book review

Some spoilery thoughts on The Howling Beast

If I write about a book, there will usually be spoilers. The mechanics are more interesting for me to discuss, and I have no talent for reviewing. So read no further unless you have read The Howling Beast. (and ffs, read The Howling Beast)

Noel Vindry’s novel was a delight for many reasons, but not the ones I had expected. While vomiting a first draft of The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire , it has become apparent I need to brush up on(learn, really) the gothic language of vampire stories. I figure immersing myself in those sorts of novels will allow me to indulge in vampiric atmospherics whenever my novel requires them. THB was recommended to me as a provider of such ambiance. After reading it, I’d have to say…not quite, but kind of.

To be sure, there are howling beasts, and a shadowy castle, and moors and candelabras and all that jazz but, my friend, this is a detective story through and through. All that stuff is window dressing in the best tradition of the puzzler distraction. Because it’s told in flashback with the reader as M. Allou (telling Herry to continue about two-dozen times), this is nothing more than a well-hidden accumulation of details, barely functioning as narrative. In that regard, it’s as pure as Van Dine’s constant gaze of the detective—just replace him with a suspect.

Here we come to the absolute genius of the book. Essentially, it is broken into two parts: the events from four years ago and shit that happened last week. My heart began to sink around page 50 or so because I saw through the story. I knew Saint-Luce had attacked Herry and then fled to his room. You’d have to be brain dead not to see it. Carlovitch’s fate was also obvious (at least the devouring of his corpse). How would I be able to enjoy this book? Hasn’t everyone else seen through this poorly-hidden piece of subterfuge? Granted, I had not figured out everything regarding Sonia (we’ll talk more about her later), but I knew the basic thrust of what had occurred.

Then comes the second half. Now we come to a puzzle so intricately plotted that I doubted my original observation. This has happened before, and it’s usually frightfully disappointing. It goes something like this: Oh, it’s that shit explanation I considered about sixty pages back. I’ve been trying to think of the difference in THB, and I come back to the distraction of atmospherics.

One of the problems of introducing a supernatural element in the detective story is disbelief. I know the writer’s not going to end the story with a supernatural explanation. If you’re a good enough writer, you can entice the reader to suspend that disbelief. It’s a contract really. In the second half of THB, I forgot I didn’t believe. I was enjoying myself that much.

Once the detective becomes active, we are treated to a neat series of solutions although a few characters are privy to information I’m not certain they should have. Overall, it’s an immensely satisfying package with the various elements (gothic, detective, policier) playing their proper roles and allowing the machine to function.

You could say the characters are paper thin, but I would argue the reader’s imagination is far greater than anything that can be typed onto the page. I provided enough information to allow these characters to behave how they needed to behave and, despite the scant descriptions, I knew exactly how they looked and sounded.

Now, about Sonia. She is both a strength and a weakness. Her eyes, raised at the corners like those of a cat, were totally expressionless. Her cheekbones, slightly too prominent, added to her charm. I lived in Europe for 10 years. I met that woman several times. I know her very well. Sonia’s ultimate motivation(s) and her indulgences in love triangles (pentagons?) add wonderfully hidden layers to the puzzle and yet…she has no rhyme or reason half the time. I’m sorry, but I traced some of it back, and this woman does things that no quickly blurted, one-line explanations can possibly justify. Oh well. Just like the supernatural elements, I could suspend my disbelief until the gendarmes were brought in.

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7 thoughts on “Some spoilery thoughts on The Howling Beast”

  1. I know the writer’s not going to end the story with a supernatural explanation.

    This, to an extent, is the precise problem with the supernatural in detective fiction. You get glimmers of the eldritch possibilities — He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr, The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter, The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie, Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher, Mr. Splitfoot by Helen McCloy, Too Many Ghosts and The Hand of Mary Constable by Paul Gallico — but it takes something damn special (The Footprints of Satan by Norman Berrow, Murder on the Way by Theodore Roscoe, Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot…) to stop you looking ahead to the inevitable rational dismissal of it all. When it works, hot damn doesn’t it ever work, however.

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    1. Yeah, that’s what I’m suddenly worried about. It’s fine to have a theory (well-presented impossibilities and a thick atmosphere will engender conditional acceptance), but actually pulling it off is another matter.

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  2. But…

    I didn’t solve it…

    Well, sort of. I figured that Saint-Luce had killed Carlovitch but had been injured in the struggle, and so deliberately startled Herry in order to claim that the injury was from the fight with him, so I gave myself a quarter-point. But the stuff about the hyenas I never even guessed at.

    But it’s a very solid book, better than the other one of his I’ve read (The House That Kills) even though both have the same set-up of people in a fortress/fortress-like location under siege from someone who ignores those locks and bolts. The puzzle is simple, but it’s taken apart piece by piece, and it works very well. There is a subtle horror to the whole thing, both with the pit of crazed hyenas and the simple fear that the nice friend whose house you’re staying in plans to beat you to death in your sleep. Simple but effective, at least for someone like me.

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    1. My apologies for my phrasing. I always post under the assumption no one is reading — the opposite of what I should do. Also, keep in my mind that my reaction was so extreme because I’m often so horribly wrong.

      The proximity of the atack on Herry and the fake attack on Saint-Luce is what keyed me onto it so much. So close, so quick together. Vidry could have lengthened the distance (even narratively) and I my not have seen it so clearly.

      Agree with you about the subtle horror. I went in thinking this was a werewolf tale and wondering which of these characters was about to transform.

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