Friday, 19 August 2016

The Mummy Case (1933) - Dermot Morrah

Dermot Michael Macgregor Morrah was one of those academics who wrote a detective novel just for fun. Born in 1896, Morrah earned a scholarship in Math at the New College of Oxford in 1914. After participating in the First World War, he changed his path and started dedicating to Modern History. In 1921 he became Prize Fellow of All Souls College and undertook an academic career. Shortly after though, he got married and had to interrupt his researches. From 1928 onwards, Morrah wrote leaders for the Daily Mail and The Times, as well as books about royalty and speeches for members of the Royal Family, including the Queen. As we may guess from the biography, Morrah was a very talented and eclectic man. Unfortunately, he wrote only one detective novel, The Mummy Case (1933), which I found very entertaining and amongst the best academic detective novels  I have ever read. 

As someone may expect, the story is set in Oxford, mainly in the fictitious Beaufort College. At the heart of the tale, there is the academic rivalry between two eminent Egyptologists, Peter Benchley and Feodor Bonoff. One night, a dreadful fire occurs in the rooms of Professor Benchley, who has recently purchased from Bonoff an highly valuable mummy. The fire completely destroys his room and only one body is found inside, which is impossible to identify, along with a wristwatch and a set of keys. The University rapidly calls it an accident, and Benchley is named as the charred corpse. Two professors though, Considine and Sargent, are skeptical about this explanation, and start to investigate on their own. If the body is Benchley’s, after all, where is the mummy? 

The Mummy Case is one of those novels clearly belonging to the Golden Age of detective fiction: the tone is lighthearted, the emphasis is always on the intellectual activities of the two sleuths, there is a lot of British humor and a group of well-depicted characters. Morrah reveals a pleasant wit and humor in his dialogues, but he is also capable of coming up with an intriguing plot. The story is filled with clever clues and some good red herrings, and the final explanation is very good as well. The main twist is allegedly guessable, but the (academic) motive of the culprit is wonderfully intellectual and ingenious. 
Unfortunately, the narrative rhythm is not always driving: some passages, especially when the two sleuths talk about the case, are too long and wordy (with the exception of chapter 4, where Sargent applies his professional skills to analyze the case, and chapter 9, which is a good example of recapitulation). In the second part, the book starts to flag, but the final two chapters are so amusing that you have to forgive the author.
As Mike Grost points out, we may find traces of the Realistic School writers, including Richard Austin Freeman (whose The Eye of Osiris (1911) involves mummies and Egyptology). The solution of the story involves the 'breakdown of identity', although not for the purpose of alibi construction.
Ultimately, this is one of my favorite academic detective novels, along with Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937). Morrah is much more able than Boucher to convey the atmosphere of a College, with its customs and traditions, its rules and conventions.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Howling Beast, 1934 - Noel Vindry

More than a year ago, I wished for the publication of a new novel by Noel Vindry, one of greatest French Golden Age writers. At that time, Locked Room International had just published The House That Kills, Vindry’s debut, originally published in France in 1932 and translated by John Pugmire. This is the reason why, a month ago, I hailed enthusiastically the publication of The Howling Beast (1934), originally published as La Bête Hurlante, which is unanimously considered one of the best books of the French writer.
Although I enjoyed The House That Kills, it was somewhat contrived and a bit farfetched, at least with regard to the explanation of the second crime. On the contrary, The Howling Beast is truly a masterpiece which I strongly recommend. Structurally, it is very different from the typical Anglo-American Golden Age novels: Pierre Herry, wanted for murder, comes cross examining magistrate M. Allou and, after a moment of hesitation, decides to tell him the incredible story in which he is involved. Starting from the very beginning, Herry gives an account of a series of bizarre events which are set in a creepy castle, nearby Versailles, inhabited by Saint-Luce, a cynic and violent big-game hunter. The novel also involves a dangerous menage à trois, a guest disappearing into thin air, eerie creatures howling during the nights, and, of course, an impossible crime. Herry is pretty sure he has already lost his mind: after all, if he is not the murderer, who could have committed it? And, mostly, how?

The story is told through a long dialogue, which emphasizes the concision of Vindry’s style of writing. His prose might seem too simple and sharp, but it is actually very powerful. The author is able to create a subtle but vivid atmosphere of terror, which sets the ground for the account of the two impossible murders, whose explanation is absolutely brilliant. The novel reaches its climax in the final part, so you cannot stop reading and have to turn the pages as quick as you can to realize what really happened. 
As I noted in many French Golden Age novels, the microcosm is way more important than the single characters, which are usually roughly drawn. Here the cast is very tiny, but Vindry is mainly interested in the interaction between the characters and how this can strengthen the tension. A strong point is that although the tale is consciously set in another world — an isolated castle with no contacts with the outside —  the story is credible and realistic, and sometimes I even sympathized with the characters.
If I had to make a comparison with an Anglo-Saxon writer, I would choose Ellery Queen. The sharpness of Vindry’s prose, the tight construction of his plots, as well as the slightly gothic overtones might recall the early Queen of The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) and The Lamp of God (1935). I already cannot wait for another Vindry to be translated, but I also hope John Pugmire will be able to publish other French Golden Age novels such as Herbert & Wyl’s La Maison Interdite (1932) and Gaston Boca’s L’Ombre sur le Jardin (1935).
Thanks John!