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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