Paul Halter – The Demon of Dartmoor (1993)

DemonOfDartmoorOn paper, Paul Halter seems to be custom tailored for me.  Locked rooms – check.  Vanishing footprints – check.  Multiple impossible crimes in a single book – triple check.  Regarded as a modern day John Dickson Carr, Halter follows in the master’s footsteps not just in the impossible crimes that he employs by the fistful, but in the dense atmosphere that permeated Carr’s earlier work.  Rooms that kill, crimes of the past haunting the present, disappearing alleys – these are the hooks on top of the puzzle that have drawn me into Carr’s work.  To have this all echoed by Halter in new and imaginative ways is almost too good to be true.

Of course, there are detractors.  Halter’s books are said to be thin on character, sparse on the prose, and mere cardboard dressing for his puzzles and tricks.  This is complicated by the fact that he writes only in French.  His titles available in English are translations, and it seems inevitable that nuances of the author’s voice would be lost in the process.

I’ve had my eye on Halter for some time and I was bound to get to him eventually.  I was a bit worried though – was the criticism valid?  Would I find myself trapped in a title with an intriguing puzzle, but thin on plot?  Time to test the waters.

The plot of The Demon of Dartmoor revolves around a whole lot of people falling to their deaths.  A famed actor buys and restores a dilapidated estate where fifty years earlier a woman was shoved down the stairs in front of witnesses by an invisible hand.  The murder of the past comes back to haunt the present when he himself is shoved out of a window onto the granite driveway below – despite being in full view of five onlookers from all angles.  To top it off, the victim was even being photographed by one of the witnesses at the time!

Inspector Hurst and Dr Twist (who apparently specialize in odd crimes) arrive to investigate the inexplicable murder, only to find more than they bargained for.  It seems that in the past decade, the town of Dartmoor has experienced the tragedy of three local girls falling to death after being pushed by an unseen hand.  This gives us a total of five murders where the victim was seemingly pushed to their doom, despite witnesses testifying that no one was in the vicinity.

I can’t really think of other books featuring an impossible defenestration.  John Dickson Carr’s The Case of the Constant Suicides features two victims falling from a high tower despite being alone in a locked room.  But even in those cases, there were no witnesses to the crime.  I’m sure that my astute readers will provide some counter examples, but I can’t come up with other titles involving someone being pushed by an invisible force in front of witnesses.

It’s an interesting impossibility that stimulates the imagination.  Was the victim really pushed?  Pulled?  Blown?  Tipped?  The reader has a lot of room to explore possibilities, and that’s one of my favorite aspects of reading this type of work.  The Demon of Dartmoor is definitely one of those titles where you mull over the puzzle even when the book isn’t in your hands.

Ok, so Paul Halter got me with the impossible crime angle.  How about the writing?  Well, these Halter books do read considerably different than a typical GAD mystery that you may be used to.  I’m not sure if it’s Halter’s writing, the effect of the translation, or both, but the text is very simple, coming across like a word problem from a middle school textbook.  The word choice is very matter of fact and there is little flourish to the writing.  Much of the story is told through dialogue and there aren’t very many descriptions of characters, surroundings, or what is going on.  Although the two detectives, Twist and Hurst, are featured throughout the book, I could provide you with no description of them other than Twist is apparently the smarter one and he eats a lot.

The text may be simple, but it gets the job done.  The simplified style of the writing makes The Demon of Dartmoor a blazing fast read, and the setup and progression of the story make it difficult to put down.  We start the story with an impossible crime being recounted in the very first pages.  Subsequent chapters unleash a torrent of additional puzzles.  From that point on, we receive a steady diet of discovery that helps the reader feel like they’re making constant progress with the book.

The ending is absolutely killer, and quite worthy of a comparison to John Dickson Carr.  Each impossibility has a perfectly simple explanation, which is always satisfying after running much more complex possibilities through my head.  The core puzzle – the actor pushed to his death by an unseen hand in front of five witnesses – has a particularly elegant solution that would be perfectly at home in the best of Carr’s work.

The Demon of Dartmoor isn’t just about the tricks to the impossible defenestrations.  There’s a bit of misdirection running throughout the story that is so well done that it again invokes thoughts of Carr at his best.  Once a single fact is made clear, multiple mysteries immediately dissolve in such a way that in hindsight everything appears obvious.

I was honestly left breathless by The Demon of Dartmoor.  What was an enjoyable brisk reading experience while I was turning the pages morphed into the onset of addiction once the final page was complete.  I longed for that quick rush once more.  Paul Halter had given me exactly what I was looking for in an impossible crime.  Yeah, the writing was a bit simple and it may well have been cardboard, but man, it was satisfying.

I feel like the Cookie Monster of impossible crimes right now.  I can hardly withstand the urge to fiercely rip pages from The Demon of Dartmoor and shove them into my flapping mouth while shouting “nom-nom-nom-nom-nom”.  My To Be Read pile was already stocked with two additional Halter titles, but my immediate move was to order three more.  I guarantee I’ll be reading them soon.


The backlog of translated Paul Halter mysteries isn’t exactly deep.  At time of writing there are thirteen novels and one short story collection.  There’s a number of good discussions on blogs about where to start with Halter, but I’ll point to a particular thread of comments over at The Invisible Event.  People may quibble over the exact order and a few outlier titles, but the general consensus seems to be that these are the stand out books:

  • Death Invites You
  • The Demon of Dartmoor
  • The Madman’s Room
  • The Invisible Circle
  • The Tiger’s Head
  • The Seventh Hypothesis
  • The Phantom Passage

I actually intended to start off with Death Invites You, but after letting it camp on my pile for a few months, I instead jumped on The Demon of Dartmoor as my first Halter after receiving it as a gift.  I obviously didn’t regret my choice – I could imagine some readers being put off by the overall style of the writing, but man, this is one satisfying impossible crime.  I’ve since read one other Halter and started a third (both secrets, stay tuned…).  I can tell you that the writing (or at least the translated form) improve significantly.  The second book boasted a much more complex plot, but in terms of pure puzzle satisfaction, I’m going to have to leave it to The Demon of Dartmoor.

Where to go from here?  I’m probably going to attack the list above with the assumption that each of the titles will be massively enjoyable in one way or another.  Then onto the “lesser” Halter titles – which I assume I’ll actually enjoy quite a bit as well.  I know that’s quite a bit of faith to put into an author after one book, but The Demon of Dartmoor hit all of the notes that I’m looking for.  Plus, the writing style didn’t bother me, to the point to where I think the common criticisms of Halter probably aren’t going to be obstacles for my personal tastes.

Of course, there’s a bonus to look forward to.  Locked Room International has been releasing one or two Halter translations each year, and with quite a few untranslated titles remaining, there should be an enjoyable trickle of impossibilities for years to come.

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40 thoughts on “Paul Halter – The Demon of Dartmoor (1993)”

  1. I’m with JJ and now yourself on Halter. I’ve read only about three of his novels but they’ve varied between pretty good and True Fab, and certainly have never bored me. (I’d have read more but, when I really like an author, I start rationing myself rather than bingeing.)

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  2. I am excited to know you liked this so much since it is next on my Halter list. The impossibility sounds intriguing so hopefully I enjoy it as much as much as you did!

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  3. Well, well, well . . . you know Halter is a more problematic author for me and that sometimes he just makes me so mad! I feel that this one is easily one of the best so far. It was also one of the first i read, so maybe it eased some of the pain of the others. I think I actually shouted at The Invisible Circle and The Picture From the Past! But I know how you boys like to play with your impossible crimes!!! 🙂

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    1. I’m surprised you enjoyed it as much as you say since the writing is really basic and the characters are thin at best. The other two Halter books that I’m reading are much more fleshed out in terms of characters and descriptions.

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  4. Well, I am of course thrilled to hear this — we’ll send over your initiates’ robes post-haste! I agree the style is a little blunt here, and there is unquestionably an absense of description in certain, non-crucial cases, but it’s a central impossibility that will be remembered for a long time…and Halter is all about giving you some staggering answers to baffling puzzles. For richness and complexity of scheme, I’d have to say that The Madman’s Room or The Tiger’s Head are my favourites, but Halter actually has more strings to his bow than I think he gets credit for: Invisible Circle is pure, crazy, loopy fun, and The Seventh Hypothesis delights in a series of reversals that get more hilariously brilliant and outlandish as they go.

    Aaaah, man, the hours ahead of you….

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    1. Interesting – as your theory on a recent post had suggested, your comments were indeed going into my spam folder. I wonder how that happened.

      As for Halter – man, the trick is going to be going back to my regular reading. I’m on my third Halter in a row and I don’t know how to quit them. The instant gratification is just so… gratifying.

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      1. Oh, man, if you’re liking Halter then you definitely need to read Whistle Up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith, both also published by LRI. Smith’s much earlier — the ealr 1950s — but has the same virtuoso flourish where his impossibilities are concerned.

        Also, take John’s advice and slow down. Otherwise you’ll be in my position of anxiously waiting the next fix, and then racing through that only to have to wait again… A Halterless world is a dark and forbidding place.

        Oh, wait, I still have like 40 Carr books to go. And countless others to discover. Okay, well. But slowing down’s always good.

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      2. I have the Derek Smith Omnibus waiting on my shelf. I’m happy to hear that it’s in the same vein as Halter.

        I’m sure I’m asking the wrong person, but any idea why Locked Room International only released one Halter book last year? They had been doing two a year since around 2013. Perhaps they were busy with the Noel Vindry books and the recent Japanese releases.

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      3. I imagine — though I could be wrong — that the broader range of topics John Pugmire has taken on (shin honkaku, The Realm of the Impossible, tracking down more obscure titles for republishing) have probably just not left him enough time to publish more than a certain number of books in a calendar year. There’s certainly still plenty of Halter to go, but as he achieve more and more success there’s also got to be plenty of other projects that will catch his eye…

        Pure surmise on my part, but it feels right.

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      1. I’m probably among the most guilty of taking my detective fiction a little too seriously at times, but I read that book with a grin on my face all the way through. Sure, the impossible disappearance in a cave with no way out except the entrance is disappointing, but the rest is just giddy delight. Very much a one-of-a-kind novel, I think, which is probably part of why it sometimes gets such a kicking.

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  5. First off, don’t get too excited about Halter. His impossibilities are clever but he needs, imho, to stop overloading his books with them as there’s usually one good one and other less good ones… The Vampire Tree, for example, is poor, as is The Crimson Fog

    As for other impossible defenestrations, A Murder In Thebes by Paul Doherty has got one that’s just as good as this one.

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    1. The impossibility in TVT is superb, though, to my tastes. Rather a shame it’s scattered throughout the book, but the resolution is worth waiting for.

      One of the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett has an impossible swan dive, too, but the resolution to that is…not good.

      Incidentally, I left a comment on this post earlier that disappeared, so this may not show up…

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      1. Interestingly, this wasn’t visible when I checked earlier. I have a feeling I may have been unspammed here… Good to know my highly valuable thoughts are here for all to see now, though!

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      2. Aha! I knew it! This happens every so often, probably The Man trying to keep me down when I start getting Too Real. Some blogs are fine, and others are not — if you;re on WordPress and I’ve likely commented on your blog in the last few days, chances are I’m in your spam folder. Composed Almost Entirely of Books definitely has a couple of gems from me waiting on the sluch pile…

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      3. JJ, I can’t see any recent comments even in spam. Any idea of how to unblock you? (syrup of figs aside).
        Ben, Paul Halter certainly has his plus points and I hope you find much joy in him.

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    2. I second Puzzle Doctor on A Murder in Thebes and the book has two additional (semi) impossible crime sub-plots.

      The Demon of Dartmoor is one of Halter’s best and you might also like The Seventh Hypothesis. And the vanishing street from The Phantom Passage is arguably his best impossible crime. You want to feed your locked room addiction, read that one!

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      1. On the other hand, there are those of us who haven’t particularly gotten along with Doherty’s work but do enjoy Halter’s, so I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice.

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  6. Among Carr’s works, The Skeleton in the Clock and Papa La-Bas both have victims who plunge to their deaths under the conditions you stipulate.

    The only Halter I’ve read is The Seven Wonders of Crime, and it left me with no interest in reading another. Too much silly stuff and not enough good parts. Maybe I should give him another chance.

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  7. Thanks for the review. 🙂 My favourite sentences in it were: ‘I feel like the Cookie Monster of impossible crimes right now. I can hardly withstand the urge to fiercely rip pages from The Demon of Dartmoor and shove them into my flapping mouth while shouting “nom-nom-nom-nom-nom”.’

    Which other Halter titles are resting on your TBR pile, or are about to make it into your TBR pile? I haven’t read ‘Demon of Dartmoor’, as I’m saving it to the end…

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    1. I currently have The Madman’s Room, The Invisible Circle, Death Invites You, The Tiger’s Head, and The Seventh Hypothesis. I’ll try to obtain The Crimson Fog and The Phantom Passage next, although I’ll probably leave them for my birthday wishlist. You can bet that you’ll see some additional reviews coming soon though!

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  8. I can certainly recognise the need to burn through Halter when you get into one. I have read 7 or 8 of the translated books so far. I usually dive into a 2nd one straight after finishing one, but then find the style of writing begins to grate a little and I have a break from Halter for a while. They’re always fun to read, and the puzzles generally grab your attention.
    Pros – imaginative puzzles, atmosphere, plotting.
    I would recommend The Tiger’s Head, The Fourth Door and The Crimson Fog for showing these aspects of Halter. I remember enjoying The 7th Hypothesis as well.
    Cons – no characters whatsoever, time and period can be vague, no real detection, no real attempt at misdirection.
    I know what you mean about it his writing not feeling like GAD novels. I see his books more as logic puzzles for the reader to solve. The 7 Wonders of Crime is pretty notorious in this regard – but, I still find the puzzles hold enough interest to look past the failings. I was also less fussed about The Madman’s Room and The Lord of Misrule, but both of these have plenty of atmosphere at least.

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      1. That’s a god thought actually, their difference in terms of writing. It does frustrate me that Halter is always talked about in the context of Carr, ‘the mantle having fallen to him’, when I think it’s probably worth just looking at it on it’s own terms, while acknowledging what’s come before.

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