The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)

InvisibleCircleThe ultimate locked room mystery set up – where to start?  Is it The Judas Window, with a room so perfectly sealed you couldn’t push a pin into it, much less the arrow lodged in the victim’s heart?  Perhaps it’s Clayton Rawson’s From Another World, in which a corpse is found alongside the knife that killed him in a room with all doors and windows sealed from the inside with tape?  Or is it The Plague Court Murders, with a man stabbed repeatedly in the back despite being locked in a secure stone hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud?

There’s almost a one-upmanship in some cases, with the author tasked with laying out a crime so thoroughly impossible that the reader is left with no avenue for an answer.  In the best cases, that answer comes in the form of a simplicity that you never thought to consider.  In the weaker ones, we get a solution so overly complex that it merely rings as a hollow justification for the puzzle.

But a good setup is still a good setup, regardless of how the solution plays out.  If the ride’s fun enough, and the puzzle grabs the imagination, I can forgive a story that doesn’t deliver a completely satisfying solution, as long as there’s some level of fair play and enough cleverness.  This is the field in which we play with Paul Halter’s The Invisible Circle.

In terms of a locked room setup, this may well be the best.  It’s as if Halter surveyed the competitive landscape, scoffed, and said “that’s all you have?”

An eccentric loner has gathered seven strangers on a remote coastal island with a promise of an entertaining spectacle.  Declaring that one of the participants will murder him before the night is through, he instructs the group to lock him in on the top floor of a castle tower.  Of course, a mere locked room won’t do, and so the participants conduct a painstaking search of the room before the door is bolted from the inside.  As a finishing touch, the outside of the door is sealed in wax, in which each of the participants leave an identifying seal to prove that it hasn’t been tampered with.

Despite the tower being watched from multiple sides, a scream soon echos out from its heights.  Rushing to the top of the stairs, the guests find the door still bolted from the inside and the wax seals in place.  Yet when they break the door down, their host is lying dead with a medieval sword in his back.

Impossible?  Nah, we’re just getting started.  You see, the medieval sword in question was cemented into a stone a la King Arthur, and several of the guest had made a unique mark in the handle to prove its authenticity.  Due to the room being searched before hand, we know conclusively that the sword wasn’t inside the tower prior to the murder and no gap exists to allow it in.

Ok, so purely from an impossible set up, I think Halter may just take the prize with this one.  To top it off, the story is fun and moves briskly, following somewhat of an And Then There Were None arc that you might expect from a story with a diverse cast of guests on an island with a killer.  The plot is hastened by a constant stream of discovery, including an earth shattering twist midway through reminiscent of the turn in Till Death Do Us Part.

The writing (or translation – Halter publishes in French) itself is fairly good compared to my initial experience with the author in The Demon of Dartmoor.  I’m guessing that the translation of Halter’s work has improved over time, as my recent reading of The Madman’s Room was equally well written.

As perplexing as the mysteries are, I immediately figured out a key aspect of how the murder weapon made it into the tower room.  No matter, there’s still an overwhelming storm of other perplexing puzzles, right?  Mmm, unfortunately, not really.  Once that key question was answered, the rest of the answers to the outstanding questions were somewhat disappointing.  The overall trick to the main crime was of acceptable quality, but after such a unique set up I was hoping for something more.

Ah, but Halter has additional tricks up his sleeve, and the identity of the killer is an absolute jaw dropper.  As in, absolutely jaw droppingly stupid.  The Invisible Circle was a fun ride, but the wheels really come off at the end.  The reveal of the killer would be well at home in a modern day horror movie, but in terms of GAD that I’ve read, it’s definitely one of the worst twists I’ve seen.

In the end, once all of the explanations have been provided, it really makes no sense as to why there was an impossible crime in the first place.  That’s unfortunate, as often one of the savoriest aspects of an impossibility is the reason for why it happened in the first place.  In this case, the puzzle strikes me as merely existing for the sake of it.

Do I dock Halter for this?  Not really.  I love John Dickson Carr’s The Red Widow Murders even though it ends with an “oh, wait, what?  That’s all you’re giving me?” solution.  Seeing is Believing has an incredible set up of murder by hypnotism, but the ending is flat out ridiculous.  The Witch of the Low Tide?  Absolutely my favorite Carr historical, even though the motive for the impossibility doesn’t really make sense in the end.  In each of these examples, we have a really engaging read with a weak outcome, and it’s that enjoyable journey that sticks with me much more than the finale.  The Invisible Circle is the same way.  Yeah, you’ll probably see me bashing its solution from time to time in the future, but as a read, I really enjoyed it.

And now, we move on to spoilers.  There are a few aspects of the book that I feel need a bit of discussion, but you definitely don’t want to read this if you haven’t read the book yet.  For those who have read it, please be careful with any comments that you leave so that you don’t provide too revealing of an innuendo.

Spoilers

Yeah, GAD authors just love to play games with identity, and Halter himself does it in other novels.  I’m always willing to turn a bit of a blind eye on this technique, but it isn’t really fair to the reader, as they can’t see what the characters look like and have to rely on descriptions in the text.  In the case of The Invisible Circle, Halter goes a bit too far.  I can take one case of impersonation, but geez, what are we talking, three or four?  And, I mean, one of these disguises is really, really, really suspect…  Can you imagine trying to pull off this story as a movie?  “Why is Matt Damon playing four of the characters?”

As mentioned above, I don’t really get the point of the elaborate impossibility.  The killer actually explains how several aspects were accomplished, so why have an impossibility in the first place?  Just for amusement?

I immediately figured out how the chalice disappeared from the room, how the sword got out of the stone, and in turn, how that could potentially allow the sword into the room.  What I didn’t figure out though was how the sword managed to get to a position such that it could be put in the room and used for the murder.  That was the part of the solution that was fairly disappointing, as the mechanism for getting up the tower and then carrying out the murder was a bit bland after such a fantastic puzzle set up.

End spoilers

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16 thoughts on “The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)”

  1. When I read this one I kept thinking of those overly-amazing masks that they use in the Mission Impossible movies, that make Tom Cruise look and sound exactly like Philip Seymour Hoffman, or whatever. That’s the level of disguise that we’re being asked to believe here.
    This is why I rarely find myself looking at Halter, he’s just not sufficiently believable for my tastes. (And I emphasize, it’s personal taste.) Sure, the plots are difficult and fantastic. But … how can I put this? If John Dickson Carr pioneered the idea of putting sugar into cookies, and other Golden Age writers added greater or lesser amounts of sugar, Halter has taken the recipe and created cookies made entirely out of sugar. There’s a great deal of technical achievement in doing that, but for me the cookies are inedible and are merely to be admired, not enjoyed.

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  2. Ha, yeah, almost no-one likes this as much as I do. Noah’s Mission: Impossible point above is quite accurate, and I’d almost go as far as to say it’s rather more in Scooby-Doo territory…and I just think that’s a great thing. I can’t think of this book without imagining Halter bent over his keyboard, cackling away as he throws in one ridiculous happening after another — I see it as him letting off some steam, since it would have worked as an Alan Twist plot but I think he wanted to distance it from his more, uhm, probable(?) mysteries.

    However, I can see why people don’t enjoy it for the reasons you state above. I think you’re alll wrong, but I can see where you’re coming from 😀

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    1. I know you love Halter, and I feel the same way about Rupert Penny … so I was careful to say that there’s nothing technically wrong with the way Halter does things, it’s just a matter of personal taste. He really does have a huge skill at constructing these puzzles.
      A few years back, when I was reading The Seven Wonders of Crime, I asked myself about halfway through, “Who is the least likely killer?” And of course I was right, that person had done it. Sort of reminds me of that old short story, “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr”. If you can depend upon an author to be brilliant and completely unexpected, that too becomes everyday and expected.

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      1. If you can depend upon an author to be brilliant and completely unexpected, that too becomes everyday and expected.

        Wow, good heavens, you raise a fabulous and very involved point here. What’s the solution for an author to avoid then, then? I’m asking quite genuinely: I had exactly this trouble with Jeffery Deaver and all his twists upon twists upon twists upon twists — it started out thrilling, and ended up with contortions so contrived they that had me rolling my eyes hard enough to be mentioned in the narrative. But, to get back to the point, is there a legitimate case of an author writing so many surprising books that we cease to be surprised? And is there a case of someone not doing this and yet still surprising us?

        This question is vague and unformed, but there’s too much clamouring in myhead now it’s been asked for me to be able to make it any clearer atthis stage…

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  3. As President-in-Chief of The Paul Halter Fan Club, I take issue with your criticism of the matter of ident— with the feasibility of the swor—-with the conflation of the – the . . . . . . .

    I thought this one sucked. You all have to understand that for me “how” will always come in third past “who” and “why.” I just profess interest in impossible crimes so that I can hang out with the cool kids. I don’t even remember how this one was worked, but I got so angry at the identity of the criminal – which I figured out almost immediately precisely because like Noah, with Halter I always ask myself which person the author thinks would shock us the most . . . and that person is always – ALWAYS – the killer. Same thing with The Seven Wonders of Crime, The Crimson Fog, The Fourth Door and so on and so on. That’s why I like the ones I like (<The Demon of Dartmoor, The Madman’s Room) – because they’re not like that at all.

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    1. Well it didn’t quite suck until the end though, right? The ride was fun, and I’m tempted to take that into account. I’d still look forward to reading more Halter books even if I knew they were all going to end like this.

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  4. At the risk of coming back from my disappearing act from Internet-mysterydom just to voice an idiosyncratic opinion, I actually enjoyed this one more than The Madman’s Room or The Demon of Dartmoor; of the Halters I’ve read, it wouldn’t make my top three, but it just barely missed out on that.

    To be honest, though I didn’t guess the method as you did, GC, I wasn’t all that impressed by it; indeed, your reaction to Carr’s The Red Widow Murders (which I love—may be my favorite Dickson, in fact) is akin to my reaction this one. And the killer’s identity was for me both obvious and ridiculous. (Have you ever noticed that the most ludicrous solutions to mysteries are also, somewhat ironically, the most obvious? Hmm… Someone do a blog post on that; I know I’ll say I will and then get too caught up with other stuff.)

    But I really enjoyed the goofiness of this one, the backstory, the King Arthur legend—all of it. Though The Fourth Door was far superior plot-wise, this one was better-written, with some fun sense of place and similarities to And Then There Were None. I don’t think anyone would consider it one of the great detective stories (I wouldn’t go so far as to put any of Halter’s on that list, probably), but I enjoyed it—which is more than I can say of most of PH’s books, unfortunately (The Phantom Passage notwithstanding). 🙂

    Karl

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    1. This review was really a well planned ruse by the GAD community to lure you out of self imposed exile…

      I know exactly what you’re talking about with The Red Widow Murders. If I were to create a list of top 10 Carr mysteries, I wouldn’t include it because there are many more well rounded selections. But… if I were to create a list of my favorite Carr mysteries, The Red Widow Murders would vie for a top three position.

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      1. And the ruse worked, apparently, for I’ve actually posted something! 😉 Clever, clever… One would almost think that you people read books about—oh, criminal activities or something. Dear God, perish the thought!

        I’m not exactly sure why I like it so much—possibly the French Revolution segment (great rollicking adventure yarn, would make a fine Stevensonian short-story on its own)—but Red Widow would probably be on both my “favorites” and my “best” lists. I know the solution’s kinda silly, but I also think it’s remarkably ingenious, and I just enjoy every minute of the book.

        Wait a sec: this has nothing to do with Halter, does it? 🙂

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      2. The French Revolution passage in The Red Widow Murders comes seemingly out of nowhere and launches what was already an ominous room that kills yarn into epic territory. It’s one of my favorite experiences in reading Carr.

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      3. The “coming out of nowhere” may be my one criticism of it, but it’s such a great passage, isn’t it? One of my favorite passages in Carr too.

        Stevenson would have loved it. (One of Carr’s favorite stories was “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door.”)

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  5. I haven’t read this yet so I had to skip over the spoiler section but I found your review intriguing. Certainly the way the impossibility of the crime is established seems extremely thorough and I am curious how the murder will be achieved, even if it is a disappointment as you suggest.

    I suspect I’ll hold off on this for a while longer given I have some more widely appreciated Halters in my library but you have roused my interest!

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  6. It is the most bonkers thing, isn’t it? I liked it a tad more than you did, but that’s because A It’s short (and helped me to grasp what I think is a genuine strength of Halter’s: he keeps the plot moving.) and B. I solved most of it, which always seems to increase how much I like something. 😛 But it’s flawed, Halter’s own summer blockbuster, throwing everything at you really quick so you don’t question the holes. But it’s still a good read (but those And Then There Were None comparisons are…inaccurate.)

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