"Unfortunately, murderers nowadays are very perspicacious. They sometimes even impress me as a bunch who set-up a murder in a locked room just to tease us."- Martin Méroy (Du plomb pour la famille, 1959)
It was a brief, but nonetheless absorbing, exchange on the faults and merits of French detective stories that lead me to the works of Martin Méroy – a copious writer of soft-boiled fiction chronicling the adventures of a Parisian shamus living in New York, coincidently sharing the author's name, who has a penchant for coming across impossible crimes. The first book I took on, Meartre en Chambre Noir (Murder in a Darkened Room, 1965), was a fast-paced, breezily narrated tale that pulled off a sealed room routine with enough skill and aplomb to warrant a follow-up – which brings me to Du plomb pour la famille (Lead for the Family, 1959).
In Du plomb pour la famille, Martin Méroy journeys back to his homeland at the request of Cornelius Capehardt, a wealthy and influential presence on the international stock market, who has been receiving a string of forbidding, type-written notes prophesizing the undesirable comforts of an early grave – and it's up to Méroy to deflect any attempts at prematurely closing the book on the life of his new employer. But shortly after arriving at the heavily guarded family estate, La Commanderie, he observes that the nebulous would-be killer could be lurking within the confines of Capehardt's own household – a conclusion strengthened when a sniper takes aim and one of the guards ends up eating a bullet that was supposed to be served to Méroy!
The plot construction here is interesting in that it's designed from a varied arrange of elements of the genre and it worked surprisingly well. There's the archetypical dysfunctional family, and assorted impaired characters, inhabiting an ancestral home ruled over by a patriarch, who evidently escaped from the pages of an obscure, 1920s British country house mystery, while the gumshoe and narrative voice represents the American style. But there also scenes of action and suspense intertwined with a reasonably fair play, puzzle orientated plot that involves collaring a killer and solving a bona fide locked room problem.
Yeah. Just like in the previous book I read, Méroy's best efforts proved to be futile in preventing the murder of another, high-paying client – in spite of the victim locking himself in a secret, windowless room, in which a valuable art collection is displayed for private viewing, and the only hidden entrance is located in a nearly impenetrable and tightly secured study. Martin Méroy may be one of the best detectives in the business, but he's a lousy bodyguard.
I have to say, though, that I have mixed feelings about the solution that explained the shooting in the private museum, which should've prompted me to mutter "cheater" under my breath as I put the book down with a bitterly disappointed look on my face, however, it was logical, fairly clued and presented in such a manner that I slowly started to like the idea after a while. The explanation is still workmanlike rather artistically inspired, but it says something in favor of the author's talent if he can propose such a solution and still leave a reasonable satisfied reader.
A fast-paced writing style and an engagingly conceived plot is the tout ensemble of this novel and I have to stress the fact that it provided me with more entertainment than I expected from it. The prose may be a distant cry from the lines that were committed to paper by Raymond Chandler and missing the grandeur of a plot conceptualized by John Dickson Carr, but it's not the cheap, penny-a-liner pulp it masquerades as, either. It's actually a clever detective story, in a simplistic and straightforward manner, and one that I definitely recommend for a quick read, in between books, if you can get your hands on a copy.
Foreign mysteries discussed on this blog spot:
The Trampled Peony (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
The Last Chance (M.P.O. Books, 2011)
Death in Dream Time (S.H. Courtier, 1959)
Murder During the Final Exams (Tjalling Dix, 1957)
Elvire Climbs the Tower (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, 1956)
The Black-Box Murder (Maarten Maartens, 1898)
Lead for the Family (Martin Méroy, 1959)
Murder in a Darkened Room (Martin Méroy, 1965)
The Sins of Father Knox (Josef Skvorecky, 1973)
Case Closed, volume 38: On the Ropes (review of Case Closed)
The Melody of Logic Must Be Played Truthfully (discussing Spiral: The Bonds or Reasoning)
Kindaichi: The Good, The Bad and The Average (dicussing The Kindaichi Case Files)
Amnesia Labyrinth, vol 1 (review)