For 30 years French author Paul Halter has published dozens of celebrations-cum-recreations of the impossible mysteries of John Dickson Carr. Thanks to Pietro De Palma, multi-lingual blogger at Death Can Read and La morte sa leggere, I have been reading some of them in Italian translation. I started with the The Bloody Match and Madman also features Dr Allan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst. It’s a variation on the ‘killer room’ gambit used by Carr and such varied authors as Wilkie Collins and Cornell Woolrich.
I offer the following review as part of JJ’s celebrations for Halter 60th birthday today over at The Invisible Event – joyeux anniversaire!
“To see or not to see, that is the question.
Originally published in France as La Chambre du Fou, the novel opens with a prologue in which childhood friends Paula and Patrick finally realise they might have romantic feelings for each other. Unfortunately, this occurs just when she has decided (at his suggestion) to marry Francis, whose sister Sarah is the wife of the super-rich industrialist Harris Thorne. The rest of the story then spreads out over the following couple of years as Paula and her parents go to live in the Thorne family home, Hatton Manor, a castle not far from Cheltenham, with her husband as well as Sarah, Harris and his bother Brian. There is a mystery at the manor as the room that once belonged to a great-uncle, closed for decades, has now been re-opened. It turns out that the ancestor may have had the gift of divination and terrified his family with his ability to foretell the future – an ability that Brian now claims also to have inherited. Brian is angry that the room has been re-opened, convinced that this will spell doom for the Thorne clan – and he is soon proved right when Harris apparently throws himself out of the room’s window and dies. Why did he do it? The only clue is a damp patch near the fireplace, something also found near the body of his great uncle when he died in similarly unexplained circumstances in the room decades before. A year passes and Sarah is now engaged to be married to the local doctor, while Patrick also makes a return, engaged to Bessie. the same doctor’s ex-fiancee (yes, I had a bit of trouble keeping up as well to be honest). Then there is another death, followed by reported sightings of Harris Thorne going around having conversations with people and then there is an arson attack and three more deaths. Time for Dr Twist and Inspector Hurst to make their (belated) appearance and clear everything up!
“I warned you, you shouldn’t have reopened that room!”
So, what did I make of this one? The author’s affection for John Dickson Carr and the Golden Age detective story is certainly communicated very well, even though of necessity it does always feel like a recreation rather than the real thing (how could it be otherwise). Thi sis partly because Halter is so caught up in making his homage as plot-authentic as possible that you tend to lose any sense of life as it might be lived at the time, so that the lack of everyday detail makes you realise that this is not presening a world encountered outside of literature. But the plot is great fun even if the characters are pretty dull, essentially chess pieces to be moved around to make the story work.
However, though there are a mass of implausibilities (the Sherlockian maxim, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” gets quoted often by Hurst), this remains pretty ingenious throughout and benefits from being played completely straight. And one has to applaud Halter’s dedication as a craftsman as he goes to a lot of trouble to explain everything rationally, even Brian’s amazing ability to predict the future. I will say though that an alibi involving a disguise that is seemingly pulled out of thin air at a crucial moment was a step too far in stretching credulity for this reader – and certainly the fact that the penultimate chapter has Twist bemoaning how implausible it all has been is perhaps a bit too near the knuckle!
So, OK, not one of Twist’s finest cases (reviews suggest that The Fourth Door is much more impressive) but plenty of fun for linguistically unchallenged detective story addicts, none the less. Like many of Halter’s books this one has yet to be translated into English but a few of the Dr Twist books are now available either in print editions or e-book format (see the list below). Those marked with an asterisk are available in English translation. For more info, visit John Pugmire’s Locked Room International – www.mylri.com
Dr. Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst novels:
- La Quatrieme Porte (The Fourth Door, 1987)*
- La Mort Vous Invite (Death Invites You, 1988)*
- La Mort Derrière les Rideaux (Death Behind the Curtains, 1989)
- La Chambre du Fou (The Madman’s Room, 1990)
- La Tete du Tigre (The Tiger’s Head, 1991)*
- La Septieme Hypothese (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991) *
- Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993)*
- A 139 Pas de la Mort (139 Steps from Death, 1994)
- L’Image Trouble (The Picture from the Past, 1995)*
- La Malediction de Barberousse (The Curse of Barbarossa, 1995)
- L’Arbre aux Doigts Tordus (The Tree with Twisted Branches, 1996)
- Le Cri de la Sirene (The Siren’s Shriek, 1998)
- Meutre dans un Manoir Anglais (Murder in an English Manor, 1998)
- L’Homme Qui Aimait les Nuages (The Man Who Loved Clouds, 1999)
- L’Allumette Sanglante (The Bloody Match, 2001) – review
- Le Toile de Penelope (Penelope’s Web, 2001)
- Les Larmes de Sibyl (Sibyl’s Tears, 2005)
- Les Meurtres de la Salamandre (The Salamander Murders, 2009)
- La Corde d’Argent (The Silver Thread, 2010)
- Le Voyageur du Passe (The Traveler from the Past, 2012)
- La Tombe Indienne (The Indian Tomb, 2013)
To see the other Halter reviews and celebrations of his work in honour of the author’s birthday today, visit JJ’s blog, The Invisible Event or ‘unlock’ on the image below:
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 (he is also steadily translating the books into English) and Patrick’s growing section on the author to be found on his now sadly largely dormant blog, At the Scene of the Crime. The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed most of the Halter books in English so far over at his fab market-leading blog, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.
Interesting you use mention the homage to the Golden Age and Carr, as I think Halter moves beyond this into making his own little genre. In fact, there’ll be a post on this later today…
Look forward to that post – from my limited reading this far I feel confident in the way I put it but will use you guidance in which to read next
My basic argument is that Halters set up tends to be more fantastic than anything in the Golden Age, although this one sounds like the set-up for The Red Widow Murders with jumping out the window replacing poisoning, so it probably isn’t the best book to support my case…
The two I have read have been very traditional in this respect (wow, I must re-read RED WIDOW, I really didn’t make the connection at all). I know I have asked about jumping on points but will be doing it again today as I really would love to know what you think is best and most Halter-ish book to start with (as I clearly have not done that yet).
From what I’ve read to date – i.e. the English translations, it’s hard to pin down what a standard Halter book is as he tries all sorts of tricks. I think Death Invites You ticks the boxes – outlandish set up, locked room – and is one of the most satisfying solutions. If you want to go a bit odder, then The Phantom Passage. If you want much odder, then The Picture From The Past is the one. They’re all good ones, as is The Demon From Dartmoor. There’s a Halter page over on my blog linking to all the reviews.
Thanks chum – just heading over to your review of DEATH INVITES YOU right now …
Sounds like a lot of fun, this, and even if it’s not the most archetypal Halter – I’d agree with the Doc that Death Invites You is possibly the best starting point – I hope you’re encouraged to try a bit more of him (maybe it’s me, but it sounds like this was more an a two-and-a-halfer!). Got a second post coming myself later that might mine some similar ground to Doc’s approach, too, though he’ll’ve doubtless done a far more insightful job!
Thanks JJ – all good to know. I did find this one a bit too mechanical and lacking in atmosphere but definitely one to try more of them!
Still haven’t caught up with Halter, despite this kind of material appearing to be right up my street. A combination of pricing and just generally other stuff keeps getting in the way. Any, thank for reminding me of his work again.
My pleasure – JJ, Steve and Rich’s enthusiasm is certainly contagious. The E-reader versions are cheaper but I will get some fo these because the high price, as books from a very small imprint, is clearly a necessity and I’d like to support it (if I can afford to).
Indeed, I understand the reasons for the pricing and don’t begrudge it in the least – just lamenting my own limited funds really.
I’m with you there matey!
Excellent review as ever, Sergio. I know exactly what you mean, too, about the implausibility factor, so to speak. And it’s so hard for a re-creation to capture the life and essence of the original inspiration, isn’t it? But I always appreciate an author who pays tribute to the Golden Age.
Thanks margot – and I agree, the intention is a good one, especially as it it is clearly borne of such great affection for the genre.
Terrific review, Sergio. My rating of The Seven Wonders of Crime isn’t even quite as good as yours. I think it interesting that despite the obvious homage to Carr–we both referenced Doyle and Holmes in our reviews. 🙂
Heading over to you review right this minute Bev 🙂
It’s funny, Sergio: I have a lot of trouble with Halter after three reads, yet I am fascinated to read the reviews of the ones not yet translated in English and sorely tempted to keep trying. Just a glutton for impossible crime punishment, I guess!
Thanks Brad. Well, must admit, not too keen on the ones I have read so far either! But will try at least a couple of the ones that are rated more highly!
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Sergio, thanks for the review and the introduction to Paul Halter and his work. I will keep an eye out for those of his books translated into English. His name doesn’t suggest he’s French.
Interesting about the name – there is Italian usage of Walter which has the W pronounced as a V but is bound to confuse people …
In my opinion, the four best Paul Halter in English are The Demon Of Dartmoor, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Phantom Passage and The Fourth Door.
Thanks for that Santosh – I have ordered Dartmoor and am really looking forward to it.
Generally, the Paul Halter novels are quite complex with several impossibilities and several subplots. If you prefer a straightforward and simple novel, I recommend La Toile de Penelope. It is not available in English, but it is available in Italian as La Tela di Penelope (I note that French and Italian are almost similar 🙂 ). It has only one impossibility (a locked room mystery) with a brilliant solution.
Italian and French are very copacetic, no question 🙂 I usually prefer an Italian translation from French than in English, if I can. I’m looking forward to DARTMOOR (in English), which is no on its way – thanks Santosh.
For some reason, after all the reviews I have read, I haven’t been interested in trying Paul Halter’s books. I expect I will some day and regret that I waited so long. Maybe because I have never really gotten into locked room mysteries. I know that is heresy here, but it is true. I found your review very interesting, nevertheless.
Thanks Tracy – but wait, you love John Dickson Carr just like the rest of us, right? I mean, it’s bad enough that the UK has voted to leave the EU, but us bloggers got to stick together 🙂
Well, I haven’t given locked room mysteries a fair test yet, and I have yet to try a John Dickson Carr book… but I do have some to try.
Which ones have you got Tracy? I really envy you having big chunks Carr to discover … 🙂
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Have just read this in the recent English translation and loved it — the different translations may bring out different aspects, but I think the reolsution of the various impossibilities are brilliantly worked. Review coming soon…!
Really looking forward to reading what you made of it JJ 🙂
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