The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)

picturefromthepastIt’s been about a year since I first jumped into reading Paul Halter, and I’ve already made my way halfway through the Locked Room International translations of his work.  It’s been hard to drag it out this long – every book has been a direct injection of exactly what I’m looking for in an impossible crime novel.  That isn’t to say that they all work out in the end (I’m looking at you, The Invisible Circle), but every story has been a rush of endorphins.

There’s one Halter title that’s always struck my curiosity – The Picture from the Past.  This could just be me, but it seems to be the book that flies under the radar.  You have the ones that everyone raves about – The Demon of Dartmoor, Death Invites You, The Madman’s Room, etc, etc.  You have the ones that people tend to criticize – The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime, maybe The Lord of Misrule.  And then you have this weird little guy – The Picture from the Past.  I rarely see it come up in reviews or conversation.

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The Crimson Fog – Paul Halter (1988)

CrimsonFogI’ve purposely avoided reading anything about The Crimson Fog up to this point.  A post by The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel warned that it was difficult to discuss without spoilers, and I’ve noticed that many posters only talk about the novel in the vaguest of terms.  Well, I appreciate the discretion – nothing is worse than having an entire novel semi-spoiled for you by an innocent discussion that reveals more than intended.

That’s the tricky thing about writing about GAD mysteries – communicating how a book impacted you without accidentally giving things away.  After finishing a book it can be so tempting to draw an analogy to the solution – “it’s similar to A Murder is Announced”, “it reminded me of the solution to The Emperor’s Snuff Box”, “reminiscent of Crooked House”…these are all statements that would immediately clue a reader in to what to look out for.  Even worse is when someone comments that the author hoodwinks you within the first page or chapter, because, well, now you’re going to second guess everything that happens in that small passage.

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The Tiger’s Head – Paul Halter (1991)

TigersHead“Suitcases with macabre contents, mysterious and seemingly pointless thefts, murderers who can vanish from locked rooms, tales about evil genies, fakirs who can make young boys disappear and cobras coil and uncoil at will – when they’re not climbing ropes in the air..”

Detective Archibald Hurst summarizes the plot of The Tiger’s Head much more concisely than I could probably manage.  In that one sentence he provides a glimpse of the hail storm of craziness that author Paul Halter blasts you with throughout the novel.  This is par for the course for Halter.  The french author’s novels teeter with impossible crimes stacked every which way.  There’s something simply gluttonous about Halter’s work if you’re a fan of the “how done it”.

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The Seventh Hypothesis – Paul Halter (1991)

TheSeventhHypothesisThat I’ve made it four months without devouring another Paul Halter novel is a display of herculean restraint.  While by no means perfect, the previous three novels that I’ve read by the modern master of impossible crimes were the summer blockbuster equivalent of a locked room mystery.  Well, scratch that analogy – I tend to loathe summer blockbusters as shallow facades that bore with their action rather than excite.  Although many might deride Halter’s work as being equally shallow, I’ll guiltily admit that they give me exactly what I want.

Take the hooks, puzzles, and misdirection from five solid GAD impossible crime novels, compress it all down to 140 pages, thin out the writing a little (with excuse, perhaps, for being translated), and you’re dealing with a Halter novel.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you haven’t read one yet, I encourage you to give it a try.  The puzzles are thick and the twists come flying at you.

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The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)

InvisibleCircleThe ultimate locked room mystery set up – where to start?  Is it The Judas Window, with a room so perfectly sealed you couldn’t push a pin into it, much less the arrow lodged in the victim’s heart?  Perhaps it’s Clayton Rawson’s From Another World, in which a corpse is found alongside the knife that killed him in a room with all doors and windows sealed from the inside with tape?  Or is it The Plague Court Murders, with a man stabbed repeatedly in the back despite being locked in a secure stone hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud?

There’s almost a one-upmanship in some cases, with the author tasked with laying out a crime so thoroughly impossible that the reader is left with no avenue for an answer.  In the best cases, that answer comes in the form of a simplicity that you never thought to consider.  In the weaker ones, we get a solution so overly complex that it merely rings as a hollow justification for the puzzle.

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The Madman’s Room – Paul Halter (1990)

MadmansRoomThe idea that crimes of the distant past can haunt the present is easily my favorite plot device deployed by John Dickson Carr.  The author introduced this technique in the first Dr Gideon Fell novel, Hag’s Nook, in which multiple generations of male heirs to a rotting castle have died by a broken neck after participating in a secret ritual.  A year later, Carr introduced Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders, and we’re treated to the ghost of an eighteenth century hangman’s assistant stabbing a man to death in a locked hut surrounded by a field of untouched mud.

Carr would return to these fertile grounds several times throughout his career.  His most famous example may be The Burning Court (1937), where the ghost of a seventeenth century poisoner strikes in the modern era.  The author even managed to inject intrigue into the meandering Dark of the Moon (1968) by introducing the mystery of how three men, centuries apart, were all bludgeoned to death despite being surrounded by expanses of untouched sand.

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Paul Halter – The Demon of Dartmoor (1993)

DemonOfDartmoorOn paper, Paul Halter seems to be custom tailored for me.  Locked rooms – check.  Vanishing footprints – check.  Multiple impossible crimes in a single book – triple check.  Regarded as a modern day John Dickson Carr, Halter follows in the master’s footsteps not just in the impossible crimes that he employs by the fistful, but in the dense atmosphere that permeated Carr’s earlier work.  Rooms that kill, crimes of the past haunting the present, disappearing alleys – these are the hooks on top of the puzzle that have drawn me into Carr’s work.  To have this all echoed by Halter in new and imaginative ways is almost too good to be true.

Of course, there are detractors.  Halter’s books are said to be thin on character, sparse on the prose, and mere cardboard dressing for his puzzles and tricks.  This is complicated by the fact that he writes only in French.  His titles available in English are translations, and it seems inevitable that nuances of the author’s voice would be lost in the process.

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