I had originally intended to read Death Invites You as my first Paul Halter novel, and with good reason. It boasts the most intriguing set up of any of the French author’s English translations – quite the feat, given an impossible crime catalogue laden with rooms that kill, invisible assassins, bodies surrounded by untouched snow, and every manner of locked room puzzle – plus I’ve seen a number of reviewers list it as his best. How then does this book end up being the tenth Halter I’ve read? Honestly, I have no excuse other than a capricious hand when selecting my next reads.
As for that set up, it’s as impressive as it gets. A dinner party arrives to find their eccentric host locked in his office. Unable to summon him, they eventually break down the door and stumble upon a bewildering sight. A full banquet has been spread out on a table, the food still steaming hot. Something else is steaming – a dead man sits hunched over the table, his face in a bubbling pot of oil. All doors and windows are thoroughly locked from the inside. Witnesses in the house saw no one entering or exiting the room in the time leading up to the incident, and there’s no evidence of how such a feast could have been prepared from within.
Oh yeah – these same circumstances echo an unsolved crime from decades earlier, right down to the obscure detail of a bowl of water sitting beneath one of the windows.
It’s about as intriguing set up as you get. Well, I hate to say it, but there isn’t much meat on the bone beyond that. Death Invites You feels very one dimensional compared to the rest of Halter’s work. Whereas your typical Halter will feature at least three threads running in parallel, with multiple crimes/puzzles spanning various locations, this one is very much confined to the one crime and the house in which it was committed. I don’t know if that’s so much of a criticism – this is much better than works by most other mystery writers – but it feels somewhat stifled; cut short as if better destined for a novella.
It’s strange: Death Invites You has a similar page count to other Halter works, and yet it feels like it comes in about fifty pages short. You get the crime scene setup, then the detectives move around a bit and conduct their business, but that’s about it. It was over in a flash. There are a lot of fun theories thrown around to explain different aspects of the crime scene, and it’s an engrossing read, but looking back there seems to be so little that happened.
It probably didn’t help that I spotted the killer easily and a key “misdirection” scene played out as clear as day. Plus, the solution to the whole thing fell a bit flat. I’m sure I’ve never seen this exact solution, but I can easily think of three variations on the trick in other books. For such a brilliant set up, I was looking for an equally clever finish.
Granted, Death Invites You was one of Halter’s first novels. Following narrowly on the heels of The Fourth Door and The Crimson Fog (the latter earning an in-story reference despite taking place nearly a century earlier and with Halter’s alternate series detectives), we’re treated to an author still in the first album phase – pouring out that pent up creativity which in some ways may surpass their later work, yet lacking the refinement that would come in that sophomore effort (in this case, The Madman’s Room, The Tiger’s Head, and The Seventh Hypothesis – just two years later).
It’s interesting to compare Death Invites You to The Crimson Fog (both having come out in 1988). The Crimson Fog features an excellent first half, that in a sense feels like its own self contained miniature story, yet somehow gets overlooked in most reviews in favor of the unnecessary second half. Now as good as that first half is, it’s not enough to carry a complete novel. Perhaps it shines because it’s part of a larger work. Death Invites You seems like that first half of The Crimson Fog, but in being offered up on its own, feels anemic instead of shining.
But, this is still Halter, and he plays with the reader deftly even in his early career. As an author, he’s well a step ahead of you, anticipating exactly how the experienced armchair sleuth will interpret several key clues. On the other hand, some of these clues are ultimately just that – devices to toy with the reader. When your imagination gets set spinning by a clever set up, it can be disappointing when it winds up as merely a prop in the end.
So no, I don’t see Death Invites You as Halter’s best. I’d actually probably list it last of the ten books I’ve read so far. And yet, for me, Halter’s weakest effort is more fun and imaginative than most other books I’ll read this year. Ultimately, that’s a testament to how strong the rest of his work is. Hopefully Locked Room International keeps these translations coming. I’d love to see what came the following year (1989) with Death Behind the Curtains, or to sample later works with as intriguing titles as The Twelve Crimes of Hercules, The Bloody Match, 139 Steps from Death, or The Curse of Barbarossa.