Apparently never before translated into English, this French period piece--written in 1911--is an initially intriguing, ultimately ludicrous curio: part detective story, part loopy melodrama, heavy on exclamation points, disguises, and long-winded exposition. A series of sneaky, nasty crimes has occurred in Paris and the nearby countryside. The old Marquise de Lagrune is found horribly stabbed to death in her locked chateau; the only possible suspect--young house-guest Charles Lambert--disappears, along with his distraught father, only to turn up drowned (or so it seems) soon thereafter. Meanwhile, the body of an English lord is found in the apartment of a mysterious M. Gum. And a Russian princess is cleverly robbed at a Paris hotel. Are these three separate puzzles? Or are all three crimes the work of the shadowy super-criminal known as. . .Fantomas!? That's the question for Inspector Juve, Fantomas' archenemy, who adopts several rather wearisome disguises--and relies on a silly device called the dynamometer--in his episodic investigation. Eventually M. Gurn--a.k.a. Fantomas--is apprehended, tried (verbosely), and convicted, with convoluted explanations of his implausible feats of evil impersonation. And even more implausible is the epilogue in which Fantomas manages to escape from the guillotine at the last moment. Complete with cultural stereotypes and comically stagy dialogue (""And you, Mademoiselle Jeanne--you are Charles Lambert!""), this is dated stuff indeed--and, even in its own time, a fairly weak imitation of Conan Doyle et al. The real mystery here is what aspect of the novel (certainly not its pulpy-plain prose) attracted the interest of poet/translator Ashbery, whose Francophilia usually leads him to more flavorsome projects.