That I’ve made it four months without devouring another Paul Halter novel is a display of herculean restraint. While by no means perfect, the previous three novels that I’ve read by the modern master of impossible crimes were the summer blockbuster equivalent of a locked room mystery. Well, scratch that analogy – I tend to loathe summer blockbusters as shallow facades that bore with their action rather than excite. Although many might deride Halter’s work as being equally shallow, I’ll guiltily admit that they give me exactly what I want.
Take the hooks, puzzles, and misdirection from five solid GAD impossible crime novels, compress it all down to 140 pages, thin out the writing a little (with excuse, perhaps, for being translated), and you’re dealing with a Halter novel. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you haven’t read one yet, I encourage you to give it a try. The puzzles are thick and the twists come flying at you.
The Seventh Hypothesis has been a consistent figure on Top 5 Halter lists that I’ve seen posted in the comments section of this blog and others. It’s curious though, because unlike Halter’s other titles, there doesn’t seem to be any stand out hook. Most summaries that I’ve read concentrate on medieval plague doctors on the loose in the streets of 1930’s London, plus a corpse mysteriously appearing in an alley. Contrast that with Halter’s other stories, which typically feature the allure of multiple baffling impossible crimes, and I was curious why this one was so well regarded.
I’ll clear the air by stating up front that this is one hell of a book. Rarely, if ever, has my head spun so badly as it did during one particular stretch of chapters about a quarter of the way into the story. Yeah, there’s a double impossible crime angle in there somewhere, but that’s not the part to write home about. Halter fills your brain with competing angles of intrigue, shakes violently, and then let’s your brain implode.
So…about the plot. The Seventh Hypothesis is really the story of two men engaged in a duel of unusual terms. Although each seeks the death of his rival, it is the snap of the executioner’s rope around the neck that will do the deed. You see, rather than pistols at dawn, the two rivals are engaged in a game in which each participant’s goal is to frame the other for murder.
It’s an enticing premise, as it naturally brings along several layers of mystery. Who will be the unfortunate victim? How will the killer establish a perfect alibi? How do you thwart someone who you know is attempting to frame you for murder?
It’s almost like an inverted mystery complicated by two problems – you don’t know which of the men committed the murder, nor do you know if any given murder is necessarily tied to the duel. Mix in the inherent need for an unbreakable alibi, blend with a few minor impossibilities, and you have a perfect storm of GAD mystery hooks. I really won’t say anything about the plot beyond that – it’s fun to unravel it on your own.
Never have I been so bewildered by a book. There’s a particular passage in which the duel is first introduced that is absolutely delightful. Halter builds a mystery, knocks it down, reverses it, folds it, inverts it, and stretches it all back again. It’s fascinating to read, as you see a true master of the art fluidly manipulating a puzzle right before your eyes. By the end of the passage my head was reeling and I scarcely knew what to believe. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
The ending is thoroughly satisfying, with Halter in typical fashion sweeping back the curtain and showing you the machine that was running behind the scenes all along. Everything clicks together quite well in similar fashion to The Madman’s Room, although I think I may have preferred elements of the solution to the latter. In fact, the layers of mystery are so thick throughout The Seventh Hypothesis that the ending might come as a slight let down. Don’t get me wrong – the ending is quite solid – it is just that the rest of the story is flat out amazing.
I’ll put The Seventh Hypothesis right up towards the top of my Halter reads along with The Demon of Dartmoor and The Madman’s Room. The Demon of Dartmoor may win out for having my favorite impossibility and solution. The Seventh Hypothesis would be closely tied with The Madman’s Room in terms of a book that I would lend out to a friend unfamiliar to the genre. Both of these titles read a bit better than The Demon of Dartmoor and may make a better introduction to the author.
As for me, I’m reaching my trembling hand back towards my stack of traditional Golden Age mysteries. The few Halter novels that I have on my shelf will have to wait to be savored some time down the road. I’ll just take things one day at a time.