Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Eight Strokes of the Clock by Maurice Leblanc

This collection of short stories is one of a number featuring famed detective Arsene Lupin, though in this case acting under the pseudonym of "Serge Renine".

Maurice Leblanc
Source: The 1709 Blog
Often described as France's answer to Arthur Conan Doyle, Leblanc spent much of his career writing Lupin mysteries. The adventures were hugely popular, and The Eight Strokes of the Clock was nominated by Ellery Queen as one of the top 125 detective fiction novels ever.

The plot follows Renine as he meets Hortense Daniel, and quickly develops an affinity for her. After freeing her from a controlling uncle in the first story, Renine exposes her to a life of adventure and mystery in an attempt to win her heart.

The Eight Strokes of the Clock

The collection of short stories is available in its entirety for free at Project Gutenberg. If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here).

Author: Maurice Leblanc
Date: 1922
Word Count: 63,000 (about 250 pages)

Serge Renine is an absorbing character who deciphers mysteries with his powers of observation and his skill for compelling argument. His quest to seduce Hortense Daniel propels the two of them through a eclectic mix of mysteries, each of which offers a unique puzzle for the reader.

Many of the stories are essentially independent from one another, so I have included a brief synopsis and review of each below:

On the Top of the Tower
After a plan to elope from her mundane life fails, Hortense Daniel joins adventurer Serge Renine to investigate a mysterious chateaux. When they find the bodies of two people in a neighbouring castle, the pair discover that Hortense's bungled attempt may have had unanticipated consequences.

An interesting mystery with a few initially puzzling details. It may wrap up a bit too nicely, but provides a promising start to Hortense and Renine's partnership.

The Water Bottle
A man has been murdered and sixty thousand francs stolen, however even facing the guillotine cannot convince the accused to admit the crime. It is up to Prince Renine to prove his innocence and recover the stolen funds.

Focusing the story around the missing bank notes, Leblanc glosses over how the murder was committed in the first place. The water bottle of the title refers to the incidental use of said object as a burning glass, concentrating the sun's rays to start a fire. It's a familiar trick that adds a small amount of intrigue to an otherwise by-the-numbers mystery.

The Case of Jean Louis
Hortense and Renine investigate the strange detachment of a friend's fiancee. Upon discovering the intricacies of his home life, Renine takes it upon himself to provide insight into a bizarre setup.

Jean Louis' private life is both curious and contrived. Relying on a series of coincidences, there is little mystery to the story. Instead, Leblanc chooses to set the events 25 years prior to Renine's investigation, which reduces the impact of the story significantly. A unique tale but not one of his best.

The Tell-Tale Film
When the performances in a film seem too realistic to be purely fictional, Renine suspects the villain may wish to harm the heroin in reality. The actress disappears without warning, and Renine must ensure her safety before the police catch the scent.

Though the concept is somewhat forced, this is an entertaining story of the pursuit of a victim and her captor. Not all is as it seems, and the dynamic between the characters shifts as the tale progresses.

Therese and Germaine
A man is found alone in a locked cabin, stabbed in the back. When the murder weapon is later found in his wife's bag, all fingers point to her...

Story and full review available for free here.

The Lady with the Hatchet
Hortense is abducted by a serial killer known as "The Lady with the Hatchet", and has only days left to live. Renine must find and save her before time runs out.

The involvement of Hortense makes this story a little more personal to Renine, however the mystery itself is one of Leblanc's more far-fetched. The serial killer's motive makes little sense, even once the details have been revealed.

Footprints in the Snow
One set of footprints leads to the scene of a disturbance, and a different set leads away. With the victim missing, where is the body? And how did the assailant traverse over fields of snow without leaving any footprints?

Story and full review available for free here.

At the Sign of Mercury
Renine sends Hortense on a mysterious quest to retrieve a long-lost  clasp. Her adventure leads to a dramatic confrontation with the current owner, who is not inclined to give it up easily.

Concluding the book with a story set-up from the very beginning is a nice touch, with Renine engineering a solo mission for Hortense. It offers a subtle sense of satisfaction and resolution, despite being only a short story. Renine's prowess in the ways of argument are once again demonstrated, and the verbal sparring is some of Leblanc's best.

7/10 - Featuring two impossible crimes, this collection of short mystery stories offers much to be enjoyed.

The Eight Strokes of the Clock short story collection is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US).

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