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.
Continue reading “The Seven Wonders of Crime – Paul Halter (1997)”
I had originally intended to read Death Invites You as my first Paul Halter novel, and with good reason. It boasts the most intriguing set up of any of the French author’s English translations – quite the feat, given an impossible crime catalogue laden with rooms that kill, invisible assassins, bodies surrounded by untouched snow, and every manner of locked room puzzle – plus I’ve seen a number of reviewers list it as his best. How then does this book end up being the tenth Halter I’ve read? Honestly, I have no excuse other than a capricious hand when selecting my next reads.
As for that set up, it’s as impressive as it gets. A dinner party arrives to find their eccentric host locked in his office. Unable to summon him, they eventually break down the door and stumble upon a bewildering sight. A full banquet has been spread out on a table, the food still steaming hot. Something else is steaming – a dead man sits hunched over the table, his face in a bubbling pot of oil. All doors and windows are thoroughly locked from the inside. Witnesses in the house saw no one entering or exiting the room in the time leading up to the incident, and there’s no evidence of how such a feast could have been prepared from within.
Continue reading “Death Invites You – Paul Halter (1988)”
This turned out to be an accidental Christmas read. It was the multiple “footprints in the snow” impossibilities that lured me to The Lord of Misrule, a natural attraction given two feet of fresh snow surrounding my home. That the crimes in the story span the days surrounding Christmas was an unexpected bonus. So here you go – a holiday Paul Halter!
If The Lord of Misrule feels ubiquitous, it’s probably because JJ, the author of The Invisible Event, adopted a fragment of the book’s cover as an avatar and thus forever associated it with quality comments on mystery fiction blogs. As a Paul Halter novel though, it flies somewhat under the radar. Not part of the much lauded titles (The Madman’s Room, The Demon of Dartmoor, etc, etc, etc, etc) nor the criticized (The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime), The Lord of Misrule occupies that no man’s land along with The Picture of the Past: the book’s that don’t really get discussed.
Continue reading “The Lord of Misrule – Paul Halter (1994)”
For a first novel, Paul Halter sure swung for the fences. Two locked room murders, a no-footprints crime scene, unexplained events at a seance, and a prominent magician character – sounds like something out of impossible crime classics like Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat or Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. Just like many a band’s debut effort is the culmination of all of those ideas dying to get out, you can get a sense of how the The Fourth Door was that first raw effort for what Halter was yearning to create.
The Darnley house has plagued the imagination of neighborhood children since the supposed suicide of Mrs Darnley years ago. Although covered with brutal stab wounds all over her body, suicide was the only conceivable explanation for Darnley’s death, as her body was found tucked away in a small attic room with the door bolted from the inside and the only window sealed. Ever since, neighbors have reported occasionally seeing a mysterious light in the attic room late at night.
Continue reading “The Fourth Door – Paul Halter (1987)”
It’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.
Continue reading “The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)”
I’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.
Continue reading “The Crimson Fog – Paul Halter (1988)”
“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”.
Continue reading “The Tiger’s Head – Paul Halter (1991)”
That 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.
Continue reading “The Seventh Hypothesis – Paul Halter (1991)”
The 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.
Continue reading “The Invisible Circle – Paul Halter (1996)”
The 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.
Continue reading “The Madman’s Room – Paul Halter (1990)”