Letting Sleeping Gods Lie

"It was now that the scene became suddenly of another world, a place of visions and chimeras, hideous because unexpected, terrifying because unexplained. Wide awake and in full possession of my faculties as I knew myself to be, I was at that moment the central figure of a nightmare."
- John Marriott (The Sleeping Bacchus, 1951).
Over the past few weeks, there have been brief periods of clarity in which I questioned the veracity of my hastily and overenthusiastically drawn decision that put a copy of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) in my covetous claws. It's tantamount to supplying an anxious pyromaniac with a box of matches, a can of lighter fluid and a derelict building to frolic around in and then act surprise when you notice the fiery tongues licking at its structure – after the first fire engines pulls up on the curb. Not to mention that this niche of the blogosphere has been doing an excellent job in itself, especially as of late, in forcing me to continuously rearrange my wish list. I mean, how can you ignore a review like this?

Hilary St. George Saunders, perhaps better known under the penname he shared with John Palmer, “Francis Beeding,” took a rather unconventional approach when he laid the groundwork for his novel The Sleeping Bacchus (1951) – which was originally a French mystery by Pierre Boileau. Saunders stumbled across a copy of Le Repos Bacchus (1938) in a Parisian bookshop and cheekily asked its author permission to emend and rewrite the book in English, which, needless to say, he got and from this arose a classic tale of a debonair gentleman thief portrayed on the canvas of a grand detective story.

The purloining of an invaluable objet d'art commonly fills the pages of a short story or relegated to the grade of a sub-plot and when such a theft takes top priority in a novel, it's usually in a caper. But this book is not an off-shoot of the Rogue School of Fiction, in which we tread on the heels of a gentleman about town as the charming fellow relieves overstuffed bankers and icy widows, dripping with diamonds, of their hoarded wealth, but one that has its roots firmly planted in the grounds of that nightmarish wonderland, "with all the mad logic of a dream," that writers like John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot used to frequent.

Ex-war veteran John Marriott receives a pressing message from his uncle Walter Thresby, a famous art collector, asking him to go on his behalf to Montreal to supervise the purchase of a painting after Thresby received a distressing message (i.e. blackmail note) from an old acquaintance – a thief nicknamed "Zed" who once before intervened in one of Thresby's attempts at obtaining a picture.

But before Marriott could lift his heels, Thresby is robbed of the showpiece of his collection, Leonardo da Vinci's "The Sleeping Bacchus," which was spirited away from his locked and secured gallery under baffling circumstances and despite catching one of the thieves they are unable to find a trace of the picture. More miracles are afoot in this story: one of the thieves returns to the estate, retrieving a cylinder from the grounds encompassing the gallery, has a run in with Marriott, who ends up tied to a fence (see the cover), and proceeds over the moors towards an "unclimbable" fence and conquers it in a matter of seconds – which could only have happened if he phased through it like a ghost. A third impossibility involves the vanishing of a Black Maria (a police van) with its occupants.

I think this story perfectly demonstrates the fallacy of Van Dine's Rulebook that states that there must be a corpse, none to be found between the covers of this book, and shows the allurement of the impossible (crime) that can turn, if properly handled, even a simple domestic problem into a genuine puzzler. But as much as I dote on these locked room mysteries, I loved the second half of the story, in which "Zed" reveals himself in a wonderful scene to John Marriott and his uncle, even more and enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game that ensued – as the former tries to relieve them of a King's Ransom in exchange for the sleeping deity while the latter attempt to retrieve the painting from its unlawful owner. Pierre and Raoul, two veteran buddies of Marriott, who eventually solve the theft and explain the string of seemingly unexplainable events that have plagued them, are assisting them in this endeavor.

The disappearance of Da Vinci's painting and the ghostly intruder, who braved an impregnable fence the way a phantom would've done, are satisfyingly explained – even though I feel a bit iffy about the fairness of them. But then again, my reading of this book has been very fragmented and perhaps missed out on one or two of the finer details that were given.

On a whole, this is an excellent, but atypical, detective story that deserves a spot in the gallery next to the masterpieces crafted by John Dickson Carr and Joseph Commings – acknowledged grandmasters of this form. But it also deserves praise for introducing a wonderful and striking villain. I know the person behind the "Zed" persona is not suppose to garner sympathy from the reader and should even be considered annoying, but I found myself unable to feel any aversion and even cheered this bandit on. It might be misplaced sympathy, but who's complaining when the fun keeps piling on? 

Recommended without hesitation! 


  1. Wonderful post title! It almost matches up with the classic: "We’ll have the hags flung out." (We'll have the flags hung out.)

    It seems that there's a lot of thief-oriented fiction being reviewed of late. The Donald E. Westlake tribute comes to mind, especially since I just finished reading THE HUNTER, soon after having read THE HOT ROCK. This one sounds like more of a mystery and it also sounds like great fun.

    All right, step right up, step right up. What are the odds my library has this book? Place your bets! Place your bets!

    1. I was temped, for a moment, to take a gamble, but then I remembered that your library system drips with evilness and probably only accepts souls or human sacrifices to stake your wages on. So I decline. And yes, it's more of a mystery than a rogue tale but not any less fun to read.

      It's a wonderful post title, isn't it? I was actually surprised when I typed it, without really thinking about it, which means there might be a mystery novelist in me after all! :)

  2. So glad my review paid off with a good one for a change. I, on the other hand, have been suffering through a pile of books that is a mixture of the so-so to the wretched. I need to move on to some quality stuff and SOON before I give up on the genre altogether. I'll spare all of you what I suffered by not reviewing any of them. Well, maybe just a brief overview of them all as part of my monthly "alternative classic" feature.

    1. You should post a review of them, even if it's just a short overview. I think it would make for an interesting post as well as a great warning sign for other fans ("read at your own risk!").

      As for quality stuff, have you considered taking a shot at the Case Closed (Detective Conan) series by Gosho Aoyama?

      Admittedly, the stories in the first half dozen volumes are a trifle weak and the initial premise is a bit hard to swallow for older fans, but once the volume numbers pass into the double-digits the quality of stories sky rocket – and it's a series that does everything. Whodunits, locked rooms, inverted mysteries, suspense and thriller stories, hidden object/person puzzles, code cracking, etc.

      Also read this old post of mine on the GAD group.

  3. OK, this is the third recommendation you've given for Aoyama's series and it reminded me of your recommendation of the Kindaichi Jr series also. I have $100 in gift cards from amazon.com I got last Christmas still unspent. I have just purchased THE MAGICAL EXPRESS and Volume 28 of CASE CLOSED because Mermaid Island sounds like something out of Maurice LeBlanc. Thanks, my friend, for rescuing me from the drecky doldrums I fell into.

  4. I'm glad you will finally take a plunge into the world of Conania, but it's, unfortunately, a series that has to be read in order and on top of that you picked one of the lesser exciting volumes – and you probably won't like the Mermaid Island story. It's one of the few really weak stories featuring Hattori (Harley Hartwell) and the solution is atypical of the otherwise clever visual clueing in the series. I remember stumbling to the solution very early on, but rejected it due to a ridiculous and misleading representation in the art work.

    On the other hand, as an ex-puppeteer, magic enthusiast and mystery addict, you will love The Magical Express. I'm not the biggest Kindaichi fan in the detective community, but even I have to admit that story was brilliantly done.

  5. Great review TomCat - makes me very envious that you were able to get your hands on a copy of the book! I'm going to be re-reading DEATH WALKS IN EASTREPPS shortly, which is my favourite of the few works of his/theirs that I have read.