THE BLOODY MATCH by Paul Halter

Halter-Lallumette-Sanglante-mondadoriI’m not one for New Year’s resolutions usually but I promised myself two things for 2013: first, that I would try some of the great books recommended by my blogging compadres; and second, that I would finally read some of the mysteries by French writer Paul Halter. I’m glad to say that I can now do both thanks to the great generosity of Pietro De Palma, author of stories, books, articles and multi-lingual blogger at Death Can Read and its Italian-language counterpart, La morte sa leggere. He has very kindly gifted me four of Halter’s books in Italian translation as well as Stanislas-André Steeman’s Six hommes morts (aka ‘Six Dead Men’).  So, to kick off, here is an impossible mystery featuring Halter’s regular detectives, criminologist Dr Allan Twist and Inspector Hurst.

I offer the following review as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott over at her Pattinase blog. You should head over immediately to see the terrific reviews being offered there today.

“Luckily this is not a fairy tale, ogres don’t exist and we find ourselves in real life having to solve a sordid murder case, without being able to do so. And the solution is getting further away, the mysteries increase and the monstrous butcher is laughing at us …” – Inspector Archibald Hurst

Originally published in France in 2001 as L’Allumette sanglante, literally ‘The Bloody Match’, the novel opens with a prologue on a foggy London night in March 1932. A bobby on the beat stops a man carrying a suitcase and gets stabbed for his trouble – when his colleagues make it to the scene, the policeman tells them that the assailant ran into a blind alley and hasn’t left – but when they search they find no evidence of the man nor any visible means of escape either. What they do retrieve is the suitcase – with a chopped up body neatly packed inside! It is not the first (it’s the third in fact), nor will it be the last. The action then jumps forward four months as England goes through an uncharacteristically hot Summer and we are introduced to three down-on-their-luck members of the Hornby family: George, a scientist involved in mysterious research involving tissue density; Margo, who is living in very reduced circumstances in the top floor of a cat-infested building; and Virginia, from the Australian branch of the family, who has come home to escape from her overbearing former boyfriend. The three cousins will become intimately involved in the case when another chopped up body is found in a suitcase at Charing Cross Station just as Virginia arrives. Margo’s journalist boyfriend Alexander dashes to cover the story and the two young women decided to do some amateur sleuthing after being accosted at different times by a man with a beard and dark glasses at the station, who they now think might have been the murderer in disguise. Tracking his movements they find a wallet with an address in it and decide to go there. Hearing footsteps on the top of the dark staircase they hide and hear someone go into the room, turn on the light and close the door. They call the police, but when they arrive the room is empty, again with no visible means of escape. The only clue is a matchstick with blood on it.

“Death seemed to lie in wait in the dark corridor”

Virginia, Marge and George finally all meet up and discover that their ship has come in – their only relative, a long-lost uncle living in America, has died and they are to split the inheritance. This is great news for Marge as she has been living on the edge of destitution since her father died but the timing is poor as life just becomes more complicated. Not only does Alexander become a bit too interested in Virginia for her linking but one of her boyfriend’s rivals sends photos of Marge to every newspaper announcing that she has seen the murderer – which of course immediately puts her in harms way. This is confirmed when a note arrives from Inspector Hurst’s anonymous police informant who goes by the name of ‘Argo’. Several more killings take place before the pipe-smoking Allan Twist reveals whodunit and how they executed their miracle escapes. Halter is a great follower of John Dickson Carr, the king of the locked room mystery and the impossible crime, and here attempts to create a Golden Age mystery that reads as if it truly was written in 1932, with no bad language or material that would have seemed out-of-place at the time. This is mostly successful, though the reference to a potential Russian double agent as a ‘mole’ is certainly anachronistic (I think John le Carré is usually the one credited with having created the term) – in many ways though the plot of this book felt more like one of Philip MacDonald’s novels than a tale by Carr. In particular, with its emphasis on a long series of murders and its effect on the London population, with hordes of policemen running around the city searching for the killer, I found it highly reminiscent of X v Rex (aka Mystery of the Dead Police), which I previously reviewed here. But can it withstand such comparisons?

“Tonight nothing is impossible, old chap”

9782702430316This a light and easy read but is also a disappointment. My main worry when reading about Halter’s work was that these approximations of the GAD style would get the plot mechanics right but might take too much for granted in terms of atmosphere and characterisation or make that mistake of most pastiches of seeming to be too knowing in referencing its antecedents, and I have to say this turned out to be true in this case. The rather too archly named Twist isn’t a very memorable or specified character and is in fact somewhat bland and colourless and doesn’t really do a lot of detecting either except right at the end. Most of the other characters are pretty thinly drawn too, which is probably why Halter doesn’t mind knocking off one of the cousins, which I thought was a shame really and not necessary given the already high body count. In addition Virginia and Marge behave in absurd ways, putting themselves in jeopardy far too often, while a whole subplot about the two switching identity stretches credulity well past breaking point. The recreation of London circa 1932 is perfectly efficient but, again, basically pretty nondescript – so what we are left with is a celebration of the GAD novel with an enjoyably complicated plot that does resolve its mysteries with reasonable fairness and ingenuity, which I think will suffice for most readers. I suspect though that this may not be one of Halter’s best works, so shall persevere with some of the other titles of his that I have and see what I make of those.

Like many of Halter’s books this one has yet to be translated into English but a few are now available either in print or e-book format. For further information about Halter and his books, those who can read French should visit the author’s website at www.paulhalter.net. I however will make good use of  John Pugmire’s very useful profile over at Mysteryfile.com and Patrick’s growing section on the author to be found on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime.

Grazie Piero, ti sono debitore!

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

About these ads
This entry was posted in John Dickson Carr, Locked Room Mystery, London, Paul Halter, Philip MacDonald, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to THE BLOODY MATCH by Paul Halter

  1. Patrick says:

    Yeah, I’ve heard this is one of the weaker Halter tales. If I may ask, what are the others you’ve got on your stack?

    • Hi Patrick – well, I did enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, but if the perception is that book is a bit of a lemon, then good, makes me look forward even more to the other title Piero kindly sent me, the titles of which i do not have to hand but will check after I get home and post back!

      • Patrick says:

        I don’t think it has been translated into Italian, but one of my very favourites is THE ONE-EYED TIGER:
        http://at-scene-of-crime.blogspot.ca/2011/05/le-maharadjah-meurt.html

        Halter is at his finest when his plot is brilliant. This is why some books like THE LORD OF MISRULE can at times divide readers. However, other stuff like THE FOURTH DOOR, THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR, or THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS undoubtedly fits into that “brilliant plot” category and so they make for terrific reads.

        Of the Halters I’ve read, I wouldn’t recommend DEATH INVITES YOU or BARBAROSSA’S CURSE as books with which to get yourself acquainted with Halter. Although they have their strengths, the plot construction is so majorly flawed on one or two points that it doesn’t rank among his finest stuff in the end.

        Oh, and by the way, thanks for the plug on my site. Unfortunately I just now noticed that my bullet points were swallowed by the page, so I went back and corrected them (and made the text larger). I’ll still be busy tweaking site pages for the next few months, I guess, as I come across pages that need alterations to suit the newer design.

        • Thanks very much for all that great info too Patrick, really appreciate it – Barbarossa rings a bell actually but I’ll be racing to check when I get home!

        • Hi Patrick – I’ve checked my stash at home and the three other books Piero gave me are: La Chambre du Fou (The Madman’s Room) from 1990; L’Arbre aux Doigts Tordus (The Tree with Twisted Branches) from 1996; Le Geant de Pierre (The Stone Giant) from 1998 – don’t think any of these are on English yet, which is another bonus!

          • Patrick says:

            I have heard that “The Madman’s Room” can rank with Halter’s finest plots any day. Consensus on the other two books is far more mixed, especially on “The Tree With the Twisted Fingers” (a brilliant title, IMO, particularly in French where is sounds even more sinister). “The Stone Giant” is an excursion into the ancient world, I believe, and Halter did that very well in THE CRIME OF DAEDALUS… unfortunately, although that book has a brilliant murder set in Ancient Greece, the plot in modern day is considerably less credible and brings the book down overall.

            Yeah, none of them has been translated into English yet, which is a shame, but John Pugmire has done a great job releasing them one at a time.

            One other Italian title you might want to keep your eyes on is THE RED FOG, translated by Igor Longo and published by Il Giallo Mondadori under the title NEBIA ROSSA. It’s widely regarded as one of Halter’s finest and I really need to get around to reading it one of these days.

          • Brilliant, thanks Patrick’s definitely The Madman’s Room next and I’ll see about getting Red Fog too – thanks chum.

  2. Sergio – I’ve wanted to try Hlater’s work too and haven’t (yet). Sorry to hear this first go wasn’t exactly a winner for you. Hopefully the others will fare better. Even very talented authors don’t always resonate with us. As ever, thanks for the thorough and thoughtful review, to say nothing of the helpful links.

    • Thanks Margot – looks like I picked one of the lesser titles to start with but I am definitely reading the other so hopefully will have much more positive things to say, which would chime with the many good things I’ve heard about Halter so far.

  3. John says:

    I sympathize with you, Sergio. It took me a while before I found the right Halter. I was rather underwhelmed. I read his short stories first and thought most were pretty good while some were very familiar clearly derived from the work of other writers. Then the first novel I read was THE LORD OF MISRULE which I disliked for a variety of reasons one of which was a transparent clue that made one of the impossibilities rather obvious. THE FOURTH DOOR was my second try and started to see the plot elements that have earned Halter the nickname “the new John Dickson Carr.” He still hasn’t really won me over though he does have an ever growing group of fans now that so many of his books have been translated.

    • Thanks for that John – I do need to find out just how many of his are available in English and in print (being a non e-reader). I suspect Patrick is the guru when it comes to this – looking forward to ploughing on and finding out what all the fuss is about!

    • eddiejc1 says:

      Many? Halter has written over thirty books in his native language, and only a HANDFUL have been translated into English. Or by “many”, do you mean other languages which I happen to be fluent in?

      • What I actually said was that this book, like many other titles by Halter, have not been translated into English – inarguable I would have thought …

        • eddiejc1 says:

          Cavershamragu, I apologize for the confusion, but my remark was not directed towards you, but rather something that John wrote. His exact words were:

          [Paul Halter] still hasn’t really won me over though he does have an ever growing group of fans now that so many [emphasis mine] of his books have been translated.

          Incidentally, thanks to on-line resources and perserverance, I’m on the verge of finishing a translation to Paul Halter’s young adult novel SPIRAL which has been published by Rageot Thriller.

  4. Colin says:

    A writer who’s completely new to me. Thanks for highlighting this guy Sergio. Despite the shortcomings you’ve mentioned, Halter sounds like an author I’d like.

  5. I’ll be looking for Halter books. The magic words CARR and MACDONALD make me curious.

    • Well exactly – what right thinking person could resist? Looks like the half dozen or so titles available in English are genrally held in higher regard than this one …

  6. Barry Ergang says:

    Patrick and i both reviewed THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS, and our friend Kevin Tipple ran the reviews back-to-back on his blog a couple weeks ago–see http://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2013/02/ffb-seventh-hypothesis-by-paul-halter.html for two different takes on the same novel.

    Halter, as I’ve pointed out in that review and others, is not a writer who emphasizes characterization. This can be a problem, as it was for me in THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS, in trying to keep track of who is who. Plot is everything to Halter. His sense of atmosphere has varied from fairly well-done to sketchy in the books of his I’ve been able to read in English. The sense of place, as you point out, is negligible.

    I enjoyed THE FOURTH DOOR, THE LORD OF MISRULE (http://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2011/03/barrys-reviews-lord-of-misrule-by-paul.html), THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR (http://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/2012/06/barry-reviews-demon-of-dartmoor-1993-by.html), THE SEVEN WONDERS OF CRIME, and most of the stories in THE NIGHT OF THE WOLF. Accepting the fact that not every book by an author one enjoys will be a winner, I look forward to reading more of Halter’s work.

  7. TracyK says:

    This is also an author that I want to try, based on reviews at other sites, but the drawback that his translated books on Amazon are relatively expensive. It is good to have some feedback here in your review and the comments, on better books to read first. Even though there are Kindle editions available, I don’t like to go that route for the first time I read an author (unless necessary) because I enjoy the whole experience less.

    • Thanks TracyK, glad this review was of interest. I know exactly what you mean about the cost of the English editions – I’m really grateful to Piero for making a present of these books as they are a bit expensive! On the other hand, the consensus appears to be that The Demon of Dartmoor is really worth reading for its crackejack plot

  8. Yvette says:

    ‘The Demon of Dartmoor’ I’d read it purely because of the crackerjack title. :) Never heard of this author but thanks for remedying that, Sergio. :)

    • Hopefully the next one of his I review will prove to be one of his stronger titles Yvette – really looks like I made a poor choice for a debut (hate it when that happens after so many positive reviews of his other books!)

  9. Sergio, I am looking forward to reading your reviews of the other books by Paul Halter, another new author for me, and I hope you find them a lot better than you did this one. Did you find the high body count off-putting? Maybe, one dead body too many and that kind of thing.

    • Thanks Prashant – looks like I picked a wek one so am looking forward to the next one, The Madman’s Room. Actually, I don’t necessarily mind the bodies piling, as they do in such Philip Macdonald books as X v Rex (aka Mystery of the Dead Police), Murder Gone Mad and The List of Adrian Messenger, all great books in my view, it’s a question of tone and in the case of this Halter book, he kills off one of the main characters who is also one of the most sympathetic and although it is a souce of a little comment by the hero, I just couldn’t see the point and seemed unnecessarily heartless. That’s me though, callous yet soft!

      • I am not familiar with Philip Macdonald’s work though I have read and enjoyed the novels of the other two Macd(D)onalds, Ross and John D., and I am currently sitting on a neat pile of their books, reading them but with no plans to review them as yet. I get the feeling Halter bumps off one of his main characters for sheer effect or possibly to make the plot realistic, where the good guys die too.

        • From what I understand, Halte ris all about plot with characters really secondary, even in his best work, so it’s about the mechanics – if you approach it that way you are probably better off. Philip MacDonald was a big name in the 20s and 30s and was known for sensational plot ideas that often tended to fail the logic test at the final hurdle. I have yet to read a John D. book, for shame, but remain an enormous fan of Ross, one of the greats of the hardboiled genre by any standard. Are you back to blogging now Prashant?

          • Sergio, I have read more books by John than by Ross though I am already an equal fan of both these terrific writers. I have no doubt that you will like John D. MacDonald’s noirish thrillers, too. In fact, I would be very keen to read your reviews of any of his books. You will particularly like Travis McGee, his famous creation, described by JDM as a “waterfront gypsy” in one of his novels. He is far from your regular police or private detective. I am optimistic of picking up some Philip MacDonald’s titles from the secondhand bookstall I frequent, a little hole in the wall that never ceases to surprise me. Meanwhile, I am giving myself another week or so before getting back to blogging though I posted something entirely inconsequential last evening, to keep the wheels moving, so to speak.

          • Will definitely track down some Travis McGee, thanks Prashant – good luck with your recovery chum.

  10. piero says:

    Le Brouillard Rouge is one of the most beautiful I have ever read Halter. Not so much for the solution of the Locked Room (Halter almost always tries to challenge the impossible) but for the quality of the plot.
    It is the triumph of the Grand-Guignol, and has the distinction of begin where it ends. It is packed with quotes (like all novels by Halter) overt or covert, and notations. One is that of the painting of the walls, which correlates it with La Mort Vous Invite: whereas in the second walls are painted with paint, in the first are with blood (brr. ..).
    Read my three articles, also on my site English (on Barbarossa, Hands, and 139) and then tell me about.
    I agree with Patrick about Barberousse, not about La Mort Vous Invite. The fact is that while Barberousse has an inherent weakness, which resides in the solution too contrived and implausible (the bag with its contents on the shoulders of a young boy), the solution of the second is not so bad, except that the references and quotations are so many as to make the same solution of the Locked Room a repetition of one invented by others (Clayton Rawson).
    In my opinion, at the novels by Halter, the most interesting characters are the visionary solutions and plots: for example at Le Toile de Penelope, the impossibility is given by a web that closes the window which calls the web this in a novel by Abbot that I reviewed not recently on my home site.

  11. piero says:

    Dear Sergio, I tell you one of my next articles will be just The Madman’s Room by P.Halter. It will be nice to read two articles by two different authors written about the same novel.
    Bye. Piero

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s