This 1943 novel by Noël Corbu has been summarized by Beatrice Frouté de Domec,
who also provides a translation, at the end, of the 2005 Preface by Claire Corbu & Antoine Captier.
Le Mort Cambrioleur
THE LIVING-DEAD THIEF
The Ghost Thief?
The Thief of Death?
The Dead Thief?
On Christmas Eve at the Imperial Hall in London at around 1:00 am the lights go out for a few moments and then suddenly a woman’s scream is heard. When the lights come back on, Lord Malfeston’s body is lying lifeless on the ground. An inspector Adam is called to the scene bringing a friend of his, Georgie Gray, to investigate the death. Lady Malfeston is discovered to be the woman who screamed earlier, and she is joined by her four friends who were at the party as well, Lawrence Sidney, Frank Burton, Lord Aymeri, and Richard Walls. They decide to take her home and watch the body overnight, which is being transported by ambulance to their domicile. It seems Lord Malfeston has had a heart attack, and the coroner decides to sign the burial certificate without further delay.
That same night, while Lady Malfeston, sedated by the doctor, is sleeping soundly, her four friends who are watching over Lord Malfeston, finally fall asleep around 4:00 am. It’s about that time when Robert, Lady Malfeston’s chauffeur, comes back drunk from his own partying, and not being able to sleep, he grabs his flashlight and decides to come down from the second floor where his room is to the ground floor where the kitchen is so he can pour himself a glass of water. Reaching the first floor, he hears some noise and flashes his light towards the hallway where he sees a discontented Lord Malfeston leaving his wife’s bedroom. Robert apologizes and rushes down the stairs to the kitchen, not knowing that it was an oddity that he should have seen his Master alive when he was found dead earlier.
The morning after, Lady Malfeston discovers that her jewelry is missing from the safe, and she finds a note there in what looks like Lord Malfeston’s handwriting: “I’m giving you back your freedom; you can certainly repay me with some of your jewelry.” The safe has not been broken into, and the only people with the key and combination are Lord and Lady Malfeston. The inspector Adam is called back in, who interrogates everyone in the house, including Robert, who then explains that he did see Lord Malfeston coming out of his wife’s bedroom and now, come to think of it, that his pockets looked stuffed up. The dead body is still lying in bed, however, so everyone is quite puzzled and cannot reconcile Robert’s testimony with the corpse.
It is then decided that the burial will go on as scheduled.
In the meantime the newspaper has printed out the story of “Le Mort Cambrioleur,” the ghost thief, and two crooks, Tom Bene and Drake, reading this, come up with their own story about the case. They figure that one of the guests did steal the jewelry and hid it on the dead body and will go retrieve it after the burial that same night, and it could only be a matter of being first at the scene for them to become rich. They proceed to the cemetery around 11:00pm and enter the mausoleum where Lord Malfeston is buried. They exhume the body and while searching for the jewels, a hand starts grabbing and holding on to Bene, who begins screaming in dismay as Lord Malfeston lifts himself up to a sitting position inside his coffin. The two thieves escape and run away as fast as they can.
Without further clues, the story eventually dies out, and Scotland Yard decides to file it as an unsolved mystery.
Two years later.
Alan Freme, a famous romance novelist is having writer’s block for his new story soon due to his publisher and isolates himself at a remote house outside London, surrounded by trees and ponds. Feeling hungry, he decides to drive his convertible to the city, only 10 minutes away. It is foggy, and he sees a light coming from the opposite direction that is approaching far too fast. The onrushing car collides with his, and he is thrown into the bushes and loses consciousness. Three days later, he wakes up from his delirium with what seems to be a burned leg in what he thinks is a hospital. When his nurse explains how catastrophic the wreck was that he had been in, he realizes that eleven people died in the accident and three were wounded. In fact, what he witnessed was a car chase between Scotland Yard and four car thieves that turned into a carnage, killing an entire family, two policemen, and the four thieves. Alan Freme actually burnt his leg while crawling out of the bushes to try to save some of the people caught in the fire. One of the policeman he saved happens to be his friend Georgie Gray (Inspector Adam’s assistant, remember) , who enters Alan’s room to welcome him back to the world from his delirium of three days. To occupy their joint convalescence, Georgie tells Alan that he should write a mystery novel for once, instead of a romance novel, and maybe that would solve his writer’s block and maybe also, in the process, solve the mystery of the house they’re staying in. That’s when Freme gradually learns that he is not at a hospital but at Lady Malfeston’s castle, and that the nurse that he has fallen in love with is not a nurse, but Lady Malfeston herself, who has also fallen in love with him. Freme decides that Georgie’s idea is good and that he is going to solve the mystery while writing a great book.
One afternoon the three—Alan, Georgie, and Lady Malfeston--decide to go on a boat ride, and while on the water, they cross the wake of a fast motorboat whose driver seems to be one of her friends, Lawrence Sidney. But she finds this odd since she had just received a postcard from him, that same day, that was sent from Scotland where his estate is. In fact, not only does he does not live anywhere close to where they are, neither does he have any friends living in the area besides her where he could stay. Puzzled, she decides to call him at home in Scotland on the pretense of inviting him to a party to celebrate Alan Freme’s recovery, figuring he will never answer the phone. So you can imagine her surprise when he actually answers the phone but then explains that there has been an identity theft of his name and persona from someone who looks just like him and acts just like him. He has filed a formal claim, but his opponent has done the same and has been bullying him since then. Lawrence Sidney #1, the one in Scotland, accepts the invitation to the party, and Georgie Gray announces that the second act of the murder mystery has begun.
That same night, Lord Aymeri comes to visit and tells everyone that they are wrong and that he saw Lawrence Sidney in London that same day, therefore he cannot be in Scotland. May Malfeston decides to go with Freme to London to Lawrence’s flat and see for herself. As they approach thunder breaks out, rain starts pouring down, and what seems like a scream is heard from the first floor. Freme rushes up and sees an open window at the end of the corridor with the shadow of a body underneath. He can hear the shadow moan, but while approaching the window he sees a striking ray of light, feels a sudden pain and falls unconscious. When he wakes up he realizes he’s been struck by lightning and that Robert, the chauffeur, has been murdered. He calls out to Georgie to call the police, but the phone line is dead. Meanwhile, a Lawrence Sidney, we’re not sure which one, who while driving his convertible was caught in the rain and found cover in Lady Malfeston’s garage, walks into the castle. A few moments later, May, back from London, walks in, followed by Lawrence Sidney #2. They grab each other’s throat as soon as they see each other, and stop fighting when the police walks in, after Georgie went to get them (since the phone was not working). It turns out that Robert was hit with a metal stick that is part of a display that stands next to the window where he was found. The police suspect right away Lawrence Sidney #1 as well as Lord Aymeri who happened to show up uninvited that night, caught also in the rainstorm.
After some investigating, it is clear that several things happened before the murder. First, Freme himself saw Lord Aymeri park his car inside the garage while looking through the hallway window when trying to reach Robert. Second, Lawrence Sidney claims that he saw one of the servants, Walter, at the castle, when in fact Walter remembers seeing Lawrence Sidney inside the garage when the events were unfolding. Third, it is mentioned that a staircase leads directly from the garage to the first floor, and, finally, according to Walter again, Lord Aymeri’s car was already parked in the garage when Lawrence Sidney showed up. Which in the end does not prove anything nor makes anyone a suspect to resolve the murder mystery since no fingerprints are found. Everyone then goes back to where they came from, leaving May, Freme and Georgie still without answers.
Freme decides to conduct his own investigation from there on, without really informing Georgie of his findings. A few days later, he goes to Lawrence’s flat in London to visit him. This Lawrence tells him about the first time he met his double, who was coming back from a Christmas party he went to with a friend of his, Richard Walls. When he entered his flat, his double was there and started beating him up, won the fight, and threw him out of his own flat. The following day he filed an official claim against him.
Freme decides then to go to the second Lawrence Sidney’s house, also in London, but no one is there to answer the door. While walking back in the heat of the day, a passerby reading a paper bumps into him and tries to steal his wallet. That is when he recognizes Bene, an old friend from his regiment who happened to have saved his life back in the war. Seeing that his former friend is in need, he forces him to follow him to his house in the woods to try to reconnect with him and help him out. While they are at the house, they hear some noises outside and while checking out the surroundings, they get shot at by a Lawrence Sidney that Bene happens to recognize as Lord Malfeston from his previous encounter at the cemetery two years ago. They escape the shooting and while driving back to the castle, Flowers Manor, Bene tells the whole story to Freme as it happened back then. Freme decides to hire him as his chauffeur as long as Bene promises to stay away from petty crimes. When they tell the story to Georgie, he asks May to show him old pictures of Lord Malfeston and Lawrence Sidney so as to compare the faces, to find to their stupefaction that with a moustache Lawrence Sidney is the exact copy of Lord Malfeston.
Freme decides to go back to Lawrence Sidney #1’s house who further explains to him that he never attended Lord Malfeston’s funeral nor did he know about the jewelry being stolen. He further explains that he only remembers going to sleep at the watch, and waking up a month later at a clinic without any more memories of anything.
Freme, still not satisfied with the story, goes back again the day after to visit with Lawrence #1 to try to get more information from him. He thinks by telling him all the events that have unfolded since Lord Malfeston’s death that he does not recall himself, it will show Lawrence his goodwill and allow him to trust Freme with further information. While Freme tells the story, Lawrence realizes that he is the only plausible suspect in Freme’s attempted shooting at his house, since he knows that Lawrence #2 is in Scotland and therefore could not have been there at the time. He decides then to open up to Freme to further deny his guilt, with the strict condition that he will not disclose some sensitive pieces of information. He also wants to know before preceding why Freme is so eager to solve the mystery that no one else has been able to do so far. Freme answers because he is madly in love with May and would like to offer her some closure. Lawrence then proceeds with his story: “May Stever’s father, a rich Scottish industrial, wanted his daughter to marry into nobility and forced her to marry Lord Malfeston. I was myself in love with May, but my fortune was not sufficient for her father because I did not have a name. I was so unhappy and disappointed that I started drinking and use morphine to the point of being fully addicted. May did not love her husband, but complied, and when her father died six months after the wedding, they moved from Scotland to England, and I decided to enter a rehabilitation clinic. Meanwhile Lord Malfeston, who was behaving properly while the father was alive, became a monster of debauchery as soon as he died, spending his wife’s money and assets as fast as he could get his hands on them. So when he died, it was actually a relief for her and the happiest moment of my life, because she was going to be free again. By that time I was not using anymore, and yet found myself at Dr. Naradewski’s clinic on January 18th, where he told me that I arrived during the night of the 26-27th of December, in a complete state of collapse due to a massive dose of morphine, that should have been deadly for anyone else whose body was not used to the poison like mine was. I remained 5 months at the clinic and recovered completely. Intense light that hurt my eyes is the only memory I have from that night.
Freme goes back to Flowers Manor where he finds Georgie, May and Lawrence Sydney, who had just arrived from Scotland. Bene comes back around midnight and tells Freme to be quiet because of footsteps he can hear coming from the first floor. As they go up the stairs, they spot a man at the end of the corridor who is banging slightly on the wall next to the window, while holding a small flashlight. Bene tries to approach quietly to surprise him, but the man hears him, turns off the flashlight and escapes into the library followed by Bene who pursues him into the night. Meanwhile Georgie rejoins Freme down the corridor and investigates a hole in the wall that uncovers a small safe, which is empty.
They immediately decide to drive to London to figure out which of the Lawrence Sydneys is not home. Taking a short cut, they arrive six minutes later in front of Lawrence Sydney #1’s home, whose butler tells them that he left around 8:00pm and has not been back home since. They rush to the 2nd Lawrence Sydney’s home and find him in the company of Richard Walls in front of the house, just coming back from a play. He also explains that the other Lawrence was actually at his other place earlier, starting a fight again and arguing with him about wanting to stay at that house, instead of this one, and since he did not want to fight again, he obliged him and switched houses.
Freme and Georgie go back to the manor and find it all lit up with May searching the entire place holding her revolver. She explains she found all the servants sleeping in the kitchen, drugged out. Nothing comes out of the search.
In the meantime Bene came back fruitless from his pursuit, but took upon himself to investigate and question further the doctor at the clinic. He tells everybody to listen to the story he heard from the doctor.
“About eight years ago, a man was shot and left for dead in the Brazilian forest, where a certain Dr. Bendeck found him and saved his life. Unfortunately, the man became amnesic. Lord Wilen who sponsored the expedition for Dr. Bendeck took him under his wing and treated him as the son he never had. We named him Lawrence Sydney and that’s how he got his new name, not remembering his previous identity. Lawrence followed Lord Wilen to Argentina and then inherited his great fortune when Lord Wilen died. When Dr. Bendeck found him near death, he was delirious and heard him whisper a name, Eric, asking this Eric why he had killed him since he was his friend, James. In actuality, James Malfeston met Eric Elliott, his double, eight years ago. One was rich and the other one poor. They used to fool around and switch identities for fun. Then one day, James decided to go on an expedition with Eric in Brazil, from which Lord Malfeston came back alone telling the story that Eric had died from a fever. So, to resume the story, it would seem that Eric Elliott is Lord Malfeston and one Lawrence Sydney, and the other Lawrence Sydney is the real Lord Malfeston“. At that moment a voice is heard coming from the smoking lounge threatening to kill one of the Lawrence Sydneys because there is one too many. Everyone looks at each other puzzled, not understanding where the voice is coming from. At the same time, Lawrence shows up at the manor, wondering why his butler was questioned about his whereabouts, and that he was with both doctors that night. Unfortunately, the second Lawrence shows up also and gives the same alibi.
Inspector Adams is called to the scene ,and he decides to fingerprint both men. During the process, Freme notices that one of the Lawrence’s has yellow phalanges and wonders if it might cover up fake fingerprints. He also sees a small sewing rubber thimble on the ground and decides to keep his thoughts for himself. None of the fingerprints match Lord Malfeston’s.
Later that day, Freme goes to town to try to investigate if anyone specializes in working with rubber, and if a small layer of it could be used to reproduce fingerprinting. He is advised to go to Lienthal Brothers and lands a meeting with the owner’s son who supervises the production department. He explains that it’s in fact possible to make finger covers that would be thin enough not to be noticed, and that someone by the name of Lord Malfeston placed an order for such items back in November. The only downfall is that fingers turn yellow in time.
Back at the manor, one of the Lawrences has been involved in a car accident and is near death. Bene went to get Dr. Bendeck, and Lawrence is transported at the clinic to be operated on, but the outcome is grim. Freme, May, and Bene go have dinner and then to bed. Once Freme is in bed, his bedroom door opens and he sees Lord Malfeston with a gun pointing at him. He tells Freme to follow him for a walk that will end painlessly but will kill him, since he knows now by following him that he is the only one who knows about the fingerprint trick and his yellow fingers.
But Freme figures out a way to stall him by asking him to tell his story, hoping that he will be able to make sense of everything that has gone down since the night of his supposed death on Christmas eve. Since Freme is a novelist, Lord Malfeston does not sense any ruse on his part, while his vanity is too content to show how clever he really is.
Malfeston starts by explaining that the library vent communicates with the smoking lounge, and that you can hear just as well from one room to the other, and therefore he was able to hear everything that was said and always be a step ahead. There is also, as with many old castles, a secret passage that connects from the outside to the library, making his back and forth unnoticed. For his death, he used a Brazilian plant whose property is to slow down the heart rate significantly without killing you when used at a proper dosage, which by the way is what he’s going to use to kill Freme. As his friends were watching over him believing him dead, he waited for them to fall asleep, and used a syringe with a high dose of morphine on Lawrence Sydney, hoping that it would kill him. Unfortunately, it did not work, because of his previous abuse and body tolerance to drugs, which he was not aware of. Then he switched him onto the bed, changed the content of his pockets, took his wife’s jewelry, hid them inside the safe close to the corridor’s window, hoping he could retrieve them at a further date. Then he came back to the room and sat where Lawrence Sydney was until the morning. Everything else fell into place when he met the real Lawrence Sydney and realized that he resembled him as well, and that he could get his money also, since he was starting to run low on Lord Malfeston’s assets. He did try to kill Lord Malfeston in Brazil so he could take his identity and his money, and did not know for a while that he had survived and returned as Lawrence Sydney. When he figured it out he thought he could play both angles because of his resemblance with the two men and get the jackpot. Unfortunately Freme became a liability when he started to investigate the matter out of his love for May. Now that he was done with the story Eric was ready to take him down, when he heard a noise and turned his head for a split second, long enough for Freme to aim his flashlight at him in the hope he could throw it at his face. But Eric guessing his gesture pulled the trigger aiming at Freme. But somehow the bullet hit the flashlight and ricochet towards Eric killing him instantly!!! Bene rushed into the room after hearing the shot to find Eric on the floor and Freme shivering in his bed. Once the investigation was over, word from the clinic came to announce that Lord Malfeston (Lawrence Sydney) was out of danger and had also recovered his memory. May became distressed at the thought that now she was once again married since the real Lord Malfeston was alive. Fortunately, Lord Malfeston, who really never knew his wife, decided to remain Lawrence Sydney and leave her his castle and belongings on the count that he was himself a rich man and did not want to interfere with her new love life, which gave Freme the possibility of still marrying her.
was born in Paris in
April 1912. His father, a cavalry officer, distinguished himself as the head of
the El’Rarb mission, during the peacemaking process in
A former student of the famous organ player Marcel Dupré, Noël Corbu shows a great interest in orchestra music and literature, as well as sciences. His favorite hobbies are writing novels, scenarios and songs.
with ideas, he becomes an entrepreneur, but his adventurous mind fails him when
he tries to create an enterprise in
He inherits the domain of l’abbé Saunière from Marie Dénarnaud, after falling in love with Rennes-le-Château, where he used to go with his family on the weekend.
In 1955 he transforms the domain into a hôtel-restaurant, named “La Tour” (the tower).
Then his imagination and romantic mind starts taking hold of the fascinating life of the priest from Rennes-le-Château. The story he likes to tell his visitors, about the “priest with billions,” has been the starting point of Bérenger Saunière’s celebrity.
He dies in
a car accident on
It is in 1943 that his only novel “le Mort Cambrioleur” is published. One could recognize in this thriller, where the ending might surprise the reader, the muffled atmosphere found in the works of Agatha Christie and the suspense of a Gaston Leroux.
Claire Corbu & Antoine Captier, October 2005