“Suitcases with macabre contents, mysterious and seemingly pointless thefts, murderers who can vanish from locked rooms, tales about evil genies, fakirs who can make young boys disappear and cobras coil and uncoil at will – when they’re not climbing ropes in the air..”
Detective Archibald Hurst summarizes the plot of The Tiger’s Head much more concisely than I could probably manage. In that one sentence he provides a glimpse of the hail storm of craziness that author Paul Halter blasts you with throughout the novel. This is par for the course for Halter. The french author’s novels teeter with impossible crimes stacked every which way. There’s something simply gluttonous about Halter’s work if you’re a fan of the “how done it”.
We start with a gruesome series of murders – someone is leaving suitcases filled with legs and arms at train stations throughout England. There’s no clue as to who the victims are or what happened with the rest of each body. Somewhat dark for a pseudo-GAD novel (Halter sets his books in the 1930s), but nothing that ever treads towards the gore found in more modern day crime novels.
One of the suitcases was found in the small village of Leadenham, a normally sleepy setting recently upset by a string of mysterious thefts. Odd items have gone missing: a church candle, a collection of hats, a lamp post – to name just a few. How will these seemingly disparate things end up fitting together?
The narrative teeters back and forth in time, alternating between the period leading up to the first suitcase-body discovery and the later investigation of the murder spree by series detectives Archibald Hurst and Alan Twist. Progress is complicated by an especially slippery killer – one who can seemingly walk through walls.
First, a woman is murdered in a locked apartment as two witnesses scramble to break down the door. The would-be rescuers find only her body and a bathtub filled with flowers. Every exit is locked or guarded and a search of the premises reveals no hidden passage or hiding spots.
A later impossibility ups the ante. A retired major spins tales of mysticism he encountered during his stint in India – the infamous Indian rope trick being one of them. Each of his stories is challenged by a snarky youth who clearly needs to be taught a lesson. The major produces an old war trophy – a bamboo cane capped with a bronze tiger’s head – and tells a yarn about how simply rubbing the head can cause an evil genie to appear. This leads to an inevitable challenge to repeat the trick. The major and the youth seal themselves in a room, with each of the locked windows and doors under surveillance by an outside witness. A tussle is heard inside and once the door is finally broken down, one of the men lies dead, bludgeoned to death by The Tiger’s Head. The survivor is beaten nearly to death and babbles on about a crazed genie who materialized from nowhere and went berserk.
Toss this all together and it’s like the John Dickson Carr of 1938 said “screw it” and decided to jam his plots for The Judas Window, Death in Five Boxes, To Wake the Dead, and The Crooked Hinge all in one 180 page novel. I wouldn’t say that any solution to a particular puzzle is Halter’s best – not by a mile (that crown currently belongs to The Demon of Dartmoor, by the way). And yet, the way that the various solutions come together is misdirection at its very finest. The only other contender in terms of how everything fits together that I can think of is The Madman’s Room, and if you enjoyed how that one played out then you’re in for a treat here.
The Tiger’s Head excels in the dimension of misdirection, and it’s misdirection that I crave. To be so absolutely fooled – not by the puzzle sitting in front of your face, but by the bigger puzzle that you didn’t realize was there. It’s not about guessing the killer; it’s not about figuring out how the impossibility was accomplished. It’s understanding why everything happened in the way that was perceived while you read the story.
I celebrated a birthday recently and my wishlist was laden with Paul Halter titles. I’ll be shocked if I don’t burn through two more by the end of the year.