The Tumbling Tower

"As a rule," said Holmes, "the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify."
- The Red Headed League.
Note: my apologies for this poorly written review, but I was constantly drawing blanks and was really struggling to find the right words – which shows how little I cared for the book I was attempting to critique. I promise to be my old self again next time.    

This is a follow-up to one of my recent commentaries on Martin Méroy's Meartre en Chambre Noir (Murder in a Darkened Room, 1965), which I pored over after a brief, but enlightening, conversation with Xavier Lechard that sprang from a discussion on the merits of French detective stories – and their locked room mysteries in particular. One of the books brought up was Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe's Elvire a la Tour Monte (Elvire Climbs the Tower, 1956), but, being the nescient illiterate that I'm, I had to plead ignorance and was schooled again on who's who in French crime literature:

"Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe was more or less the French equivalent of Anthony Boucher, being both a critic and a writer. He is best remembered here as the "father" of the country's top mystery award, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Elvire A La Tour Monde is part of a series featuring Elvire Prentice, "the old lady without mercy" who was kind of a French answer to Miss Marple. The book takes her to London and indeed includes an impossible crime, in the Tower no less."

Delving further into his work, I unearthed an international interchange in his stories as Elvire tours the continent of Europe, crossing through England, Italy, Germany and Holland, disembroiling tangled crimes wherever she goes – and her stop-over in the Low Country is of special interest to me. Not only because I'm Dutch, but also for a crossover appearance of a series-detective from a Dutch mystery writer. I have to admit that I'm not very well-known with the detective stories that have flown from the pen of Pim Hofdorp, only with his reputation as the national innovator of the topographical politieroman, but I'm going to familiarize myself with one or two of them before tackling the Gallic-Germanic alliance between Elvire Prentice and Commissioner Aremberg.

I hope, however, that Fromage de Hollande (Dutch Cheese, 1960) and Gondoles pour le Cimetière (Gondolas to the Cemetery, 1955) are less of a tribulation to wade through than Elvire a la Tour Monte, which stands as one of the most tedious, mind-numbing and disappointing impossible crime stories I have ever had the misfortune to endure. And, mind you, that's coming from someone who survived The Big Atrocity! Our grand and great-grand parents had their war stories, but one day we can tell our grandchildren of the devastating impact Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd made when it hit book stores everywhere and the countless innocent lives that were lost that fateful day. 

The novel opens with a prologue which has Pablo Sanchez, a stage performer who's billed as one of the most beautiful mulatto's the populace has ever sat eyes upon, dying violently at the hands of an unnamed woman and his death is officially written off as a suicide – and from then on the plot plummets into a morass of mediocrity as the cast, comprising of the members of an up-and-coming theatre company, chatters on ad infinitum and making occasional social observations. It's a very talky novel and all that jabber did brought a few motives to the surface, but that was incidental as Endrèbe's main concern was evidently in keeping the conversations going and the story only started to resemble a detective story when one of them, gracefully, allowed herself to be murdered at The Tower of London. 

The eye-witness testimonies take on the part of a solid door and a single key that seal off the scene of the crime, creating an inescapable area from which a murderer bolted without being seen, however, the answer isn't only disappointing and uninspired, which would've been forgivable, but also downright contemptuous to everyone with an I.Q. slightly above room temperature! The false solution, involving a mirror image of the only witness in the room where the murder was committed, was unexciting and psychological unsound, but at least it reflected a thought process on the authors part that had a glimmer of wit – and I wish he had gone with that one. It would've also improved the whodunit part of the novel and made Elvire Prentice look somewhat competent as a detective – whose method mainly seems to consist of sloppy guesswork.

Xavier Lechard remarked that the Gallic way of detection differs from the Anglo-Saxon one, which they've deemed as too cold and mechanical, but if this book is a paradigm of that attitude I can sort of understand why so few of them have reached the shores of Britain and America. I can see scholars being interested in the way minorities are portrayed in this book, but not as pleasurable read or an intellectual challenge – which is the main reason why most of us read these books.  

I will end this vague, incoherent rambling on a positive note and assume that I caught Maurice Embrède on a bad day. The next book will no doubt be absolutely brilliant and hopefully the same can be said about my next blog entry. Once again, sorry for the poor quality of this post.

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