The Fourth Door – Paul Halter (1987)

FourthDoorFor a first novel, Paul Halter sure swung for the fences.  Two locked room murders, a no-footprints crime scene, unexplained events at a seance, and a prominent magician character – sounds like something out of impossible crime classics like Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat or Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit.  Just like many a band’s debut effort is the culmination of all of those ideas dying to get out, you can get a sense of how the The Fourth Door was that first raw effort for what Halter was yearning to create.

The Darnley house has plagued the imagination of neighborhood children since the supposed suicide of Mrs Darnley years ago.  Although covered with brutal stab wounds all over her body, suicide was the only conceivable explanation for Darnley’s death, as her body was found tucked away in a small attic room with the door bolted from the inside and the only window sealed.  Ever since, neighbors have reported occasionally seeing a mysterious light in the attic room late at night.

Years later, a clairvoyant rents out the abandoned upper floors of the house.  A seance is conducted, summoning the spirit of dead Mrs Darnley.  The logical next step?  Lock a member of the party in the room where she died to see if her ghost will manifest.  Simply locking things up won’t do (this is Paul Halter after all), and so the door is sealed with wax imprinted by a rare coin selected at random from a large collection.  Ah yes, the good old door-sealed-with-wax-pressed-with-a-rare-coin trick, which Halter would later repeat in The Invisible Circle.  With a room this hermetically sealed, it’s no surprise that a body is found inside when it is finally re-opened.

If you’ve read a few Paul Halter novels by now, you’ll recognize that this is standard territory for the author.  Toss in a “no footprints in the snow” crime that occurs too late in the novel for me to go into details, and The Fourth Door is a banquet for fans of impossible crime fiction.

And yet, it didn’t go off without a hitch.  At one point, circumstances led me to setting down the novel, which inevitably led to me thinking things through for about five minutes (always a dangerous thing to do with a mystery novel), and I immediately saw through the wax sealed room trick.  The other two impossible crimes were let downs when it came to the solutions (one outrageously so), and so a promising set of puzzles ended up fizzling for me.

It’s still a good read though, and Halter turns the story inside out in the most unexpected sense a few times towards the end.  If you’ve enjoyed a few Halters then no doubt you’ll like this, but don’t expect the heights of the likes of The Madman’s Room or The Seventh Hypothesis.  Along with The Picture from the Past, this will probably be the story that I end up forgetting the details of a few years from now, unless I remember it solely for seeing through one of the impossibilities.

13 thoughts on “The Fourth Door – Paul Halter (1987)”

  1. The first Halter and MY first Halter. I actually liked the door-sealed-with-wax trick, but then I don’t have the head for figuring these things out. The opening chapter is too prosaic, the book tries for too much, and the ending was my first taste of the author feeling compelled to “turn the story inside out” at the end, as you say. Usually, I don’t like the way Halter does that. (It’s absolutely awful in The Picture from the Past!) Halter’s rate of improvement was astonishing, but I’m always gonna be a bit of a grouse where he’s concerned!:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Halter’s books are so much fun for me that even a stumble like The Fourth Door is still more enjoyable than 90% of what I read. And of course, I love that 90% of other stuff that I read. You get a different thing out of a vintage country house mystery or a golden age impossible crime, and they’re to be appreciated in their own right. Halter then comes along with this shot of adrenaline right to the heart and it’s difficult not to crave it.

      Yes, the “inside out” bit at the end of The Picture from the Past is one of the biggest “uh, wtf?” moments ever. The Fourth Door swerved in that direction, but I think Halter recovered in a more acceptable way this time.


  2. Thanks for the review. 😊 I should go and try to re-read some of these Halter novels, as I recall some strange “inside out” stuff going on at the end of “Fourth Door” as well as “Crimson Fog”. But can’t quite remember the “inside out” endings of “Picture from the Past” and “Invisible Circle”.

    I think of all the Halter novels I read, only “Seventh Hypothesis” was fully satisfying on most, if not all, counts. I did like “Picture”, “Tiger”, “Madman” and “Fourth” after that. They had their limitations, but I thought they were great fun.


    1. Picture from the Past definitely has some crazy inside out stuff going on towards the end. But…it’s kind of a forgettable book (if there can be such a thing for Paul Halter) compared to his other material, so I can’t blame you if you don’t remember it.


  3. This is a bit fresher in my mind having reread it for my 500th post a little while back, and I largely agree with your take — though I did not see through the sealed room trick, and still love the cleverness of that for how brilliantly it both misdirected me and also showed me the moment I should have seen through it.

    A “swing for the fences” is a fair analysis. There are some brilliant things achieved when you look at it backwards, but as a reading experience first time out it’s oddly paced and not really plotted in the traditional sense (at times it’s almost like a Joel Townsley Rogers fever dream). A case of enthusiasm o’erflowing, I feel, but a promising beginning nonetheless.


    1. A fever dream is a good way to describe it. Trying to summarize the plot of even the first half setup in any way that really does it justice would require you to practically retell the story with just the drinking bits cut out. But hey, we both liked that, didn’t we?


      1. Yeah, I did enjoy that narrative looseness, even first time around. Sure, it meant that, long term, I had difficulty recalling the precise setup of events — there aren’t the usual touchstones to recall — but it’s uncommon nature again showed great invention. And, second time around, it’s still sort of crazy that it comes together as well as it does — you start off reading about the neighbours and the car crash and everything, and it’s so prosaic you’re like “Er, this is the book where the wrong dead body appears in a sealed room, right?”


  4. I read The Fourth Door back in 2011 and the finer plot-details have become a little murky in my memory, but remember figuring out the wax-sealed room-trick before it was even performed. The description of the layout of the crime-scene, sort of, gave the game away. However, I was more impressed with the no-footprints murder. Something that struck me as completely original and better motivated than the main sealed room murder.

    But your comparison with Death from a Top Hat is spot on! Halter and Rawson tried to cram as many of their ideas into the plot as humanly possible. Only difference between the two is that The Fourth Door didn’t exhaust Halter’s creativity, because Rawson’s remaining novels aren’t half as good, or memorable, as Death from a Top Hat. Most notably the godawful No Coffin for the Corpse.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Solving the Mystery of Murder

Investigating how classic crime writers plot their mysteries.

A Crime is Afoot

Reading notes from an eclectic reader of mysteries

Long Live The Queens!

About Ellery Queen and other GAD authors

James Scott Byrnside

Author of impossible-crime murder mysteries

Countdown John's Christie Journal

A review of Agatha Christie's crime novels and short stories from beginning to end

Dead Yesterday

Classic Mysteries and Domestic Suspense


The annex to John Grant's *A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir*

Justice for the Corpse

Reviews of classic fair-play mystery fiction - spoiler-free unless otherwise noted

Composed Almost Entirely of Books

Books read, books written, books I just spotted and covet like an ox

Mysteries Ahoy!

Detecting Great Crime Fiction

Only Detect

Book Reviews, Mostly

%d bloggers like this: