I’ve hit a point with a well known mystery where I just don’t have any enthusiasm to go on. I might get back to it in a few weeks, but in the mean time, where to go? Why, Paul Halter of course. Even when they don’t completely pan out, Halter’s stories are a mad flurry of impossible crimes and brave ideas; just the kind of jolt that I need. In fact, I’ve been dabbling a bit with his short stories in between bouts of my more tepid read, and tales like Jacob’s Ladder and The Cleaver have been that perfect mix of creativity and shock that I’ve been lacking.
My next Halter was meant to be The Phantom Passage, but I decided to go all in with The Seven Wonders of Crime. Based on the reviews that I’ve read, this isn’t his best book – far from it, it would seem – but the whole set up is so out of this world that I just had to go for it: a serial killer creating a criminal masterpiece with seven impossible murders. Just do that math on that. We’ll get seven impossible setups, along with seven solutions. For a book running 180 pages, that lets us average about 12 pages between either a crime or a solution. Of course, we have to assume those solutions might get packed together into a 30 page denouement, which leaves us with 150 pages for seven crimes, which is still a pretty good run rate of 20 pages between crimes.
See, you can kind of have fun with this book without even having read it! At least, that was my logic going into it. I knew however that there was a bit of a danger in there. Paul Halter’s books typically give you two or three impossibilities, but in my experience so far, there’s typically only one per story that really amazes. That one solution will be brilliant, but the rest of the puzzles get semi-hand-waved away (I’m looking at you, The Picture from the Past and The Fourth Door). There was a major risk of this with The Seven Wonders of Crime…
Fortunately, any fears that I had were unfounded. The Seven Wonders of Crime is a lofty effort, and somehow Halter pulls the whole feat off. This may well be the best thing that I’ve read by the author, with the only real competition coming in the form of The Madman’s Room and The Seventh Hypothesis. That this book tends to fall towards the bottom half of Halter’s english translations in the lists that I’ve seen is absolutely mind-boggling.
The pace is just as good as I had predicted it had to be. We get our first impossibility (a man burned to death in an inaccessible lighthouse) by page 10, followed by a second impossibility by page 20. I’m not keeping any sort of official record, but I think we have four impossibilities by somewhere around page 60. They’re all varied – a man shot with an arrow straight from the heavens, a man dying of thirst despite a pitcher of clean water directly by his side, stabbings surrounded by untouched mud – but I won’t even list them all because it’s just so fun to see what miracle Halter will come up with next.
And it’s not like this is seven short stories tied together with with some weak anthology narrative; scale down the shear number of impossible crimes and you still have a story akin to what you’ll get in a Halter work such as The Lord of Misrule or The Tiger’s Head. The core plot finds detective Owen Burns attempting to track down a killer who’s modeled their crime spree after the Seven Wonders of the World. There’s a distinct relation between each murder and one of the wonders, and on top of that, each crime is a marvel in itself.
The biggest “lull” in the story is around the span between murders five and seven, in which the proceedings focus less on the unveiling of crimes and more on the effort to track down the killer. It’s funny to call that a lull, since that’s what most detective stories focus on throughout. Halter provides a very small circle of suspects, and yet still manages to keep things up in the air despite the reader having a full chance to contemplate the guilt of each.
Come the end, we’re treated to what I hoped for – a nice (but bizarrely presented) drawn out series of solutions. Only the dehydration solution misses the mark (six out of seven ain’t bad), with the rest spanning the “good enough for a short story” solution (lighthouse, archery, and lightning), to the full on wows (Hanging Gardens and Pyramid). More so, it’s how the plotting of the crimes and the solutions fit together into the full narrative that really impresses.
So yeah, apparently I’m in the minority, but The Seven Wonders of Crime is about as good as it gets for Paul Halter. It’s incredibly ambitious, and it’s a blast to read a masterwork in which the author is having so much fun. If anything, I’m a bit sad that I won’t ever get to read this for the first time again.
But hey, I still have five of Paul Halter’s english translations ahead of me, plus two short story compilations that I’ve barely touched. I’m hoping that by the time I get through those, Locked Room International will have released many more of the dozens of his books that remain untranslated. And there’s got to be a lot in there that’s just as audacious. The Twelve Crimes of Hercules sounds promising…