s early Bencolin books: the Paris detective with the vast machine of the police at his control. The investigation of the crime scene in Chapter VIII (one of the joys of proper detective fiction) is a model for similar scenes in Carr: Coquenil deduces first the existence of holes in the wall, and from them, that the murderer was left-handed. The police use films of the crime to break a suspect’s nerve, as Carr does in “Grand Guignol”, the first version of It Walks by Night (1930). The consideration of footprints and throat marks is skilful, and the word association tests are fascinating.

Through the Wall is not to be confused with Noël Vindry’s Through the Walls (1936), which I reviewed earlier this year. One is a detective story set in France; the other is a French detective story. But Vindry’s roman policier is bland and airless.


Contemporary reviews

Ottawa Free Press (22nd December 1909): Cleveland Moffett has added a thrilling story to the realm of detective fiction in his book, Through the Wall. It, deals with the story of a murder in Paris, which proves to be the beginning of the end of a French baron’s career.

Of course, the story is one which will appeal to those whose appetite is whetted for a somewhat sensational type of literature, but the manner in which Mr. Moffett keeps the identity of the perpetrator of the crime from the minds of his readers until the end shows authorship seldom bestowed upon present-day detective stories.

Toronto Saturday Night (25th December 1909): Here is a real thriller in the way of a detective story. Read five hundred Nick Carter yarns and you will not come across anything more remarkable in mystery or denouement. And, of course, Mr. Moffett’s tale is much more skilfully written than any dime novel. But, for all that, it is as manifestly improbable as any story that ever delayed a messenger boy, or kept a youngster in the barn with his eyes bulging when he should have been at school. Through the wall, between two private rooms in a Paris hotel, goes an assassin’s pistol ball. A man is found shot to death, through one of his eyes. Then M. Coquenril [sic], the great detective, gets on the trail. His adventures are tremendously, horribly marvellous, but although they lack the reasonableness of those of our old friend Sherlock Holmes, I would like to see the normal individual who, once he had started, would not follow them with more or less avidity.

Syndicated review (16th June 1910): Paul Coquenil was a wonderful detective. Of that there is no manner of doubt – no possible doubt whatever. And the story of his greatest case, as told in Through the Wall, makes one of the most exciting stories anybody could wish to read. We are so used to sensational novels in these days that it is rare indeed to experience a genuine “thrill”. But Mr. Moffet has the trick of it. Time and again his hero gets into positions of danger and difficulty, and the anxious reader thinks it is surely all up with Paul Coquenil this time, and his case as well. But Coquenil comes through all, not scatheless by any means, but triumphant.

The case was one of murder at the Ansonia Hotel, Paris, and Coquenil wan not long in finding out that it was the work of no ordinary criminal. Every possible difficulty was put in his way, and when he seemed to be “getting warm”, his discharge from the force was peremptorily ordered. This only made him the more determined to go right on with the case. and at last he got his hands on the man he wanted. Then, just as the prisoner seemed to be on the point of confessing under the pressure of the French system of “examination”, there came an order from the Prime Minister for his release. The criminal, as a matter of fact, wan a very important person indeed. and a very unpleasant fellow to have anything to do with. He had a charming little plan for burning Paul alive, and it would be interesting to tell exactly how it was frustrated, but as it is the most exciting situation in the book it would not be fair to give it away.

Through the Wall is remarkably well-written. and incidentally Mr. Moffett gives a most realistic description of the nerve-breaking methods employed by the French police in examining suspected criminals.

Westminster Gazette (3rd September 1910): Mr. Cleveland Moffett has a more richly inventive imagination than is really necessary even for the writer of detective stories. For instance, the principal corpse of Through the Wall went to his death clad in faultless evening dress. Two pages after he is shot we come upon details of its faultlessness:

On his fingers were several valuable rings, in his scarf was a large ruby set with diamonds, and attached to his waistcoat was a massive gold medal that at once established his identity.

On the whole, we think, he deserved to die. The hero of a detective story is a detective, and in order the more completely to dazzle the reader, Mr. Cleveland Moffett’s hero is Parisien to the finger-tips, by birth, education, and preference; but this is how he and his very French rival detective talk to each other:

“There’s no use being ugly about it.”

“See here, wouldn’t you be ugly if someone butted into a case that had been given to you?  Well, I guess not. I’m going to walk around. … You think it’s a great joke on me because I paid you five francs.”

Coquenil is a great man, and he is helped through four hundred pages of effort to catch and kill “the Napoleon of Crime” by Alice, who “dreams true” all the time in a manner tremendously disconcerting to criminals, and even to the jeune premier, Mr. Lloyd Kittredge, on whom we need hardly say suspicion falls very circumstantially. Mr. Kittredge, however, has sown his wild oats, and the prospect of marrying a lady gifted with second sight has no terrors for him. We have said enough to whet the appetite of those who devour detective tales, and we have not even hinted at the spiciest details of this one.

The Times: The murder in the Ansonia Restaurant, Paris, and the struggle of a French detective with a Napoleonic criminal whose final exposure convulsed the city. An engrossing narrative; desperate and rather humorous.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Illus. Why this old-fashioned melodrama should be cited again and again as a little chef d’oeuvre is hard to guess.  The detective Paul Coquenil, who works with Papa Tignol of the regular force, uses very primitive methods for his time and place, and the courtroom stuff is both ridiculous and unoriginal.  The names of the investigators give away the French roman policier influence.

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