Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl were French authors of whom little is known outside of their short-lived collaboration in the 1930s, producing three detective novels of "varying quality," but their locked room mystery novel, La maison interdite (The Forbidden House, 1932), is considered "a minor classic" with a courtroom denouement – praised by Roland Lacourbe as "a triumph of Cartesian logic." So a long out-of-reach classic of the French detective story that was finally made available in English by John Pugmire's Locked Room International.
On first glance, The Forbidden House appears to be a fair representative of the type of impossible crime novel that was written in France at the time. The Forbidden House takes place in a castle-like mansion surrounded by a large, "entirely walled," garden similar to the almost fortified settings in Noël Vindry's La bête hurlante (The Howling Beast, 1934) and Gaston Boca's Les invités de minuit (The Seventh Guest, 1935). A place that proved to be insufficient to protect one, or more, of the characters from being pestered and picked off by an invisible menace, which recalls Boca's The Seventh Guest and Marcel Lanteaume's La 13e ball (The Thirteenth Bullet, 1948).
There is, however, one very important difference: Herbert and Wyl's The Forbidden House is the superior detective and locked room novel, which has a plot and unusual story structure made possible only by the French judicial system – weirdly anticipates a well-known, non-French classic of the genre. No. I'm not talking about one of John Dickson Carr's famous locked room fancies, but more on that in a moment.
Marchenoire Manor is a splendid manor house, close to Compiègne, equipped with all the modern comforts, a small guardhouse and a walled park of five hectares situated right in the forest of l'Aigle. But over the years, the place has garnered an unsavory reputation.
Five years ago, the founder of the Société du Crédit Continental, Abraham Goldenberg, built Marchenoire Manor, but, one day, he absconded with twenty-five million francs. A swindle that ruined both "magnates of finance" and "a multitude of small investors," which earned him seven years of hard labor. But he died two months after starting his prison term. So his home was sold and changed hands multiple times over the years, because the owners were either murdered or frightened away by an anonymous letter writer. M. Desrousseaux ignored the warning letter and his body was found in the park "dead from a rifle shot," but succeeding owners cleared out before the second, or third, letter arrived. However, the latest owner refuses to surrender "the residence of his dreams."
Napoléon Verdinage is the founder and executive director of a grocers' association and grocery chain, which made him a multi-millionaire, whose only relatives are some distant cousins. So he moved into Marchenoire Manor with his small, tightly-knit domestic staff. Thérèse Chapon was M. Verdinage's wet nurse who calls him Napo and acts as the steward of the manor. Her husband, Charles Chapon, is the negligent butler who gives more attention to the stock of vintage Pommard in the cellar than performing his duties. Another husband-and-wife team on the domestic staff are the chauffeur and cook, Edmond and Jeanne Tasseau. Adhémar Dupont-Lesguyères is M. Verdinage aristocratic secretary and head of protocol to his nouveau-riche employer on everything from dress conventions to social behavior, which he tends to do with an ironic smirk. Lastly, there's the young, misanthropic valet, Gustave Colinet, who spends his leisure hours shut away in his room and "the vigilant watchdog of the property," Jacques Bénard, who took a cripple, Clodoche, under his wing out of charity – both came with the property. But before the contract could be signed, the first letter is delivered under mysterious circumstances.
The letter warns to not purchase "THE FORBIDDIN HOUSE" (yes, mispelled), if he wants to live. M. Verdinage reasons that "only a prankster would use a fireplace as a letter box" and buys the house with the intention to move in as soon as possible.
A month later, a second warning is delivered under somewhat impossible circumstances. The letter is discovered on the first step leading down to the cellar, but the door was locked and "a very tight fit at the bottom" that "you couldn't thread a hair under it." Let alone a letter. A warning, once again, ignored and another month passed before the third letter is delivered. This time it announced the time his executioner would arrive, but M. Verdinage is not planning to back away from a fight.
M. Verdinage instructs Clodoche to wait at the gates and bring the visitor to him. After which he has to stay on the front steps, "like a good guard dog," whacking everyone with his crutch who leaves without his masters consent. Clodoche is seen escorting a figure to the house with his hat jammed down on his head and his coat collar up around his ears, which made it impossible to see his face as Clodoche's lantern provided only a moving circle of light – casting the figure's upper-body in semi-darkness. Shortly after crossing the threshold, the sound of a gunshot and an agonized cry shakes up the house. M. Verdinage had been shot and killed in the library!
Due to a fault in the construction, the manor "only has one door leading to the outside" and Clodoche was banging on it from the outside and yelling to be let in. So the murderer had nowhere to escape, or hiding place, with every exit either locked or guarded and several witnesses around. Some way, somehow, the murderer had vanished from the house in a puff of cordite smoke! This locked room problem is a lot more trickier and original than the premise suggests.
However, the murderer's vanishing act is not the main attraction of the story, but provides the main act with all the material to make it a main event. This is where the story becomes a treat to every mystery readers with special place in their heart for the multiple false-solution gambit, because The Forbidden House has them in spades!
There are several detectives, official and unofficial, who enter the case with their own ideas and theories, but, as one of them points out, "even the best of their hypothesis explains absolutely nothing" as they can make a case who and why it was done – except explaining "how the murderer left the scene of the crime." So they spend the lion's share of the story building up and tearing down each others theories. Some of the proposed solutions were quite clever while others were a little flimsy ("...he became agitated... that's indisputable proof of his guilt"), but always stamped with the personal motives or personality of the detectives. Lieutenant Taupinois wanted to show the inspector of the flying squad "the gendarmerie was every bit as capable as they were of carrying out an important investigation" and comes to a hasty conclusion (see quote). Paul Malicorne (Substitut du Procureur) and André Pruvost (commissaire divisionnaire de la brigade mobile) come up with more practical answers, but they, too, are unable to explain how the murderer disappeared. Claude Launay, juge d'instruction, is a headline chaser interested only in "celebrity, glory and rapid promotion," but he eventually has to accept the solution of a British private detective, Tom Morrow. And he has a financial stake in the matter as he represents the victim's estranged and disinherited cousins.Now if any of this sounds vaguely familiar, you're right, because it's pretty much the same approach Leo Bruce took in his comedic masterpiece, Case for Three Detectives (1936). Something that can be boiled down to a group of troublesome, competing detectives who make things unnecessary complicated and difficult. Surprisingly, The Forbidden House has a line echoing a Sgt. Beef quote from Case for Three Detectives that I've never been able to forget.
Halfway through Case for Three Detectives, a tired Sgt. Beef exclaims "because these 'ere private detectives can't mind their own business... with their stepsons, and their bells, and their where-did-the-scream-come from. Why, they try to make it complicated." I always hear those words running through my head when a fictional detective is acting too much like a fictional detective. But before those lines had time to haunt me again, M. Launay gave his opinion on the gendarmes "who serve no other purpose than to send investigations on the wrong track, so as to complicate the simplest situations." Not that he was in any position to criticize any detective or policeman. I think it shows how close both novels are in spirit with one of the two only differences being that one was typically British and the other unmistakably French.
The other difference can be found at the end of the story as both end with the real detective revealing a much simpler, more elegant solution that beautifully contrast with all the fanciful theories that preceded it, but The Forbidden House is not only a who, why-and howdunit – also a who'll-be-the-detective. With the final line promising more adventures from this newly-minted "amateur detective."
There is, perhaps, a third, not unimportant difference between the endings of The Forbidden House and Case for Three Detectives. The latter has sometimes been criticized over its fourth and final solution, which some deemed as routine, unimaginative or disappointing (that's the joke). Herbert and Wyl avoided that pitfall and came up with a locked room-trick that's both better and simpler than all the proposed theories, but also didn't completely destroy the mystic and intrigue of the setup. A kind of locked room scenario and resolution that the master himself could have dreamed up.
So, needless to say, The Forbidden House is a tremendously enjoyable detective novel with a first-class locked room conundrum, which stands head and shoulders above the other French '30s and '40s mysteries published by LRI. Pugmire's tireless to ferry all these non-English impossible crime stories across the language-barrier has given me a better appreciation and understanding what the French were up to at the time. Some of those French mystery writers were a few years ahead of their British counterparts. I hope that statement won't lead to a fifth Anglo-Dutch War. Sorry, my British friends, but facts are facts.
On a final, related note: The Forbidden House has two appendixes on the French judicial system and the French GAD, which Pugmire ended with the comment that "several of the foregoing novels may well be candidates for future LRI publication." So why not tack my personal wishlist of French-language locked room mysteries to this review. The following titles/writers are criminally absent from my bookshelves: Stanislas-André Steeman's Six homes morts (Six Dead Men, 1931) and La nuit du 12 au 13 (The Night of the 12th and 13th, 1931). Pierre Boileau's Six crimes cans assassin (Six Crimes Without a Killer, 1935), which I want more than a lost manuscript by Joseph Commings or Hake Talbot. René Réouven's English-titled Tobie or not Tobie (1980) and Jean Alessandrini's La malédiction de Chéops (The Curse of Cheops, 1989). Any of Vindry's remaining locked room titles.