Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Dead Man at the Window - Jean Toussaint-Samat

For a book called The Dead Man at the Window (1934: Eng. transl. of Le Mort à la fenêtre, 1933) you would think that the primary focus would be the mysterious appearance of the title character. Well, I expected our brilliant yet altogether aloof detective Commissioner Levert to do so, at the very least call attention to it. But no. He holds back all mention of that figure from both shipping businessman Frédéric Moutte who acts as the novel's narrator and befuddled Watson and in doing so neglects to inform the reader. Levert expects Moutte, simply because he lives in the town, to know exactly why five men have dropped dead on the terrace where directly above a dead man appears at the window on the night of every full moon. Do you know of every local legend in your home town? I doubt it. Not one explanation for who the dead man in the window is, why he is there, and why he is there every full moon. Perhaps it's not a dead man at all but a ghost haunting the house. Levert knows, of course, and will eventually tell us but only in the final chapter. The bulk of the novel is spent investigating the reason why one man apparently died of fright on the terrace while five others committed suicide there over a period of over forty years. If the explanation of the not-at-all-mysterious dead man in the window had been given to both Moutte and the reader when Levert knew there would be no point in telling the story of all these strange suicides. Really this is not a novel at all. It's a short story transformed into a novel with all sorts of completely extraneous information that goes on and on and on.

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

This Chinese puzzle box narrative structure (which makes up the second section of this triple header of a book) is intended to make seemingly random events have a sinister design. The stories take on the shape of epic adventures in miniature. Unlike the more entertainingly told exercises of this type like The Arabian Nights or Harry Stephen Keeler's parodies of the Asian story-within-a-story motif Toussaint-Samat's novel becomes a tedious slog. The reader wades through nearly pointless stories in order to get to the core of the novel's real mystery. This is part of the novel's conceit -- that the stories will reveal patterns and the overlapping will reveal connections much like the way Ellery Queen would pore over odd clues in order to reveal a pattern of criminal behavior and make sense of the cryptic dying clue or, to take The Chinese Orange ystery as an example, the reason an entire room had everything turned upside down and backwards.

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.

One of the characters is a woman who is supposedly descended from an Incan princess and who has a tattoo on her chest to prove it. But when she brazenly bares her breasts to expose the tattoo it is of Huitzilopetchli, who she calls the Great Plumed Serpent and claims is a great god of the Incans. Wrong. He is the Aztec god of war often depicted carrying a serpent-shaped scepter (see image at right). The "Great Plumed Serpent" is Quetzalcoatl, also a figure from Aztec mythology. Absurd statements pop up: "All those Inca, Toltec and Kichaun [Quechua] temples are the same." An archeologist or ethnologist would go ballistic over such an erroneous generalization. Unforgivable, I think, for an adult writer living in the 20th century. Even the pulpiest of lost race fantasies so obsessed with undiscovered lands populated with descendants from Atlantis or Aztec and Incan kingdoms never combined all of those cultures in one mishmosh of a story. Nor would they make the fundamental error of misidentifying an Aztec god as an Incan god. And a truly imaginative writer would attempt to explain why a culture known to be confined to the western coast of the continent would show up in the northernmost portion of the land, 1800 miles from their central domain. This is the difference between the suspension of disbelief and just plain disbelief.

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.

5 comments:

  1. Sorry to hear it doesn't sustain itself - I was impressed that it got itself translated at all at the time as that seems to have been pretty rare in the early 30s, no?

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    1. Not at all. There was a renewed interest in the French detective novel and French crime fiction in the 1930s thanks to the creation of the Prix du roman d'aventures in 1931. Lippincott published English translations of three of the first prize winning novels and other winners' books from 1931 to 1935. J. T-S. won the prize in 1932 for his first book L'Horrible mort de Miss Gildchrist. It was given the English title of Shoes That Had Walked Twice (1933). In total Lippincott published seven books by J T-S, Stanislas-André Steeman, Roger-Francis Didelot, and Simone D'Erigny. These days copies of those books are rare, but not when they were first published.

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    2. That is really interesting - thanks John. I think i was going by the fact that even the likes of Simenon and Boileau had to wait a while ...

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  2. Replies
    1. ...and I lived to tell the tale! Obviously I'm not recommending anyone track this one down. I'm not sure I'd ever want to read his prize winner. Contemporary magazine reviews of his two shipboard thrillers that were translated into English are lukewarm to outright nasty.

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