The Seven Wonders of Crime – Paul Halter (1997)

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…

19 thoughts on “The Seven Wonders of Crime – Paul Halter (1997)”

  1. 🤔 This was one of my earliest forays into Paul Halter, and I think one of the weakest of the titles I’ve read by him… I still think it’s worth reading for its bizarre and fascinating premise, and I think the solutions were decent – but I also wonder if there were one too many cases for the book to succeed as a whole.

    Then again, I read it immediately after my first foray into Paul Halter, which was ‘Seventh Hypothesis’ – and is to date I think the best Halter novel I’ve read. And so perhaps it suffered from that comparison. But from memory I’d put ‘Fourth Door’, ‘Tiger’s Head’, ‘Madman’s Room’, ‘Photo from the Past’ and ‘Death Invites You’ above ‘Seven Wonders’ – leaving only ‘Crimson Fog’, ‘Invisible Circle’ and possibly ‘Lord of Misrule’ to be on par. I think. -gulps-

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    1. Paul Halter is a fun author because the opinions of his work tend to be more varied than other authors I can think of. I can understand ranking The Tiger’s Head as a peer, but not The Fourth Door, The Picture From the Past (brilliant solution to one of the crimes, btw, and I love the idea of the main hook), or Death Invites You. I’d actually rank The Lord of Misrule ahead of those. If you cut off the second half of Crimson Fog, I’d rate it a lot higher.

      The thing is, each of these books have aspects of them that are just so creative or stunning, and I’d never say any are even a mediocre read. At worst they’re a blast of a page turner that semi-falls apart at the end due to a bizarre twist. I think that’s why the opinions vary so much when it comes to ranking these – it all comes down to which bit still captured your imagination.

      I’m curious to see what I make of The Vampire Tree, which seems to be out of favor as well.

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      1. Oh, I have read ‘Vampire Tree’ – but forgot that I have! Not a good sign, I guess. I didn’t dislike it as much as bloggers have – but I think the key is engaging the story with the right expectations. There are some twists here and there – but the solution to the scene in the snow I didn’t like. On the whole I suspect you’d find it less offensive if you think of it as a horror-thriller rather than a puzzle mystery.

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  2. ‘I’ve hit a point with a well known mystery where I just don’t have any enthusiasm to go on.’

    Incidentally, which title were you referring to in the above comment? 🧐

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  3. This might have been the second (or maybe the third) Halter I ever read, picked up on more or less the same basis you outline above — seven impossible crimes! — and while it’s a little under-developed to my taste (nothing ever really becomes of those paintings…) it also staggered me with its pace, relentless churning of ideas, and hilarious rip-snorting energy.

    I’m a big fan of some of the ideas in here — I forget their precise attribution as Wonders, but the lighthouse and no-footprints (of course) workings are delightful — and I wonder what you’d make of The Man Who Loves Clouds in light of your response to this one. The further I get from TMWLC the more I appreciate its design in the same way the overall shape of this is more satisfying than some of its individual elements.

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    1. The no footprints in the mud crime was incredibly clever, although I wish we had a map or diagram of the location – not as a means to aid the reader to solve the crime, but rather to build up the impossibility and setting a bit better.

      Overall, it’s a book about big ideas coming together into an even bigger idea. Man, this is the sort of stuff that gets me excited about reading the genre. Looking forward to The Man Who Loved Clouds and more releases from the backlog.

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  4. Yes! I’ve finally found another Seven Wonders fan! You said it all. This is Halter having a blast and doing what he likes without giving a flying fu… arrow. One of his best novels, no doubt about it.
    Twelve Crimes of Hercules is a different beast. Much less frantic since it’s quite a bit lengthier and part of his character-driven period. I liked it, but it alternates between chapters about the killings and chapters about some happenings inside a mansion. It feels like reading a novel and being interrupted and forced to read twelve short stories without conclusion til the denouement. The final chapters are quite good, though.
    I agree with JFW about The Vampire Tree, think of it as a horror novel and you’ll be fine.

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    1. I always get a bit jealous… err, curious to see that others have had the chance to delve into Halter’s untranslated works. I’m hoping LRI decides to bust out four Halters a year going forward.

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  5. I’ve only read two Halters so far – I have a resolution to get more next year – and this was one of them. I thoroughly enjoyed it and actually liked the man dying of thirst best. Shame you’re not liking The Beast Must Die.

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    1. I don’t hate The Beast Must Die, but I haven’t found any enthusiasm for the story yet. I’m only about a quarter of the way in and I’m crossing my fingers that the plot swings wildly from where it’s at.

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