Friday, August 10, 2012

FFB: The Body Vanishes - Jacquemard-Sénécal

While the first book the French writing team calling themselves Jacquemard-Sénécal wrote was in fact the second book they had published (Le onzième petit nègre, 1977), their first published book was apparently considered to be more conventional by the publisher though no less ingenious. It won for them the coveted Prix du Quai des Orfevres, the French mystery writer's prize, in 1977. While The Eleventh Little Indian (as it was published in the US) was considered "too daring" I think Le Crime de la Maison Grün or, as the English publishers redubbed the book, The Body Vanishes (1976) is far more daring. The trickery employed in this debut (yet really their second book) and the gasp inducing solution surpass what the two men did in their Agatha Christie tribute.

A drowned woman's body disappears from a river bank. It reappears in the locked and burglarized workshop of Wotan Grün, an antiquarian bookseller. The only thing noted to be missing is a rare 15th century incunabulum, the envy of several collectors and the bookseller's competitors. The woman is soon identified as the lover of Wotan's son Denis, the morose and cynical black sheep of the Grün household. As the intriguing investigation proceeds the entire household is enveloped in a world of treachery and thievery, murder attempts and suicide, and -- believe it or not -- the search for an alchemy formula for turning lead into gold.

The book introduces their series character Lancelot Dullac (cute name, huh?), a police detective who works alongside another policeman named Holz. The detection in this book is mostly of the Q&A type, though there are several instances of Golden Age type originality and cleverness in the few scenes that involve physical evidence. Most notable among those portions is a second impossible murder disguised as a suicide that involves some rigged machinery that John Dickson Carr might have dreamed up.

Once again on display a plethora of plot devices and motifs found in the work of their idol Agatha Christie. There are allusions to Evil Under the Sun, Peril at End House, Murder at the Vicarage and the many stage related mysteries she wrote. The two writers come from a theater background and once again dig into their trunk of stage tricks and illusions to bamboozle the reader with dazzling misdirection. There is even some dizzying business with rifles and bullets that reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner's gun crazy plots. All in all plenty of wizardry and plot machinations to appeal to any fan of the puzzle driven detective novel.

16 comments:

  1. Sounds marvellous John - never even heard of these guys (for shame) - right, shall look for translations in Italian and English then!

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  2. PS Just ordered the first two you mentioned - deliberately skimmed your review but shall get back to you once I have digested said books (what is now know as the FFB JFN TBR pile ...)

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    1. I don't think I gave too much away in this VERY short (for a change) review. Skimming was not necessary, but I don't blame you. Glad you found the books. I guess my earlier reply posted below is probably superfluous now, but I'll leave it in case Pietro is tempted to read this book. ;^)

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  3. There is an Italian translation as a matter of fact! I was going to post a photo of the giallo I found, but I thought the French more suitable. Plus, there was only room in this short review for two photos. The Italian is called Il Delitto di Casa Grün, and is published by Gialli Garzanti. You may be able to find copies of The Eleventh Little Indian in English more easily than this title. But I must say I liked this one a lot more.

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    1. Brill John, that's marvellous - thanks very much, as always.

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  4. I wonder if I could sue you for "gimmick infringement," if you keep beating me to these intriguing sounding locked room mysteries. ;)

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  5. Sounds interesting enough to warrant a read, John. I'll have to find one or the other in English.

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  6. Thanks for the review. I have 'The Eleventh Little Nigger' in my current pile of books to read. I've been wondering why the name of one of the co-authors was bungled in the English versions - any idea?

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    1. The bungling in on the French paperback I have pictured. I have the names spelled correctly and that is how they were billed on the books in French. The cheap paperback made the error when the spelled the second guy's name as Senechal.

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    2. Right you are! I had discounted the possibility of the French getting it wrong.

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  7. New to me too. I feel like just this sort of story right now.

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  8. This post led to me tracking the book down and buying it. Imho it's been oversold by our otherwise reliable guide. Despite the comment above, there's no locked room puzzle; the "suicide" is, er, not as John has it; and I actually found the whole thing plodding and contrived. Nothing took my breath away as I had hoped (that great feeling I associate with the best, from Agatha C herself to the romps by Hake Talbot, to name just two) and in fact the repeated dull conversations had me nodding off. I might still give the other translated book by these authors a go, for completist reasons, but I'm not expecting too much.

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    1. It's bound to happen every now and then. I cannot have exactly the same tastes as everyone who visits this blog. I enjoyed the book, never found anything in it dull. I reported my reading experience. If you find I "oversold" it that happens to be your taste. I'm often willing to overlook flaws if the balance of the book has something to recommend it. In any case, I'm glad to know I'm a "reliable guide." Most of the time, anyway.

      P.S. You will be greatly disappointed by the other book based on your opinion of this one which I think is much more original. THE ELEVENTH LITTLE INDIAN is basically a homage to Christie and they borrow heavily from her works, including the identity of the killer.

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  9. We might have guessed: having now read 'The Eleventh etc' I must report that I LOVED it, from the blatantly transgressive title (on the v cheap UK edition I found online) to the truly masterful use of any number of classic tropes and the breath-taking finale. The climactic conversation between the two friends far surpasses in interest, skill and psychological depth the far briefer original and for this scene alone the book should be recommended.

    Unlike Body Vanishes I was drawn to the characters from the start and followed their development with real excitement (it helps that they are well-drawn individuals, rather than just a list of silly names) The game is well played - I was well-and-truly led astray and, yes, I gasped - only the motive is a little off (but then that is hardly unusual). I have since found others (Amazon etc) who prefer this to Body Vanishes so I am clearly in that camp.

    Many thanks for the introduction: I would never have read this extraordinary book if it hadn't been for your blog. For all true fans of Agatha Christie and (I'll stick my neck out) puzzle fiction fans in general.

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    1. I have been redeemed! So glad the other book lived up to its reputation. I think it's way too derivative in the same way Elizabeth Linington's Greenmask! owes way too much to Christie. But for diehard detective fiction fans reading these types of books is a lot of fun.

      Thanks for reporting back, Geoff. You lifted my spritis today.

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  10. John, in your review you state that this book is even more daring and with a more jaw-dropping ending than The Eleventh Little Indian. Considering how I loved the latter book (and please forget my stupid posts about the title), I'll have to see if I can get a used copy from Amazon.

    It's a shame that these are the only two books of Jacquemard and Senecal to be translated in English. I'm VERY curious to read the sequel to Indian,
    Qui a tue Scarlett O'Hara
    (or: Who Killed Scarlett O'Hara). French readers should avoid this book before reading Indian because even the plot summary for the latter betrays spoilers for the former.

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