The story begins as an engaging detective novel of the French school. The entire first section of this book divided into three distinct parts deals with a painstakingly detailed investigation of physical evidence like footprints and clothing to the point that one feels he has traveled back to the days of Emile Gaboriau in the late 19th century. The dead man at the window is dismissed almost as soon as he is mentioned. The owner of the house has one other interesting piece of information: he opened the shutters of that titular window because of the full moon. Does the policeman prod the witness further on this point with these obvious questions: "You open the shutters only during a full moon? And they remain closed at all other times? Why?" No. Certainly in any other detective novel these would be primary concerns. But the answer to these questions if the reader knew would immediately negate the reason for the book. There would be no mystery at all. Almost everything puzzling would be would be explained and a few other questions would be asked and voila! -- C'est fini la comédie.
Toussaint-Samat probably thought he was being clever by dropping these bizarre tidbits as if they are red herrings. No real devotee of mystery fiction would dismiss information related to the title of the book as a red herring. Does this writer think he is fooling his readers? Or perhaps he thinks this is creating an atmosphere of mystery by keeping the reader in suspense. But I would disagree with him. Overlooking or outright ignoring the obvious questions is not the way to create suspense. It is, however, an excellent way to provoke frustration on the reader's part.
How can Toussaint-Samat think that any reader would find this satisfactory? Introduce an intriguing premise in a single sentence, a constant reminder of that premise in the title of the book, and yet never address it? Instead the book goes into great detail about a seemingly insignificant murder of a thief that occurred in the nineteenth century; the arrest, trial and conviction of the two men responsible for the murder; and the life histories of the five suicide victims in absurdly detailed narratives that unfold and refold and overlap with each other. It's beguiling and maddening all at once. You can't help but marvel at the imagination required to dream up five life histories and find a way to tie them all together so cunningly. And yet... Where is the story of the dead man at the window? We want to know. Tell us about him!
|illustration by Kay Rasmus Nielsen, Danish artist, for |
a never published edition of 1001 Arabian Nights
It is the third section where the book just completely falls to pieces. After treating us to genuine French detection in part one, then steeping us in melodramatic and hair-raising adventures in part two, Toussaint-Samat transforms the book into a riff on the lost race fantasy. Illogically, the detective duo find it necessary to travel to French Guiana to interview the only living convict sent to a penal colony after being found guilty of that 19th century crime discussed in part one. He has remained silent all these years and they hope to force the truth from him. He refuses to speak (of course!) and they are compelled to make an arduous months-long journey through the jungles to a pre-Columbian ruin where human sacrifices took place. I kid you not. And there's more. It's not just that this climax is utterly ridiculous and over-the-top that the book fails for me, but because it is filled with factual errors that simply ruin any sense of adventure or even fantasy.
The author confuses South American and Central American mythology, religious rites and cultures. There is a frequent mingling of mythologies in lost race literature, but there is always an attempt on the writer's part to tie them together to make it all plausible. Not so with Toussaint-Samat whose research is specious and just plain wrong.
And what was accomplished in this journey? A gold case is retrieved from a hidden compartment underneath a sacrificial alter. The gold box was placed there by the other convict who after managing to escape his prison cell fled to the jungle and died in the ruin. In the gold box is... Oh why bother? It's all just utterly ridiculous. I no longer cared about anything in the final summing up, especially when it was revealed that the man who died on the terrace was not even who we thought he was! There was a switcheroo of identities (in yet another eleventh hour revelation) and the entire story descended into the kind of self-parody that Maurice LeBlanc loved to indulge in when writing the later Arsène Lupin novels.
But what about the dead man in the window? (I hear you all cry out in unison.) Dare I tell you that he's not human? Not even a ghost? Not human and not a ghost and still a man? Can't be, can it? I leave that to you wily detectives out there in the dark to figure out for yourself.
Or you could read the book, I guess. But I trust none of you could possibly be that curious or masochistic.