Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is there a murderer in the house?

Ten academics have converged to the Swiss town of Meiringen, right next to the Reichenbach Falls, where the world’s greatest detective once duelled with the world’s foremost criminal genius. The purpose of their visit? It is an academic convention, during which the esteemed Prof. Bobo will choose one suitable candidate to become the head of the first-ever Department of Sherlockiana at the Sorbonne. It would be an incredible honour to be chosen for this position, and the academics jealously guard their secrets, each convinced that their revelations on the Canon will be more stunning than the last. Getting snowed in and effectively cut off from the outside world was unfortunate, but the convention must go on!

But before long, a much deadlier game begins. It begins with Prof. Rodriguez, who makes a stunning revelation at the dinner table, only to plunge down the staircase later that night. Another academic gets crushed by some gym equipment. As the number of academics slowly dwindles, the living must fend for themselves. After all, the killer must be one of the people trapped in the Hotel Baker Street…

This is the plot behind J. M. Erre’s Le Mystère Sherlock (The Sherlock Mystery; 2012), a French detective novel inspired. The set-up is pure And Then There Were None, but this book is a very different beast from Christie’s novel. It struck me very much like the movie Scream, a self-aware horror movie that was very funny to watch. Similarly, this book is aware that it is a mystery. When the characters discover a copy of And Then There Were None in one of the suspects’ bedrooms, they take all the precautions that they can, based on the plot twist of Christie’s novel. Yet this book isn’t really one of psychological suspense and terror – this is far more of a comedy, with absurd murder methods, an insane cast of suspects, and plenty of puns and wordplay.

In a way, this is the novel’s greatest strength and its greatest failure. Because the solution requires a sense of paranoia and terror from the suspects, instead of all the banter and wordplay that we had going. The solution presented as a result is one of the most surprising I’ve ever come across, and yet not completely satisfying… and maybe that’s why the author backtracks a bit at the end, to give a slightly-altered, more palatable solution. I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that there’s an element of mad genius in the solution which went against all of my expectations as a mystery reader, especially one familiar with And Then There Were None. It’s a major risk, but I think it just clears over the bar and pays off.

But Christie is not the lone inspiration for this book, as the author also combines the best of Sherlock Holmes into the mix. He’s very well-represented, and J. M. Erre is either a Sherlockian at heart or doing the best impression of a Sherlockian I can remember seeing in print. All the talks of Holmes, Moriarty, & Co. are positively delightful, with such themes as “Sherlock Holmes vs. the Oysters, a Psychotextual Analysis of an Alimentary Phobia”. We discover Holmes’ relationships with Mrs. Hudson, with Watson, with Arsène Lupin, and with the early days of film! The spirit of Sherlockiana is here in its finest, noblest form – the author is playing the game for its own sake. Although there’s plenty of humour at the expense of detective stories, it’s a good-natured sort of humour which seems to have genuine admiration at its heart.

And as a small bonus, one of the final deaths is an apparently-impossible decapitation with a solution John Dickson Carr never used (to my knowledge). Interested yet? If so, I’ve done my job. Le Mystère Sherlock is a delightful book. It’s clever, it’s witty, it’s fun, and the solution will have you tearing your hair out – either in frustration or in admiration. It’s wonderful to know books like this can still be written.

My sincere thanks to the writing team behind the book 1001 Chambres Closes (1001 Locked Rooms) for bringing this book to my attention. I will have more to say about 1001 Chambres Closes in the near future.


  1. If only someone would translate it into English!

  2. Italian versions would be really great also! Thanks Patrick (linguistic barrier frustration notwithstanding)