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).