For 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.