On the heels of a few mediocre reads, I start what I hope will be a holiday glut of stellar mysteries. A smattering of sure-fire killer books that I’ve squirreled away for later, and if you can’t treat yourself at this time of year, then when? And what better author to start such a run than Paul Halter? The modern day master of impossible crimes consistently delivers plots chock full of puzzles and twists, and the “worst” of what I’ve read has still been tons of fun.
The Locked Room International translation of The Man Who Loved Clouds was released four years ago, and I recall it being well received at the time – although, honestly, The White Lady is the only Halter title that I can remember receiving any less than top tier enthusiasm. Since then, I’ve seen The Man Who Loved Clouds pop up on several “best lists” – whether best of Halter, or best impossible crime novel – and so this seemed like the perfect place to start my binge.
The Man Who Loved Clouds is jammed full of impossibilities, although it’s worth noting that it somewhat lacks a marquee impossible crime. We find ourselves in a small fishing village somewhere near Bristol. A local girl is said to possess mystifying powers, with the ability to make herself invisible and turn objects into gold. She also has premonitions of future events, and has predicted the death of others to the exact day.
Each power manifests itself several times over the course of the story, although we often learn of the events second hand. As such, there’s an interesting puzzle to how the girl is able to achieve the magnificent feats, but there’s a looseness to our understanding of the circumstances that keeps things just on the fringe of impossible. Halter layers things on though to create a fascinating read. We get (remembering roughly) four inexplicable disappearances, three cases of objects turned to gold, and four premonitions of death. Not only are the deaths predicted beforehand, but the victims seems to be dispatched by an invisible killer each time – carried away into the sky as if by the wind. That puts us in the neighborhood of seventeen puzzles for the reader, and so even if they aren’t air tight, you can imagine a gripping read when you spread them across 180 pages. In that sense, Halter may deliver one of his most consistently confounding novels, even if it eschews a headliner impossible crime.
Now, I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the separation between an impossible crime and an inexplicable crime, and I may do The Man Who Loved Clouds a bit of a injustice, because late in the story we do get a murder that could be a whopper of an impossibility. It unfolds during a dark and furiously windy night, and takes place under such chaotic circumstances that the details of exactly how impossible the situation is can’t properly sing through. And that’s a bit unfortunate, because the solution had me clapping with a tear rolling down the cheek. Add in just a bit more testimony from the characters who were at the scene to lock things down, and this is one for the books. So screw what I say, this book features a stand out impossible crime with an excellent solution!
The solution on a whole is pretty damn good. Yeah, with seventeen puzzles to unpick the goods aren’t going to be delivered every single time, but Halter ties everything together exceptionally. The premonitions, the Midas touch, the disappearances, the invisible assailant – they all come together as a single solution of sorts, and this is a height of mystery writing that you rarely see. One of the puzzles doesn’t even really require an explanation once other details have been revealed, and that’s an example of a master at work. John Dickson Carr would be proud.
Despite the love I just poured on this book, I don’t know that The Man Who Loved Clouds is even a top five Paul Halter novel. The man’s just that good. This was a great read though, and the perfect way to kick off what I hope is a gluttonous mystery feast.
3 thoughts on “The Man Who Loved Clouds – Paul Halter (1999)”
Recently read Halter’s Death Invites You and found it very good. Will try to get this too. Am excited about what else you have on your platter.
If you enjoyed Death Invites You then I have good news for you. Although it has one of Halter’s more impressive setups, it’s probably the lesser of his stories available in English. Try your hand at The Madman’s Room, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Tiger’s Head, or really anything else out there – including The Man Who Loved Clouds.
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