Monday, January 9, 2012

The Sleeping Bacchus - Hilary St George Saunders

Here's a book that has a unique history. It started as a French mystery called Le Repos Bacchus (1938) written by Pierre Boileau (whose collaborations with Thomas Narcejac I have reviewed here, here and here). Saunders, who wrote as "Francis Beeding" with his own collaborator John Palmer, came across the book in a Parisian bookshop and thought it remarkable after reading it. He had hoped to write his own version, but Palmer died in 1944 before the two could collaborate. Still Saunders managed to get permission from Boileau and wrote the book on his own. This led to the publication in English of The Sleeping Bacchus in 1951. I know nothing of the original French version, but according to the brief history on the DJ blurb Saunders felt that the story was slightly outdated and had to update it. I am assuming that the updating had to do with World War Two since many of the characters are either veterans or deserters of that war and it does play a minor part in the proceedings. This is the only case I have encountered where one mystery writer's book inspired a rewritten and updated version of the story by another mystery writer from a different country. In movies we find this kind of thing happening frequently: Japanese, Thai and Korean horror movies remade in the US by the dozens for example. And most recently the US movie versions of the Stieg Larsson books already successful in their original Swedish. I'm curious if there are other instances of rewritten stories in the book world.

Saunders' book is - like Boileau's - the story of an art theft and an apparently impossible art theft at that. the book presents three "miracle problems" with varying degrees of complexity. The large painting of the title was removed from a locked room under guard. While the thief bungled his escape and was captured the painting could not be found anywhere. Later in the book another thief shows up to retrieve the painting and seems to have climbed over an unscalable wall in a matter of seconds while being fired at by his gun toting pursuers. Finally, a third impossibility occurs when a Black Maria vanishes from a road in full view of several witnesses. There is no sign of the prisoner inside and neither the driver nor the policeman guarding the prisoner can be found.

While the later two impossible problems are less than thrilling and easily solved, the theft of the painting and where it ended up is one of those stunning pieces of misdirection worthy of the master himself - John Dickson Carr. The book itself begins as a detective novel but transforms into a cinematic action thriller. It would be a perfect candidate for a movie these days with a large number of car and foot chases, lots of gunplay, several kidnappings, and a cast of witty and intelligent characters. A scene in which our hero John Marriott is tied to a fence while he watches the second thief take flight over the moors towards the "unclimbable" fence and his rescue by a negligee clad, pistol-packing mama is one of the best in the book. She uses Marriott's shoulder to steady her aim and she fires three shots at the fleeing culprit nearly deafening him in the process but nonetheless leaving an impression of her crack marksmanship.

At one time a rather scarce book copies of The Sleeping Bacchus are now easily obtainable. My quick online search turned up several for sale with the intriguing 1st edition dust jacket shown above. As an example of an impossible crime novel without a murder The Sleeping Bacchus is unique in the genre. And it certainly can hold its own against anything by Carr, Halter or any of the other practitioners of the impossible crime mystery.


  1. A tremendous review of a book from the early 1950's well worth seeking out. It would be interesting to know what parts of the original French story by Boileau were retained by Hilary St George Saunders. As Boileau earned a reputation for himself as a writer of thrillers, perhaps the chase scenes were one aspect.
    I have only been able to track down one of the translations of the Boileau and Narcejac books, an Arrow pb of 'The Living and the Dead'. They seem to be fairly scarce.

  2. My knowledge of this novel begins and ends with the fact that it was published by Toronto's White Circle. I've always been curious about the publisher's pitch: "ARE YOU LOOKING FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT IN MYSTERIES?" And then there's the illustration - "BONDAGE COVER", says one enterprising online bookseller. Sadly, the negligee clad, pistol-packing mama is more modestly dressed in mink and striped pyjamas.

    I much prefer the Michael Joseph cover, though I can't get away from the idea that it depicts Prince in lonely old age.

  3. Jim -

    Thanks for stopping by. The French version of this book seems non-existent! As for English translations of B&N they are indeed scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. The online sellers like to charge inflated prices for the books because of this. I was lucky to find a treasure trove of B&N paperbacks in the spring of last year. I bought all of them in one extravagant binge. The highest individual price was $25. I thought there were all very reasonably priced in the Chicago shop that is known to be a bit too pricey for "rarities."

    Brian -

    I went back to read that fence rescue scene and guess what? She IS wearing a fur coat over her nightie! Honor (the character's name) is a smart woman and not a Gothic heroine -- it is winter, after all! The cover artist neglects, however, to include the snow in his "bondage" illustration. And where's her gun? But one thing I did get right: she is NOT wearing striped pajamas in the story.

  4. I didn't chuck this one in my digital shopping cart, when ordering that stack of impossible crime novels, because you indicated that a review was forthcoming and thought it advisable to await an expert opinion on this book. But now that the report is in, I regret that I actually showed restraint! What was I thinking? This impresses me as the type of locked room mystery that I would devour from cover to cover.

    Oh, well, the year is still young! ;)

  5. TomCat-

    I didn't go too much into the detective aspects of the book. Here's some additional info to entice you to get a copy. Two French war veteran pals of John Marriott appear around the midway point and serve as the detectives. The final chapter is typical of the types of lectures Dr. Fell enjoyed giving. There is even a reconstruction (so French!) of the theft of the painting with a cheap oil painting of a girl and her dog doing the stunt work. And the staged crime takes all of 15 minutes. It's a fine moment in a terrific book. No murder (!) but a great entry in the fiction of impossible crimes.

  6. le repos de bacchus on

  7. Thanks, Unnamed One. That'll learn me - ignorant Anglophone that I am. It pays to search in the original language. [Duh.] And at less than 1 Euro copies are practically being given away!

  8. Very interesting! Francis Beeding, for what it's worth, was I think one of the best thriller writers of the Golden Age, much more intelligent and literate than the usual stuff.

  9. Upon further reading about Hilary St. G. Saunders, I see that he passed away in 1951, the same year that The Sleeping Bacchus was published. So it could very well be the last book he completed.

  10. Sounds wonderful John. I've only read a few books by Beeding but I really rate DEATH WALKS IN EASTREPPS, which I'm just about to re-read as it's recently been reprinted by Arcturus.