On 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.