"What we need is some fearless iconoclast who will come out boldly against this damnable tyranny, saying ‘Fiction is stranger than truth.’"- Henri Bencolin (The Lost Gallows, 1931)
When the 20th century dawned, there was hope that science and reason would usher in an age of reason. It was to be an era in which logic and education would expel the hobgoblins from the dark nooks and crannies of our minds, like a nightmare after turning on a bedside lamp, but humans are a stubborn breed and dragging them from a hansom cab to shove them into a space shuttle was not enough to make them stop believing in ghosts and miracles.
An example of such a miracle in modern times can be found in the belly of Monte Verita (Hill of Truth), situated in the Swiss town Ascona, where a mystic proclaiming to be the reincarnation of Christian Rosenkreutz, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, settled down in the mountain during the early 1900s, however, the locals were anything but hospitable towards them and their leader decided to lock himself up in a grotto – in order to reflect, meditate and pray. The entrance of the grotto was sealed with rocks, nobody was able to get in or out, but when they returned, after four days, to release their leader from his self-imposed imprisonment, all they found was an empty cavern! His disappearance was left unexplained, but even greater mysteries lay ahead when the town, in 1938, hosted a worldwide convention on the detective story and thus begins Jean-Paul Török's L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007) – a well-written homage to John Dickson Carr with a plot that twists and turns like an insomniac snake.
Török is a French movie historian, critic, scenarist, director and apparently has a professorship in narratology and wrote this gem with malice aforethought as a traditional whodunit – drawing heavily on the works of the grandmaster of the locked room mystery. In fact, Török skillfully weaved the plot in such a way that it finished with the same sentence as (the French translation of) The Burning Court (1937), but you could also find vestiges of other Carr novels in the plot.
Solange is a woman who could've easily substituted for Fey Seton or Lesley Grant, who, at the opening of this book, accompanies her newly wed husband, Pierre Garnier, to the mystery conference in Ascona – where she becomes the heroine in something that eerily resembles one of the novels that her Uncle Arthur pens for a living. Pierre is a man who has done his homework on the detective story and is looking forward to spending time among kindred spirits, but even the crisp, clean air of the Swiss countryside is eventually polluted with the toxic fumes emanating from Nazi Germany. A German psychiatrist, police consultant and card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, Dr. Hoenig, turns up and challenges one of the lectures, who claims that impossible crimes are only perpetrated by fictional criminals, stating that he will prove him wrong in a lecture, of his own, that will expose a secret – and makes his sinister purpose clear beforehand in a conversation with Pierre. Dr. Hoenig claims that he has, in his capacity as a police consultant, knowledge of the fact that his wife has buried three husbands, which were most likely murders disguised as suicides and a natural death, two of them discovered inside a locked room, but can Pierre believe that his wife is multiple murderess – even though he has to admit that he knows very little about her past.
Naturally, Dr. Hoenig never had a ghost of a chance to deliver on his promise as a woman, wearing a headscarf, stabs him in front of two policemen and seals up the house from within before disappearing as if in a puff of smoke. The body of Dr. Hoenig also disappears from the locked premise after it was discovered and was even seen walking the streets with a knife sticking in his back, before he ended up in the grotto with the solid bars, covering the only entrance, still in tact. The efficient Brenner of the Swiss police is put on the case, but the expertise of the mystery writer and impossible crime expert, Sir Arthur Carter Gilbert, is needed to successfully fiddle with the lock of this sealed room and he goes about it in a way that immediately recalls H.M. and Dr. Gideon Fell.
The patterns that emerge from this plot are pleasant to watch and fans of John Dickson Carr will recognize a lot of similarities between this book and the work of the master himself, some of them are pointed out in the back of the book, but I also have to admit that the locked room scenarios weren't very original. I immediately spotted and worked out the false solution, which was nonetheless an admirably done reworking of a trick that I have seen more than once, and the correct one was literarily a redressing of one of the oldest tricks in the book. It was done well and fitted the story, but it plays too much like the original and this familiarity tends to make this a predicable story for readers who know their classics.
But rest assured, this took, for me anyway, nothing away from the book, not only because it was written by someone who knew what he was writing about, but also enjoyed writing it, and for a "mere" pastiche this is an absolute first rate effort! Predictability aside, The Riddle of Monte Verita wonderfully captures and evokes the glory days of the detective story, when plots were allowed to roam unshackled and free to explore even the ridiculous. However, we will vehemently deny to our last breath that Harry Stephen Keeler is part of the mystery genre. See? His name doesn't even link to a GADwiki profile page. I told you, not one of our writers.