The Vampire Tree – Paul Halter (1996)

The Vampire Tree is the last of the “old” Paul Halter books that I’d yet to read, and my distinction there is going to feel meaningless to you, but there’s a point to it.  At the time that I bought The Vampire Tree, I owned all available english translations of Halter published by Locked Room International.  Half a dozen additional translations have been released since then, but I, for some reason, decided to read all of the “old ones” first before moving on to “new” stuff.  Of course, those labels are really meaningless, since Halter’s output spans four decades and the order that the books have been translated in seems somewhat random… although, now that I think about it, all of the recent translations have been of stories published after 1998.

Anyway, I’d kind of put this one off for “last” because I had gotten the impression that this was the lesser regarded of Halter’s output, although I’ve been wrong about such impressions before.  Regardless of the validity of the impression, The Vampire Tree is not a lesser work.  In fact, it may be the best story that I’ve read by Halter.  Now, I want to emphasize that I said “best story”, not “best book” or “best mystery”, and I think there’s a real distinction there when you’re dealing with this genre.  You’re shaking your head, I realize, and I’m about to lose you, but here we go.

Whistle Up the Devil by Derek Smith is easily a top 15 impossible crime mystery, but the story is a bit cardboard.  Cut out the tightly crafted impossible crimes and the astounding solutions, and you have something that I think we can agree isn’t really worth reading.  Contrast that with Captain Cut Throat by John Dickson Carr: a book that is surely never going to come up in a list of his top 40 mysteries, but possesses a gripping story (and would likely translate to the best Carr movie).  Or let’s look at Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, probably his most enjoyable story (and often cited as amongst the author-duo’s best work), although it wouldn’t fool a twelve year old when it comes to the mystery.

Thus, The Vampire Tree is Paul Halter’s best story, even if it’s not the best thing he wrote.  Halter loads his stories with impossible crimes and crazy situations and those absolutely will influence your enjoyment of his work.  The best impossibility?  That would be the defenestration by invisible hand in The Demon of Dartmoor.  His most audacious effort?  The stack of impossibilities in The Seven Wonders of Crime.  Halter’s best overall work in my mind is probably The Madman’s Room (although you could make an argument for The Tiger’s Head, The Seventh Hypothesis, or The Seven Wonders of Crime… geez, I’m about to list them all).  It’s a perfect balance of his puzzle elements, multi-generational horror, and some tight plotting combined with misdirection.  Gah, what am I doing?  We’re not here to discuss The Madman’s Room.

The Vampire Tree finds Halter somewhat stripped down, but still in clearly recognizable form.  There are all of the elements of a Halter novel present in some form: the legend of a child-killing witch condemned to death and buried where a creepy tree now stands; a century old strangling in which the victim was found in an expanse of snow bearing no footprints but his own; a modern day killer roaming the streets picking off children.  Yes, this is what I consider Halter at his most subdued!

I’m always a fan of the “mystery that spans generations” bit, and it’s familiar ground for Halter.  In The Vampire Tree the shift in time is very much central to the story, and we follow with interest not just present day events, but those from the past as well.  There is indeed an impossible crime, but as I read I found myself much more swept up in the plot than focusing on the puzzle.  And that’s a good thing, because the solution to the footprints in the snow mystery isn’t the author’s tightest, but who cares, I loved the story.

As always, a plea to Locked Room International to keep up the pace with the Halter translations.  There are too many tempting titles that I can’t wait to see in print.  The Twelve Crimes  of Hercules, The Siren’s Shriek, The Salamander Murders, The Traveler from the Past, The Deadly Letter… I could go on and on…

6 thoughts on “The Vampire Tree – Paul Halter (1996)”

  1. Damn! You ruined my plan. Given my track record with Halter, I thought it’d be funny to just keep intentionally reading all of the Halters everyone is raving about being bad or mediocre (Vampire Tree, White Lady, etc…) while pretending to be baffled at my inability to enjoy Halter, and yet you managed to put a positive spin on this novel…!

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    1. I went into The Seven Wonders of Crime with the mistaken impression that people didn’t think too highly of it. I was blown away. Nothing like being wrong in those circumstances.

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  2. Similar to how TomCat says that the first halter translations were sold on their comparisons to Chesterton and Carr and suffered as a result, I think The Vampire Tree suffered for me because I went in expecting a Tiger’s Head or Seventh Hypothesis…and it’s realy not that sort of book. There is a really good, ominous plot and setting here, albeit married to a more loosely structured plot like The Mask of the (hey!) Vampire, and it’s a book I enjoyed without loving first time and can well believe I’d like a whole lot more on second read. Glad you were able to come to it with fewer expectations and enjoy it for what it is — always a lovely experience to be able to appreciate an author trying something different.

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