Friday, May 25, 2012

FFB: Mr. Diabolo - Anthony LeJeune

A ghost-like figure clad in Victorian wardrobe complete with cloak, flamboyant waistcoat and stovepipe hat appears and disappears in a haunted alley known as Devil's Lane. Hours later a man is found strangled in a locked room. Has a long forgotten specter returned and killed again? I can a smell a John Dickson Carr homage at ten paces. In Mr Diabolo (1960) Anthony Lejeune tries his hand at what many other crime writers have also attempted -- to write a convincing impossible crime tale with a multiple puzzling mysteries and a tantalizing locked room murder worthy of the master. He almost succeeds.

In the opening chapter, "The Coming of Mr. Diabolo" we learn of the specter's legend which dates back to the days of young Lord Farrant, one of the founders of the College of Western Studies, who staged "mysterious midnight parties in his rooms."  Professor Cornelius describes the origins of the specter:
His rooms smelled of incense or, some said, of brimstone. his servant found the stubs of black candles and once, half burned, a kitten's paw. And sounds were heard. In short, people became quite convinced that young Lord Farrant was indulging in the black arts. [...] his friends were less discreet, particularly in their cups. They were overheard speaking of somebody who was present at their meetings called 'Mr. Diabolo.'
A conference of the Anglo-American Literary and Political Society ("the Alps" to its members) has brought together academics from both the US and the UK to the campus of the college, a former monastery dating back to the 15th century. The story is narrated by Foreign Office agent Alastair Burke who is allowed to participate in the criminal investigation as a liaison for the Americans attending the conference until a lawyer can be found to represent them. He continues to be involved int eh case when he becomes a witness to a second attempted murder. It is the mysterious Arthur Blaise, however, former associate of Burke's in the spy trade, who unravels the mystery of the disappearing Mr. Diabolo and the locked room murder of Bill Frazer.

As is the case with many mysteries of this subgenre the characters are obsessed with the miraculous circumstances that obscure the crime. Burke and the lovely Barbara Tracey act as the amateur sleuthing duo who do their best to gather data from the suspected members of "the Alps" all the while remaining mystified by the unscalable wall that surrounds the alley, the pile of clothes left behind by the vanished specter, and the door locked on the inside of Frazer's sealed room. Arthur Blaise, like Fell and Merrivale, will not succumb to the impossibilities. He absorbs and examines the evidence, weeds through the lies and deceit, holding back most of his thoughts until the final pages when he explains away all the obfuscating mysteries as the magician's tricks they really are.



"Anthony Lejeune" is in reality Edward Anthony Thompson, crime fiction reviewer, thriller writer, and close friend of Dennis Wheatley. His debut spy thriller Crowded and Dangerous (1959) was described as "snugly readable, bustling Buchanish" by esteemed critic Maurice Richardson with a plot summed up by Violet Grant of the Daily Telegraph as "the trail leads from a Chelsea houseboat to a ship in the London docks, sailing under an Iron [C]urtain flag." Lejeune later created series character Adam Gifford, a reporter and spy, who appeared in at least three other mysteries one of which is the tempting The Dark Trade (1966), published in a US paperback reprint as Death of a Pornographer. In the 1980s he returned to writing mysteries with an academic background and created Professor Lowery who solves crimes in two books.

Japanese edition from 2010
One of the 10 Best "honkaku"- orthodox mysteries
Mr. Diabolo is for the most part an engaging read but my attention began to wander with the probing exploration of Frazer who we discover is a womanizing cad with a taste for blackmail. The bulk of the tale is sidetracked by more and more secrets uncovered related to Frazer's past life and the women in the cast. Too much attention is spent in discussing the architecture of the building, the numerous stairwells, the abundance of keys to all the rooms,  and other minutiae which tend to confuse and overwhelm the reader. There seems to be a lot of clutter in this mystery.

Thankfully, when the solution comes there is one brilliant surprise -- perhaps a nod to a famous Anthony Boucher novel which also shares a similar trick -- that redeemed the book for me. With such a great opening, the macabre legend, and the baffling vanishing of a ghost-like killer Lejeune's novel aspires to true greatness and promises to dazzle the reader. Sadly, he only manages to raise a faint glow of surprise just falling short of book that might have been a real classic in locked room mysteries.

4 comments:

  1. Just curious, John ... which edition did you read? To my knowledge this title was only published in the U.K., not in the U.S. originally. Did you have much trouble locating a copy? If my memory serves me correctly, the date of publication was 1960 (presumably what you intended instead of 2960). A fair treatment of the book's strong and weak points by you. For readers familiar with the best works of John Dickson Carr, Lejeune's book may disappoint; for ones who have yet to discover Mr. Carr, Mr. Diabolo may prove to be an inspiration. Whichever group your other blog-readers find themselves in, I still recommend they give it a go.

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    1. Ugh! More embarrassing typos. Publication date is now fixed. I'll spare you the nightmare of what happened to this post last night.

      You are correct about there being no US edition. And as I read only English I own and read the UK edition. I managed to snag one in an eBay auction last month. I paid only £23 (approx. $37 at the time). Very lucky!

      I liked the book overall and hope the mixed review doesn't discourage anyone from trying to find a copy and reading it. Tastes are subjective, after all. It just seemed to be a jumble to me. Could've been better structurally.

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  2. Sounds pretty interesting even with all the qualifiers - like Jim getting hold of a copy may pose a few challenges I suspect!

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    1. Patience and luck were on my side in obtaining a copy, Sergio. Yes, like most of the books I review it turns out to be scarce and, sadly, ridiculously overpriced for an author who is not at all read anymore. You can buy most of Lejeune's other books for $15 or less. I detest the practice of making hard to find books unaffordable for people who just want to read the book. It's why I am one of the most subversive booksellers of genre fiction. I underprice nearly everything so the books will sell and readers can afford them.

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