THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR (1993) by Paul Halter

halter-dartmoorSometime in the 1930s, Dr Allan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst are called in when theatre star Nigel Manson is seemingly pushed off a window ledge to his death, even though he was surrounded by several apparently impartial witnesses none of whom saw anyone do it. This is one of three dozen or so homages by Halter to the Golden Age detective stories of John Dickson Carr, who for me remains the best mystery author there ever was. But how well does Halter’s pastiche measure up? My previous experiences of his work have been a bit mixed

I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog

“We’ve seen the invisible man with our own eyes,” repeated Twist in a deadpan voice.

There are several murders to be solved here, all apparently committed by a killer who is actually invisible! The first took place 50 years ago when a woman was seemingly pushed down a flight of stairs by an unseen hand. Then decades later three young women vanish from the top of “Wish Tor” though only two of the bodies are ever found. Then several years later an actor buys the old house in which the first woman died decades earlier and invites his mistress and her manager (and ex-lover) to join him and his wife there. With such a mix sparks inevitably fly, leading to a death that must be murder, only nobody can understand how. The actor was sitting on a window sill upstairs having his photo taken from below – his wife and his manager can both see him from the lounge, while a local man can see him from the gardens and all agree that he looked as though he were pushed, trying to stop himself from falling, but that there was nobody there behind him. And what about the three women who vanished years before, all of whom were reported to be heading to “Wish Tor” – a place used by trysting lovers – while speaking to a person nobody else could see? Twist and Hurst ask the help of many of the locals, from the gentry to a shepherd, and all prove to have opinions about the evil spirit that dwells in Stapleford.

“Can you imagine what the poor girl’s last thoughts were when two hands propelled her violently into the void?”

While the Carr-like impossible crime aspects are all cleared up very neatly and ingeniously, the real surprise for me was how much this novel reminded me of Agatha Christie, with an identity trick very typical of her work and here handled extremely well. Of the three Halter books I have read so far, this is certainly my favourite. There are probably too many plot strands for comfort and some of the overly melodramatic dialogue that tries to resemble the kind found in Golden Age stories can be somewhat facile at times. But the plot is strong and Halter does create a decent atmosphere of dread. This is one that should appeal to fans of both Christie and Carr – not quite the real thing of course, but pretty close.

“In all my career, I’ve never come across such a mysterious puzzle with such an incredibly simple solution.”

Only appearing in English in 2012, this book was originally published in France in 1993 as Le Diable de Dartmoor. This is one of the steadily growing number of Halter’s books to be translated into English by John Pugmire that are now available either in print editions or e-book format (see the list below). Pugmire deserves great kudos for doing this – yes, there are a few uneasy choices that remind you that this is a translation (referring to the last ever image of Manson as the “ultimate photo” when what Halter means is final, for instance; or “determinant role” when what we need is the word “crucial”) but this is minor nitpicking, it really is. Those marked below with an asterisk are available in English translation. For more info, visit Pugmire’s Locked Room International – www.mylri.com

Halter_Pazzo_mondadoriDr. Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst novels:

  1. La Quatrieme Porte (The Fourth Door, 1987)*
  2. La Mort Vous Invite (Death Invites You, 1988)*
  3. La Mort Derrière les Rideaux (Death Behind the Curtains, 1989)
  4. La Chambre du Fou (The Madman’s Room, 1990) – review
  5. La Tete du Tigre (The Tiger’s Head, 1991)*
  6. La Septieme Hypothese (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991) *
  7. Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993)*Halter_The-Fourth-Door
  8. A 139 Pas de la Mort (139 Steps from Death, 1994)
  9. L’Image Trouble (The Picture from the Past, 1995)*
  10. La Malediction de Barberousse (The Curse of Barbarossa, 1995)
  11. L’Arbre aux Doigts Tordus (The Tree with Twisted Branches, 1996)
  12. Le Cri de la Sirene (The Siren’s Shriek, 1998)
  13. Meutre dans un Manoir Anglais (Murder in an English Manor, 1998)
  14. L’Homme Qui Aimait les Nuages (The Man Who Loved Clouds, 1999)
  15. L’Allumette Sanglante (The Bloody Match, 2001) – reviewHalter-Lallumette-Sanglante-mondadori
  16. Le Toile de Penelope (Penelope’s Web, 2001)
  17. Les Larmes de Sibyl (Sibyl’s Tears, 2005)
  18. Les Meurtres de la Salamandre (The Salamander Murders, 2009)
  19. La Corde d’Argent (The Silver Thread, 2010)
  20. Le Voyageur du Passe (The Traveler from the Past, 2012)
  21. La Tombe Indienne (The Indian Tomb, 2013)

To look at some alternative expert views on this one, see what Rich Westwood had to say over at his Past Offences blog; TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time; Pietro de Palma over at Death Can Read; Barry Ergang at Flash Bang Mysteries;

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

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78 Responses to THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR (1993) by Paul Halter

  1. realthog says:

    Wot, no links to any of Brad’s jeremiads about this author?

  2. How interesting! Hints of both Carr and Christie… That sounds intriguing, Sergio. And I do like a well-plotted and believable ‘impossible mystery.’ Thanks – I may have to look this up.

  3. Colin says:

    This doesn’t sound too bad at all, Sergio. Coincidentally, I’m right now in the middle of reading Halter’s short story collection The Night of the Wolf, my first experience of the author. Some of the stories are, naturally, stronger than others but I’d say I was enjoying them so far.

    • Only read three of the novels – thanks chum. The effect can be a bit synthetic at a times but the invention and affection are genuine.

      • Colin says:

        I haven’t seen enough of his work yet to comment too much on the realism or otherwise of the tone but I think I have an inkling, from what I have read, of what you mean. It’s something to do with the rhythm of the language I suppose, although that may be related to the translation process too. Regardless, it’s not really a big negative.

  4. TomCat says:

    Paul Halter can be an uneven writer, in terms of quality, but this was a pretty solid effort on his part. A well plotted and written mystery. Apparently, Halter had visited Dartmoor before writing the book and it shows, because here he was a lot better when it come to bringing the setting alive, which has not always been his strongest point as a writer.

    You might like The Seventh Hypothesis, Sergio.

  5. JJ says:

    Glad you enjoyed this, Sergio — it’s far from perfect, but I persinally love the resolution of that “window shove”, it mightr be my favourite impossible resolution of the non-classic era (though the man found crushed to death in his bathroom in John Sladek’s Invisible Green runs it very close…actually, pretty much every solution in Invisible Green runs it very close)

    And when you say There are probably too many plot strands for comfort and some of the overly melodramatic dialogue that tries to resemble the kind found in Golden Age stories can be somewhat facile at times…yeah, that’s kinda Halter through and through, I feel. His entusiasm tends to get the better of his judgement, but the same was arguably true of Carr at times, and for sheer ingenuity alone I’m willing to forgive too many threads. Hell, given the run I’m currently on of books with not enough plot, I’d take an overstuffed Halter narrative right now just to relieve the tedium!

    • Thanks for that JJ – I read this one pretty much on your say so and did have a very good time and the main surprise worked well. I did laugh though when I saw that the book is promoted as having been singled out on the Miles Jump Radio BBC radio documentary on Locked Room mysteries as, well, it was John Pugmire himself who did that when he was interviewed on the programme!

      • Completely agree with JJ’s sentiment about too many ideas – the window fall is near perfect, but there really isn’t any need for the Headless Horseman guff.

        I do wonder though about the air of artificiality that runs through Halter’s work – how much of that is due to the translation? Not a question that I can answer, unfortunately…

        • Brad says:

          Some of that may be Pugmire, but in an interview Halter praised Carr’s artificiality. I think he’s trying to recreate his (Halter’s) vision of that atmosphere. Honestly, though, there’s always at least one layer too much of everything in Halter.

  6. Brad says:

    Did you think I was going to swirl in like the Wicked Witch of the West and ruin the festivities? Well, my pretties, I happen to think The Demon of Dartmoor is the best of the lot that I’ve read, and I think your review hit the highs and the lows perfectly, Sergio! However, I might argue that the whole thing works because it’s Halter at his most Carr-ian, rather than Christie-like. I think his most Agatha-ish book that I’ve read so far is Death Invites You. Anyway, I’m just the old grump, so I’ll go sit in my corner and leave you all to your discussion . . . 😦

  7. Sounds intriguing, Sergio. Both Christie and Carr?? Well okay, I’ll try and get a copy. Paul Halter, an author I’d never heard of. No news there. 🙂

  8. I love the moody cover on The Demon of Dartmoor, I’ll have to track down a copy. Occasionally, I trek over to Canada and find books like this that never seem to be around in the U.S.

  9. tracybham says:

    I have not ever been attracted to Paul Halter’s books, but maybe someday I will try one. Very nice review, Sergio (as always).

  10. neer says:

    I have read his THE FOURTH DOOR which had its moments. But this sounds even more interesting.

  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    This was my first Paul Halter and i enjoyed it so much that it led me to his other books. So far I have read 15 novels by Paul Halter (all 12 English translations and 3 in original French)

  12. Paul Halter is an author I’m always hearing about online, particularly in crime forums, and I have read some arguments and conflicting views. But I have never read him, nor seen one of his books, nor heard of him anywhere else. Frankly, I had no proof that he ever actually existed – he could have been an in-joke, one of those testing inventions. But now I hear it from you Sergio I actually believe it. And if I have to try one, it might as well be this one.

  13. Matt Paust says:

    All new to me, Sergio, but now I wanna find out how it happened–all of them. I kept seeing Richard Widmark, but he kept vanishing.

  14. 282daniele says:

    Hai letto il mio ultimo articolo, Sergio? Guarda che è rivolto specialmente a quelli come te che vivono all’estero ma capiscono l’italiano!
    Avrai sicuramente una sorpresa perchè sono sicuro che molti dei titoli citati, non li conosci proprio!
    Vai al link:
    http://deathcanread.blogspot.it/2017/03/the-miracle-of-gad-italian-publishing.html

    ASPETTO SUL BLOG UN TUO COMMENTO.
    Ciao.
    Piero

  15. 282daniele says:

    In un commento ho citato 3 doppioni che ho e che sicuramente tu non avrai letto perchè si tratta di romanzi molto rari ( figurarsi trovarli in lingua inglese!). Se ti interessano, mandami il tuo indirizzo attuale e vedo di inviartene uno o due (dipende dal peso della spedizione): non so se con l’uscita del UK dall’Unione Europea vi siano ancora facilitazioni nelle spedizioni o siano mutate le condizioni. Comunque ti farei arrivare quello che tu desiderassi. A dire il vero sono non dell’edizione originale, ma di una edizione del Corriere della Sera che ha pubblicato anni fa un cospicuo numero di questi romanzi ed io acquistai questi (ad un prezzo pari al 50% di quello originale) proprio per regalarli ad amici. Io ho gli originali invece. Ma salvo la copertina, sono esattamene gli stessi.

    • Molto interessante e ti ringrazio ma meglio di no – ormai sto leggendo gialli sempre di meno e in verità questo blog andrà avanti solo per un altra paio di mesi. Non chiudere le botteghe completamente ma quasi, ormai non ho ne il tempo che l’energia.

  16. 282daniele says:

    Sergio, il blog non lasciarlo del tutto! Ci hai profuso tenpo ed energie: semmai congelalo. poi quando avrai di nuovo voglia, vi posterai dell’altro. Del resto mica uno è tenuto a postare articoli a scadenza: se tu vuoi postarne uno dopo due settimane lo fai. Che ti frega? Mica lo fai per lavoro!
    E poi alla mia offerta pensaci: mica ti sto chiedendo soldi! Ciao. Piero

  17. Sergio, thanks for this review and, personally, an introduction to Paul Halter and his novels. The name doesn’t sound French even though Halter was born in France, and it’s interesting that he should write the Dr. Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst series in French. I’m glad for the translations, though.

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