The House That Kills is the perfect example of a detective novel as a wholly contrived story. And as such it is far from mystifying. Any devotee of the locked room or impossible crime novel will see through its trickery almost instantly. A family is terrorized by a gang of murderers who announce their crimes in the form of anonymous letters miraculously hand delivered to the house without anyone seeing the messenger. Each victim is killed violently in a locked and guarded room by an unseen assailant who manages to escape the house altogether. Paragraphs are devoted to the layout and architecture of the house with Vindry going into great detail on how its impenetrably designed locks would take a lengthy time to open even with a key and the thick walls could not possibly conceal secret passageways leaving the crimes even more puzzling as to how the killer got in and escaped unseen -- at least to the dull witted and easily manipulated policemen and the narrator, a junior magistrate. To any astute reader the solution is obvious.
This particular plot is extremely derivative of two very well known locked room mysteries, borrowing a time worn gimmick that dates to the Victorian era. M. Allou, a veteran magistrate who apparently knows his history of detective fiction very well, appears on the scene at the novel’s midpoint, within minutes sees through all the deception and in the ninth chapter delivers his solution to all but one of the four murders committed. But there are six more chapters to come. Why bother reading the rest you may wonder. Well, there is that one unattributed murder, the escape of the accused from police custody, and one more seemingly puzzling attempted murder.
|Original French edition|
The House that Kills is stripped down to the barest essentials. While there is action aplenty the characters are puppets in service to the contrived story. All these impossible crimes, talk of ghosts and inhuman agencies are intended to create an atmosphere of mystery and wonder. The reader should be thrilled and curious but nothing seems at stake. It all moves too fast and the two emotional moods waver between cold logic and histrionic disbelief. Every now and then for variety there is an outburst of obviously feigned horror. With little room left for Vindry’s supposed style and no real interest in making any character remotely human or complex or interesting in the least this impossible crime mystery novel is impossibly cold and empty. As cold and empty as a locked and sealed room.
Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space G2 - "Set anywhere except US or UK"