The Lord of Misrule – Paul Halter (1994)

LordOfMisruleThis 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.

LordOfMisruleAnalogy

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.

12 thoughts on “The Lord of Misrule – Paul Halter (1994)”

  1. Now, my memory’s not the best, but I presume you’re dissatisfied with the solution to the Edwin Mansfield murder, right? Given that the whole thing is an homage to a particular book — and, er, I said which one in my own review — surely that element is simply another homage to another, older book…hein? Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good, or even appreciated in a novel from the 1990s, but it’s homage-ception, no?

    The outdoor murder is wonderful, though, as is the seance. And we get that lovely, Christianna Brand-esque last line surprise/reveal — something Halter was evidently quite taken with (cf. The Fourth Door, The Madman’s Room, The Seventh Hypothesis, doubtless others) even if some of them are simply too bizarre to be allowed to live (cf Death Invites You — surely, surely the oddest final line of any novel ever, regardless of genre).

    I appreciate your conferring some implied quality upon these comments, very kind. Mostly I just blather on and then stop at a point where I imagine I’m going to start boring people. It’s suggested I should adopt the second half of that approach for my blog posts…

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    1. I can’t quite reply to JJ without some spoilers, so don’t read on if you haven’t read The Lord of Misrule.

      I wasn’t disappointed by either of the solutions to the two impossibilities. I’m kicking myself for not having considered the solution to the Edwin Mansfield murder, given the homage. I spotted the solution to the outdoor impossibility early in the book, when a certain …trait… was mentioned, but was still satisfied by how it was explained. The Brand homage actually goes a bit further than you imply in your comment, if you know what I mean (I’m being vague for risk of two way spoiler).

      Rather, what killed the book for me was the “false” solution – or rather, lack of false solution. I’m not sure if you recall, but the detective basically just hand waves the impossibilities away, and then the story jumps forward about a year, at which point the real solutions are provided. I get that it’s one of those weird double fakes that Halter likes to do at the end of his books, but it sucked the wind out of the actual story. If the true solutions had just been given in a classic denouement, rather than after a year had passed, the story would have been a lot more satisfying.

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      1. Okay, yeah, you’ll be surprised to learn that I’d forgotten that aspect of it. I suppose I just took for granted that it wouldn’t end like that and so just skipped over it on the way to The Good Stuff. But for someone in the early stages of their Halter career — possibly even with this as their first book — I can see that the heart would lurch a bit at the prospect of such a disappointment.

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  2. OKAY, THAT’S IT! This is the year I start on Paul Halter. I even did a podcast episode on him with JJ for goodness sake about what to start with! Excited for the solutions here. Anyone who can come up with a new and quality no footprints solution deserves a crown anyday.

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      1. Thanks Ben. I’m excited to jump in with something mad so the TIgers Head has always intrigued me for that reason. But I’m desperate to know what the wet patch on the floor in the Madman’s Room is all about! So that might take it as well. But then there is the solution to pushing from the window…!!

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  3. I admit that I wasn’t fond of this one, but it’s been so long since I’ve read it that my reasons might not stand up.

    The pacing seemed off, with things that should impact the plot doing nothing (like Piggot walking in on Stock comforting Sybil).

    There was one element that I want to swear was never explained (the seance where all the lights go off when no one could have done it).

    And there’s also that one spoiler element that you mention. Halter did something similar in another book and it jarred me out of that one too!

    I know that some of it is irrational. Something about the who and how didn’t click with me on my re-reading. I want to say that I had some conception of how impossible crimes work/should be explained and this book didn’t work for me at all. It’s a personal thing though!

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  4. Hi, hope someone can help I am in the middle of reading this book on Kindle and the maps are missing. I have found the indoor one but not the outdoor one. Is anyone able to take a pic. Thanks a million in advance

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