The Howling Beast – Noel Vindry (1934)

Last winter I was blown away by Noel Vindry’s The House that Kills.  It was jam packed with impossible crimes and read at a breakneck pace, and so as I stocked my larder for an end of year glut of “can’t fail me” mystery reads, another Noel Vindry novel came to mind immediately.  I went with The Howling Beast, in part because, well, there are only three available books to choose from, but also because it seems to be the better regarded of his novels that have been translated to English.  Better than The House that Kills?  Sign me up.

While The House that Kills is a breathless sprint of impossible insanity, The Howling Beast is more of a traditional and drawn out detective story.  In fact, although there are some minor mysteries throughout the story, we don’t encounter the marquee crime until the final few chapters.  It’s a fine one though, with two people shot in a locked down castle, under circumstances that fall into the “impossible if we believe the accounts of several additional witnesses” category.  Not quite an impossible crime in my book, but you know that you’re going to get a solution that fits the bill from a novel published by Locked Room International.

The Howling Beast unfolds in an interesting format – a story recounted to detective M. Allou by a man on the run from police.  Rather than throwing the fugitive behind bars, the detective spends a day listening to a tale of events that unfolded over several years.  A series of strange occurrences have taken place at a castle outside of Paris.  An unidentifiable howling is heard at night, in spite of no nearby animals that could be causing it.  Despite the castle being thoroughly locked down and access limited by a noisy portcullis that can only be opened from the inside, the inhabitants of the castle are attacked one night and one of their members disappear.

Now, this is a story that would have really benefited from a map, as the castle is somewhat of a maze, and although we’re assured that detailed searches are carried out numerous times, it’s difficult to get your bearings.  That’s unfortunate, as the core crime that comes towards the very end of the book involves a bit of “who was where” as the events unfold.  Since the crime comes so late in the story, I won’t get into what exactly happens, but it’s intriguing enough to pull along a full novel length plot had it come at the very start of the book.

In true armchair detective form, M. Allou explains all based merely on the same details that we’ve read, and it’s one of those solutions where every puzzle piece fits together in a neat way that you could have never imagined.  Not a classic, but this is the type of solution that we’re all looking for when we read these books.  The solution is the strong point where The Howling Beast beats out The House that Kills.  While the latter featured a number of impossibilities, the scheme behind it all was pretty easy to see through, resulting in transparent illusions.  The Howling Beast on the other hand includes a complex scheme that I doubt many will see through, so it wins on that account.

With that said, The House that Kills is a much more fun book to read, with nearly the entire story being a spiraling blur of puzzles and action.  The Howling Beast takes its time getting to the destination, and while it never drags, this is much more of the traditional mystery where you wait until the denouement for the satisfaction.  On that account I think that I’m going to say The House that Kills is the book I’d recommend.

Who cares who wins though? These are both great books, and you should seek them out.  I have two more Vindry novels on my shelf and I’m hoping that Locked Room International releases more before my well goes dry.

11 thoughts on “The Howling Beast – Noel Vindry (1934)”

  1. Clearly I need to revisit THE HOUSE THAT KILLS. I’ve read every Vindry *except* THE HOWLING BEAST, and I didn’t love any of them, but I thought the most highly of THE HOUSE THAT KILLS. Not by a lot, mind you.

    THE HOUSE THAT KILLS to me used impossible crime premises so old-fashioned, I was divining solutions the story would use form murders that hadn’t even happened yet, based on the description of the setting and the kinds of locked-rooms that it’d have to include, and that’s just embarrassed for a mystery in my opinion..

    But now I’m struck by the fact that I don’t actually even remember what the solutions I guessed are except the first one, so maybe I can reread it sometime soon…

    Oh yeah, and you and TomCat both make THE HOWLING BEAST sound so good I obviously must read it! Thanks for the review!

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    1. Yeah, the central conceit of The House that Kills is really easy to see through, and yet the frantic pace makes it so much fun. Like you I barely recall what the actual impossibilities were because my mind wasn’t fixated on solving them.

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  2. Vindry seems to have breathed pretty rarefied air, as each of the our books thus far translated vary hugely in tone, construction, and purpose. The Double Alibi has another minor impossible element, but is so crazy in its scheming that I couldn’t help but love it, and the structure of The House That Kills — detective solves the crime and is then impossibly attacked halfway through the book — is massively convention-baiting.

    Hopefully he continues to delight you, as I find he huge fun and very difficult to match for the solidity of his construction and the sheer damn Frenchness of his schemes. Who knows how many more we’ll get, but I expect to enjoy everything I read by him.

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  3. The Howling Beast is definitely the best of the Vindry translations so far and one of the better French mysteries to come out of LRI. I agree that it needed a map, or two, of the castle.

    You’re certainly in the minority on The House That Kills, but I’ve some good news for you. If you loved the spiraling blur of puzzles and impossibilities that was The House That Kills, you’ll probably enjoy Vindry’s Through the Wall with half a dozen impossibilities strung together. The ending suffers from the same flaws as The House That Kills (transparent illusions), but I can see what Vindry tried to do with the plot and puzzles (see my review).

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    1. There’s something that I love about the bravado of trying to jam a half dozen impossibilities into a novel. The Seven Wonders of Crime, The House That Kills, Rim of the Pit, The Stingaree Murders, Wilders Walk Away… Even though the individual crimes don’t necessarily pay out, there’s something breathtaking about it all coming together. Of course, I just listed some really solid books, so maybe there are cases where the author fumbles.

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      1. The problem with going hog wild is the obligation to deliver two, three really good solutions and preferably a central impossibility with a glimmer of originality to the trick (The Stingaree Murders). So the more impossibilities you add, the more difficult it becomes to make the ending stand up to its premise. Richard Ellington’s Exit for a Dame has five of them and Taku Ashibe’s Murder in the Red Chamber more than six, but the overall quality is not there and why they never turn up on any locked room best-of list. In my experience, the best manageable number of locked rooms/impossible crimes with the highest success rate is three or four. Two good recent examples are Carver’s The Author is Dead and The Red Death Murders by some British guy whose name escapes me right now.

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  4. I was very unimpressed by the solution to The House That Kills. I enjoyed the start, but felt it was a letdown overall. The other Vendry I have read I don’t remember much about. I’ll put the Howling Beast far down my TBR pile.

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