This turned out to be an accidental Christmas read. It was the multiple “footprints in the snow” impossibilities that lured me to The Lord of Misrule, a natural attraction given two feet of fresh snow surrounding my home. That the crimes in the story span the days surrounding Christmas was an unexpected bonus. So here you go – a holiday Paul Halter!
If The Lord of Misrule feels ubiquitous, it’s probably because JJ, the author of The Invisible Event, adopted a fragment of the book’s cover as an avatar and thus forever associated it with quality comments on mystery fiction blogs. As a Paul Halter novel though, it flies somewhat under the radar. Not part of the much lauded titles (The Madman’s Room, The Demon of Dartmoor, etc, etc, etc, etc) nor the criticized (The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime), The Lord of Misrule occupies that no man’s land along with The Picture of the Past: the book’s that don’t really get discussed.
That’s mystifying though, because the set up and execution of The Lord of Misrule is among Halter’s best. That’s saying a lot because the typical Halter story is the equivalent of the puzzles and twists from four Golden Age mysteries, all balled into a 150 page package. And while Halter’s other novels take on all sorts of impossibilities (locked rooms, invisible assassins, a disappearing street), The Lord of Misrule is all about the footprints.
If there’s any type of puzzle that grabs me, it’s the footprints in the snow (or mud, sand, jello, what have you) variety. Don’t get me wrong, a locked room murder is a devious contraption, but novels like The Hollow Man, Whistle Up the Devil, and Nine Times Nine have thoroughly explored it’s bounds (not to say I don’t continue to be fooled). The master of impossibilities, John Dickson Carr, did provide an in depth analysis of how a murderer could strike without leaving footprints in The White Priory Murders, but it’s a sub-sub-sub-genre that still feels more open to new solutions. And with the Lord of Misrule, Halter provides them.
The Mansfield family has been haunted for centuries by The Lord of Misrule – a white faced specter who floats over the snow and leaves only the soft jingle of bells in his wake. The winters over the years are littered by victims with two things in common – a violent death and a lack of footprints in the surrounding snow. The recent murder of Edwin Mansfield has rekindled the legend. Edwin is found stabbed to death in a thoroughly ransacked room, sealed with the exception of a tower doorway leading out into a pristine expanse of snow.
The set up to the death of Edwin Mansfield is intriguing because it isn’t as simple as a lack of footprints in the snow. Edwin’s sister had heard the commotion in his room and walked out towards the tower door to investigate. There she was met by a white faced specter, which she struggled with before it vanished into thin air. Lest you assume the sister made up this account, it was witnessed by a maid watching out of a window.
The crime is so fantastic that the police have to believe that the sister committed it. And yet, it’s proven conclusively that her footprints stop too far away from the tower door for her to have leapt, and there’s still no explanation of the vanished assailant.
Halter is never content with a single impossibility. Aside from layering the backstory with a handful of no-footprints murders from decades past, he provides us with another present day puzzle that’s classic. Two men trailing another man from a distance momentarily lose sight of their quarry as they dip into a small valley. When they emerge, the man is lying dead in the snow, run through with an ornamental knife. Inexplicably, the only tracks in the snow are that of the victim.
There you have it: two excellent foot print impossibilities, wrapped into a story that’s just as enjoyable as Halter’s best work. I have to admit though, early on I noticed a particular thing that seasoned impossible crime readers will be on the lookout for, which led me to think I had it all worked out the entire mystery. It turns out my solution only came into play for the second impossibility, so I was still able to be amply surprised by the solution to the death of Edwin Mansfield (and had to kick myself for not considering what had happened).
With that said, it’s not all roses. I’ll tell you, this was a killer read, chugging along at a good pace and with a level of puzzle that had me thinking that this would be one of Halter’s best. And then Halter suddenly sabotaged it. I’m reminded of that scene in the music video for Don’t Cry by Guns N Roses, where Slash tires of his screaming girlfriend and abruptly drives his car off a cliff, only to emerge moments later to play a guitar solo. That’s my perfect analogy for this.
Apparently Halter decided that wrapping up the story neatly in the way any reader would want just wasn’t in the cards, and felt a massive let down was in order instead. It has to be intentional, because he recovers a chapter or so later, but only after the air had been let out of the balloon. For me it was deflating, and even after the story bounced back with an homage to a very specific novel (nope, don’t bring it up in the comments, we all know which one it is), it left me feeling less than fulfilled.
So, maybe that’s why The Lord of Misrule isn’t talked about as much. That seems strange to me though, as The Crimson Fog has a similar (er… yet entirely different) falter, and still gets a bit of press. As a whole, The Lord of Misrule is a massive success. If you could just trim ten pages or so (and prop up some of the disappointing solutions), this would be a huge success. As it is, I rate it above The Fourth Door, The Crimson Fog, and The Picture From the Past… and maybe The Invisible Circle. But, alas, not quite top tier material.