The 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.
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.