book review

The Seventh Guest

Let’s discuss what Gaston Boca’s The Seventh Guest is not.

1. It is not a fairly-clued mystery. Much like Death out of Nowhere (a more enjoyable novel IMHO), there is nothing within these pages to challenge the wits of the reader. In fact, the majority of evidence is off the page. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. Part 3 of this novel is a drawn-out explanation of the first two-thirds. One reason it’s so drawn-out is because it must introduce all the evidence that didn’t accompany the previous action.

2. It is not thrilling. Call me an American savage (please), but I believe that during an evening of madness; murder; and impossibility, the temperature should rise above a simmer. Yes, mysteries tend to have contemplative scenes of reflection, but when the shit goes down, it should involve the reader more than it does here.

Our story begins with two detectives receiving a rather vague (and fragrant) invitation to Nanteuil. Upon their arrival, they discover a body hanging by a rope in a shed. Only one set of footprints lead to the structure. It must be suicide, only…well, the man has traces of lipstick on his mouth and the shed reeks of the perfume that came with the invitation. The detectives finally meet the woman responsible for bringing them, along with her husband and the other servants working at the gated estate.

The police arrive and one them (a professional detective) stays late into the night making further inquiries. When the entire party attempts to leave, they find themselves locked inside for the night.

It is here, as they search the grounds for the person who tampered with the gate, when things should get thrilling. My pulse should be at least tested–with my cholesterol levels, this is not a difficult task–as the group encounters various impossibilities, including a floating hand, doors that open and shut on their own, and gunshots in the dark.

And yet, none of this is particularly exciting. I was never worried for any of the characters. Speaking of which…

3. Most of the characters aren’t interesting. Our story is narrated by the lesser of our private detectives (he is basically a Watson), Dutheil. He tells us his thoughts throughout the story, and I still don’t know what he was thinking. The professional detective loses his gun at one point and is mildly taken aback. Seriously, it’s like a minor inconvenience; he starts drinking almost right away. At some points during the narrative, characters laugh or rage, and I don’t know why, even in retrospect. These people act and behave…I was about to say in accordance to the needs of the plot, but even that doesn’t explain them.

The best part of the book involves a Christie-like backstory for the one fascinating character, Jeanne d’Arlon. Her journey is clever, intriguing, and emotionally satisfying. Her story is a tragedy with enormous payoff. The woman’s final image (I can’t be too specific here) is brilliant, the sort of apt switcheroo deserving of a true murder mystery to accompany it. I mention Christie because this part of the book is right up her blood-stained alley.

I don’t want to steer any readers in the wrong direction; TSG will not satisfy like the usual fare I talk about on this website. The best part of is the backstory, but it’s not skillfully tied to the narrative proper.

TSG reminded me a lot of the public-domain mysteries on Libravox. When I was writing Goodnight Irene, I’d go to bed with old mysteries playing in my headphones, hoping to soak up the elements in my subconscious. They weren’t brilliant, but they were generally entertaining. TSG is generally entertaining. If you are seeking to complete your Locked Room International collection (a noble goal!) by all means buy the physical copy. If, however, you are interested in the premise, this is a Kindle buy. It’s not bad.

9 thoughts on “The Seventh Guest”

  1. I like these overbaked French concoctions — the plots are frequently batty, and they bring to mind some rattling death-trap of a car that may or may not stop when you lean on the breaks: unpredictable, and not always enjoyable.

    I went in for the atmosphere of this a bit more than you did, but I agree that the characters seem to jump around all over the place and so don’t really fix in the memory. And, I gotta say, I don’t remember the solution to that shed-based footprints problem…which, given my love of a footprints problem, surprises me,

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    1. Ur pneevrq ure gb gur furq, fb uvf sbbgcevagf ner qrrcre guna gurl jbhyq unir orra. Jura fur jnyxf bhg, gur sbbgcevagf ner svyyrq jvgu jngre naq fur fgrcf va uvf cevagf. Vg’f haqrejuryzvat, gb fnl gur yrnfg. Vg qvq pnhfr zr gb guvax bs tbbq jnlf gb pyhr gval srrg. Nyy V pbhyq guvax bs jrer greevoyr jnlf vaibyivat qrgrpgvirf jvgu sbbg srgvfurf.

      I kept thinking about what other authors would have done with that room. It’s a fine set-up in need of a more rigorous payoff.

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  2. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thought this was a pretty underwhelming release. Aside from some bits of atmosphere-building, I can barely remember any of it. The payoff for the one character at the end you mentioned is alright, but I don’t think the journey up to that point is interesting enough to make it worthwhile on its own.

    I’m also not surprised this one reminded you of public domain works, because I’m pretty sure this one IS a public domain work being translated to English. In fact, I think that’s been LRI’s strategy for most of their recent French translations (sans Halter)…

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  3. “…I’m pretty sure this one IS a public domain work…”

    No doubt. I meant more as to the old-fashioned mode of story-telling. I’m also aware that French impossible-crime mysteries (Halter excluded) are of a different taste than other culture.

    Gur svany vzntr bs Wrnaar/urebgureanzr va n oynpx irvy nggraqvat gur shareny bs ure pbhfva vf fhoyvzryl cerfragrq. Gung’f jung erzvaqrq zr bs Puevfgvr fb zhpu. Gung vzntr (naq gur onpxfgbel) qrfreirf n orggre abiry.

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    1. “I’m also aware that French impossible-crime mysteries (Halter excluded) are of a different taste than other culture.”

      …I was going to say something like “I can’t really think of anything that makes the French stories LRI has put out decisively French”, but thinking about Vindry’s novels and the public domain ones, I guess they are all pretty simple in characters and the narration is pretty dry and to the point most of the time… But it’s not like they’re the only ones guilty of that sin when it comes to mystery fiction; it’s more just a thing I’d conclude when looking at the sample size LRI gives, on the whole.

      Still — maybe that’s why, on the whole, I haven’t really been a fan of them (besides maybe Death out of Nowhere…)

      Maybe. Probably. Guess I can’t say I’ve read too many French mysteries to judge accurately.

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  4. John Pugmire of Locked Room International wanted to set the record straight about certain copyright issues. WordPress was working against him 🙂 , so he asked me to post for him.

    “Just for the record, I don’t grub around in dustbins for French remnants to publish. And items only get into the public domain seventy years after the death of the author, not after any particular publishing company’s rights expire.

    On the contrary, I make every effort to pay royalties, where the rights owner can be determined (witness my honkaku publications), which is often not the case with French Golden Age classics, given that many of them were written 90 to 100 years ago.

    I am on a mission to publish at least one book by each of the best writers of that period, as determined by Roland Lacourbe’s 1000 Chambres Closes. I use the Bibliotheque Nationale de France’s official website to find the rights owner and, if found, I contact them directly. If not, as is often the case, I print an invitation to contact me on the rights page of every novel. In the case of Marcel Lanteaume, for example, The Thirteenth Bullet was, surprisingly, never republished, even though his other two novels were. Nevertheless, I tried without success to contact his son for his permission, and have also written to the rights owner of his other two novels, without response so far.

    Generally speaking, I do not read a French Golden Age classic before starting a translation, so as to keep the element of surprise for myself and so, hopefully, make the finished text seem fresher. I agree that The Seventh Guest’s structure was rather odd, but that’s how it was written, and at least non-French-speaking readers can now judge for themselves, whereas previously they couldn’t.

    It may well be true that some of these classics lack the flair and audacity of today’s honkaku novels, but they were written at a time when society was more formal, so donnez-moi un break!

    No hard feelings.

    Amicably

    John P.”

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    1. I appreciate the response!

      To be clear, I didn’t imagine that the intent was ever to go and pick out existing public domain works; I apologize if it came off like that.

      If it’s a choice between having and not having the works, I’ll obviously take the works, since even when I feel the writing fails, the crime always has the potential to shine.

      (Also, if WordPress gives trouble when trying to leave a reply, try logging out and logging in again. I don’t know why it’s like that, but I’m always logging on Twitter and that’s usually what I’ve pretty much always gotta do.)

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      1. I should also clarify that using the word “strategy” wasn’t the best choice of me, since it definitely implied that works were intentionally being seeked out because of lack of copyright. I meant more that it would be a natural consequence that Golden Age works — especially ones as obscure as the ones being published — would naturally start rolling into the public domain or generally lack copyright holding.

        Again, my apologies if it seemed like I was somehow attacking your intentions here.

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