I’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”
This 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!