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.