The idea that crimes of the distant past can haunt the present is easily my favorite plot device deployed by John Dickson Carr. The author introduced this technique in the first Dr Gideon Fell novel, Hag’s Nook, in which multiple generations of male heirs to a rotting castle have died by a broken neck after participating in a secret ritual. A year later, Carr introduced Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders, and we’re treated to the ghost of an eighteenth century hangman’s assistant stabbing a man to death in a locked hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud.
Carr would return to these fertile grounds several times throughout his career. His most famous example may be The Burning Court (1937), where the ghost of a seventeenth century poisoner strikes in the modern era. The author even managed to inject intrigue into the meandering Dark of the Moon (1968) by introducing the mystery of how three men, centuries apart, were all bludgeoned to death despite being surrounded by expanses of untouched sand.
Never though did Carr succeed so much in my eyes, than with the legend of the room that kills in 1935’s The Red Widow Murders. A room responsible for so many unexplained deaths that it had been sealed for decades to protect against whatever evil lurked inside.
And so, as the reviews of Locked Room International’s latest Paul Halter translation, The Madman’s Room, started to trickle out towards the end of last summer, my interest was piqued. Here we have the supposed modern day heir to John Dickson Carr taking on one of my favorite Carr-ian devices – the room that kills. Could Halter live up to such a high standard?
Well, the short answer is yes. The longer answer is, yes, yes, yes, God yes.
Other reviewers will do a better job of luring you into the plot of a family cursed by a mad ancestor. They’ll tease you with the legend of a room that’s laid dormant for years, sealed off from the house to protect against the deadly force that lies inside. They’ll tell you of the multiple deaths that have occurred on its threshold and of the look of horror on the victim’s faces each time as they stared at something unseen. They’ll taunt you with references to the wet patches of carpet inevitably found at each crime scene, and you’ll wonder what could have left them.
I had to know.
That’s what I love about this entire “crimes of the past” thing. You know it isn’t a ghost! You know the room doesn’t actually kill! We have rules for that!. But how can the same deadly circumstances occur over and over, separated by decades if not centuries? In a sense, the echoing of an unexplainable crime throughout the ages creates its own meta-impossibility. Assuming a rational explanation involving a human killer, how is the perpetrator able to replicate a past impossibility that even the police can’t explain? Hint – the answer to that last question is often one of the more satisfying aspects of the solution.
In the case of The Madman’s Room, we have a series of deaths spread out over many decades that all share puzzling similarities. What is it that the victim is seeing each time that is so horrifying? How are they actually dying? How could such deaths be planned when witnesses were almost always nearby? And why, above all, are there always wet patches on the carpet?!
Well, no spoilers here, but the answer to it all is most satisfying. As I set down the book, I couldn’t help but think “man, Halter just nailed the interwoven layers of misdirection that Carr did so well.” You may know what I’m talking about. Stories like The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death Watch, The Nine Wrong Answers, or The Four False Weapons, where you finish the book and think “how did Carr ever weave that all together?” Stories where a seemingly straight forward crime turns out to have been something completely different than you ever thought.
And, I’ll admit, after thinking about how well Halter had just nailed Carr’s interwoven misdirection, my eye scanned my bookshelf, looking for an analogous Carr title that I could use in this review. It may be that time has faded my recollection of those most intricate of plots, but I have to say that I struggled to find a comparison.
You see, The Madman’s Room is stacked to the ceiling with misdirection. It’s a pure onslaught, and although it is all very much fair play, a reader simply doesn’t stand a chance. I even spotted several key misdirections and foresaw a few of the twists, yet they were but raindrops in a hurricane. For all of the comparisons of Paul Halter to John Dickson Carr, Halter is very much doing things his way and he is rocking.
I’m happy to say that the writing in The Madman’s Room is much improved over my first Halter read – The Demon of Dartmoor. I’m tempted to attribute this more to the quality of the translation (Halter writes in French), but the characters felt infinitely more fleshed out and the plot was much more dense. Yeah, you’re still not getting the flourish of prose and characterization of the GAD you may be used to reading, but it’s getting a lot closer.
On a final note, I have to say that The Madman’s Room may have my least favorite book cover of all of the mysteries that I’ve read. I hate to be critical of someone’s work in that sense, but I just don’t understand how the photo on the cover is supposed to be taken seriously. You obviously can’t judge this book by its cover, but a cover can really contribute an atmosphere to the work while you’re reading it. I can only dream of a future where Halter’s catalogue is released in 1940-style Dell map back format.