L’incertitude haltérophile

Having cluttered everyone else’s blog with my opinions on Paul Halter (sorry, folks!), I thought it would be best if I assembled some of my general thoughts here—this post is coming right after my having finished two Halters, The Lord of Misrule and The Seventh Hypothesis, in quick procession…and, at this point, I’m just not quite sure what to think.

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At the risk of pure unoriginality, let me list the Halters I’ve read from best to worst, to give you an idea of where I’m coming from…

  1. 51GyppynAuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Night of the Wolf—a short story collection is always going to be hit-and-miss, but I remain convinced that this is the best Halter thus far translated in English. “The Abominable Snowman,” “The Golden Ghost,” “The Cleaver,” and “The Flower Girl” are all excellent—Halter at his most Carrian (except for the Dickensian “Golden Ghost”)—and “The Dead Dance at Night,” “The Call of the Lorelei,” “Rippermania,” and the titular “Night of the Wolf” are not far behind. (In all honesty, I don’t think Halter is particularly Carrian, despite the surface trappings, in the novels.) The short-story format also disguises his clear challenges with character and setting—and I believe that the plots are the cleverest as well.
  2. The Phantom Passage—by far the best Halter novel I’ve read so far. 25780901 While I guessed the identity of the murderer early on (PH’s killers are never all that surprising), I had the joy of a decently-written and fast-paced plot, complete with a jaw-dropper of an impossible crime trick. My guesses for said trick were wildly off-base, and the real solution united surprise and inevitability perfectly. To be sure, you get what you’d expect with Halter—the characters are mostly stock, and there is never Carr’s Baroque turn of phrase that convinces the reader he has just entered a Stevensonian Baghdad-on-the-Thames—but this one comes the closest to the effect Halter is trying to achieve. Formidable, monsieur.18680330
  3. The Crimson Fog—this is not, I should note, the best-plotted Halter I’ve read, but it’s decent, and the second part of the book (which I shan’t spoil) is absorbing. Nick Fuller calls it Halter’s Burning Court, which it is in ultimate effect on the reader. Not as effective as several others with a similar theme, but I enjoyed this one a great deal.
  4. The Lord of Misrule—I’m rather surprised this one is often considered one of the weaker Halters, as I thought it one of the best; indeed, if the writing had been a bit better, it would have overtaken Crimson Fog for the third spot. The concept of the story behind the titular “lord” is ex51bhlnW1DaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_cellent, but PH does not have the power to pull it off; the potential is never actualized. With that said, Owen Burns (about 80% Oscar Wilde and 20% Sherlock Holmes) is a delightful sleuth, far better than the colorless Dr. Twist, and we do receive some good build-up that recalls, of all things, The Hound of the Baskervilles. (In fact, we can describe the book as equal parts Hound, Carr’s The Three Coffins, and Chesterton’s “The Hole in the Wall,” with a dash of Dickens for good measure.) While the atmosphere, unfortunately, never really comes alive, the cluing is absolutely stellar: I deduced the solution of the “indoor murder,” but one clue in particular was one of those great “of course!” moments in detective-stories—as was the entire solution to the “outdoor murder.” This latter is one of Halter’s greatest and simplest tricks—an absolute beauty of an impossible crime solution and, once you know it, obvious. As far as I know, it’s original—unless, maybe, Chesterton got to it first?
  5. The Fourth Door—good but, after all the build-up, not great. The writing is atrocious; several times, I just wanted to put the book down and read, say, a lively stylist like Sabatini or Anthony Hope (hey, I’ve been reading a lot of swashbucklers recently), but I kept 41p7twtKYTL.__BG0,0,0,0_FMpng_AC_UL320_SR214,320_.jpgtrudging on for the sake of the plot. I’m happy that I did, as I fell neatly into the trap Halter has sprung for the unsuspecting reader—being fooled well and fine when the solution is revealed at the end. The solution to the central murder, though not wholly original, is brilliantly done and surprising; with that said, I think the solution to the second murder (close but not identical to Carr’s wonderful “Blind Man’s Hood”) is equally ingenious, though not as “flashy.” I guessed the murderer’s identity without much difficulty, and the semi-postmodernist trick is more facile than clever, but the plot is hyper-ingenious in the best Golden Age way. Still—ugh—the writing, and the lack of atmosphere, and… I’m happy I read this one for the plot, but I don’t want to read it again!
  6. The Seventh Hypothesis—not quite sure what to make of this one. The prologue contains some of Halter’s best writing and is, more than that, extremely Carrian—very much inspired by The Arabian Nights 41B7YQHnF4L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_Murder, in a good way. Carrian also is the way in which incident builds upon incident: the whole thing is made all the wilder, all the more phantasmagorical, the more we know about it. (Poor Constable Watkins!) Genuine atmosphere here, well-conveyed—adventure and mystery entering the humdrum of the everyday. I loved that part, which is why I was so disappointed that the rest of the book didn’t live up to its opening. Twist and Hurst, whom I can’t tell apart, are as colorless and uninteresting as ever, and instead of the freewheeling joy of the opening, we get a curious pastiche of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth—which is all well and fine, except that Halter can’t write dialogue as Shaffer could. Whereas Shaffer spaced out his twists, too, Halter throws them at us in a big lump, hoping one will stick—but there’s too much, too soon. The plot becomes slower and slower until the very end, when there is a nice misdirection technique—and an ultimately disappointing solution. The reason for the opening and the impossible-crime trick are clever, but the rest is ho-hum. And why does Pugmire insist on keeping “famous”? (“Ah, yes, Sir George, your famous alibi!” “My ‘famous’ alibi, Dr. Twist? You’re the only one who knows about it.” “Oui, milord, but we were written by a Frenchman. We’ve kept the Gallicisms.”)22341964
  7. The Invisible Circle—rather disappointed to have to put this one so far down—I had more fun reading it than I did The Fourth Door, though  the latter’s plot is cleverer. I love the Arthurian material, though it’s not particularly emphasized, and it’s actually not all that badly written. However, the main impossible crime proves a disappointment, and the identity of the killer is flat-out bonkers (and obvious at that). But I really did have fun reading it, which counts for something.
  8. The Madman’s Room—there was a lot that I liked about this the-madmans-roomone, but I can’t really remember it all that well (and I just read it recently…a bad sign for the book or for me? Yet I can remember Phantom Passage, which I read earlier, perfectly). The explanation for the water patches was very clever; I remember not being all that surprised by the murderer, but here’s another one in which I couldn’t quite differentiate between suspects. Decent. As both JJ and Brad pointed out, probably Halter’s most Christean book.
  9. The Demon of Dartmoor—on the other hand, I have no problem putting this one here. Even Halter’s detractors seem to like this one, but I thought it (1) slow-moving and (2) very disappointing in solution. I’m completely unconvinced that the main trick would work, and I couldn’t get a grip on any of the characters; I really didn’t care who the killer was, as every single person was identical. Also: too many plot-thread15884194s thrown in for no real reason, a common Halter flaw. (“Dr. Twist, here is the famous room in which the Hon. Marcus Aurelius was found strangled. It is also the room in which, twenty years earlier, his mother Lucilla killed herself. It is also the room in which, 150 years earlier, his famous ancestor, the big bad baronet Sir Julius Caesar, engendered the famous anger of the witch of Endor, who put a curse on the family. At the same time, the Hon. Mr. Aurelius’s brother has been seen in two places at once in this room, and his sister is suspected of being the reincarnation of the famous Witch!”)
  10. The Tiger’s Head—supremely disappointing, 18100742especially as it was one of the earliest Halters I read. Two or three (if we count the disappearing items) completely discordant plot lines, unconvincingly brought together, and a very weak handling of a strong idea. The solution to the serial killer part was, intriguingly enough, far more satisfying than the solution to the more traditional genie locked-room problem.
  11. The Seven Wonders of Crime—even more disappointing. Halter’s audacity s14417211hould be applauded, but he can’t make the concept work, and there’s never a sense of fear at the serial killings (as in Christie or Queen—or even, of all things, in David Renwick’s otherwise sub-par “The Coonskin Cap”). The reason for the murders is largely borrowed from Christie; some of the solutions are decent, others are infuriating. To cap it all off, the killer’s identity is—once again—obvious and bonkers!

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So, what do I say? When there’s a Halter I like, I really like it—The Phantom Passage, for one. In spite of my jibes at his style, he’s a far better writer (and plotter) than Eric Keith, who gave us the egregious Nine Man’s Murder. With that said, I’d say that he disappoints me more often than not. Partially that’s because of writing quality, partially that’s because I love the detective story as part-adventure, part-game, partially that’s because I like good characters (“good,” let me note once and for all, does not mean “drowning in self-pity, incessant navel-gazing, and constantly brooding”).

In that way, I think we have all (myself included) done Halter an injustice in the constant Carr comparisons, as Halter is a very different writer—much more modern, much more cynical, with much more basic prose. At this point, to be honest, I read a Carr for the style, plot (viz., story), and characters first and the puzzle-plot second (I suppose this gets into the question of why we read detective-stories in the first place); with Halter, I do the opposite, which I wouldn’t mind as much if he delivered on the plotting more often. As Nick Fuller put it:

He has a brilliant knack for thinking up situations – a keeper burnt to death in an inaccessible lighthouse in the middle of a storm, a maharajah assassinated in his palace behind three locked doors.  Often, though, the solutions are disappointing.  Some are mechanical; others are poorly motivated, not integrated into the story, or rely on the victims doing the psychologically impossible.

So where does that leave me? Well, somewhat disappointed, and not altogether considering Halter the great modern puzzle-plot writer (Renwick holds that honor, methinks, even if he’s writing in a different medium), yet still hoping to read La mort derrière les rideaux, À 139 pas de la mort, and Le cri de la sirène one of these days… 🙂

(I’m going to have to track down a Halter in French one of these days; I’m not perfectly fluent, but I can read it fairly well and have read a number of books in it so far—my only problem is finding the French-language versions!)

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17 Responses to L’incertitude haltérophile

  1. JFW says:

    Thanks for the review – I very much enjoy these ranking posts, as I tend to read through an author wanting to leave the best novel for the last. 🙂 I’ve previously decided to set apart ‘Phantom Passage’ as my final adventure with Burns and Stock, and so I’m delighted to see this novel rank so high up. On the contrary, I’ve previously decided to set apart either ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ or ‘Madman’s Room’ as my final adventure with Twist and Hurst, so the low ranking might serve as a warning to me…

    I generally like Halter, though I think I’ve only read one novel I would classify as very good (‘Seventh Hypothesis’). There are a handful I think are good (‘Death Invites You’, ‘Fourth Door’), and the rest are novels I’d read primarily for the puzzle (‘Seven Wonders’, ‘Invisible Circle’, ‘Crimson Fog’). ‘Vampire Tree’, which many have slammed, I think is a thriller rather than a mystery – and from that perspective emerges slightly better in my opinion.

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    • Very welcome! When Patrick Ohl first reviewed Death Invites You, he wrote it “… isn’t Grade A Halter… This is more of a B, or a B+ if you’re lenient,” and I found other reviews that seemed to say the same, so it wasn’t one of the first books I wanted to read. When I read comments like yours, JJ’s, and Brad’s, though, I started to reconsider, and I will take a look at the book one of these days.

      I don’t want to dissuade you from choosing Demon or Madman as your last Twist, as both have been praised very highly even by Halter-dissenters. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t bowled over by either, but I confess that mine is an idiosyncratic opinion. (Perhaps reading Demon in the original French helps…)

      I do think you’ll like Phantom Passage; it is the one book that we all seem to agree on and like. Vampire Tree as a thriller, eh? I do like thrillers, and I’m often indifferent to Halter’s solutions anyway… Does that mean it has a faster pace? Some Halters I’ve read are rather slow-going.

      Thanks as always for the comment!

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  2. JJ says:

    As the internet’s resident (non-Francophone) Halter fanboy I feel it incumbent upon me to pitch in with…something. I don’t deny Halter has flaws — and let’s not pretend he’s unique in that regard — but I will happily accept them for the effort hat has gone into crafting his puzzles and (most of his) solutions. He commits to it amazingly, and while I don’t deny many of the flaws you mention above, I also don’t agree with your ordering (Tiger’s Head and Madman’s Room, as I’ve said elsewhere, are easily among my favourites of his translations) and so we’re probably looking for different things anyway….

    If you want a modern comparison, I’d say that I’m happier to see the impossible crime genre merge into what Halter has written than I am to see the detective fiction genre merge into the generic plots and trappings of a majority of crime fiction currently being touted as the hottest thing since heat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, JJ! As I’ve said before, I do love what Halter’s trying to do, and he has an impressive imagination; The Seventh Hypothesis and The Tiger’s Head, inter alia, attest to that. My main two problems are (1) the execution and (2) the comparisons to JDC, which (though I have myself made several here) may not completely fair to Halter.

      I join you in not being very fond of modern crime fiction, but I suppose I’d prefer neither option; my preference would be for fairly well-written, intelligent, well-plotted crime fiction. On the contrary, modern crime fiction either points towards a twee, “cozy” style that teaches knitting more than ratiocinating or a depressing, navel-gazing, brooding style that seems equally out of touch. The irony is that Halter’s books have more in common with the latter than the former, what with all the unreliable narrators and postmodernism!

      As I’ve said before, I think I’d like Halter more if he were the only one playing the “grandest game” nowadays—but there are other great modern puzzle-plotters who are also better writers.

      With that said, though I’ve criticized Halter before for a myriad of writing issues, I’m also skeptical as to his puzzle-plotting skills; as Nick put it, the solutions are often disappointing. I want (quoting Nick again) “the firework display of the electric eel,” the “wow! of course!” sensation that the good detective story brings. The Lord of Misrule gave me that with the second solution, and so did The Phantom Passage—but it’s just something I don’t find all that often with PH. Subjective, though, of course. 🙂

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      • JJ says:

        Well, hey, the good news is that we agree about the brilliance of the outdoor murder in Lord of Misrule — I’ve never understood why that was so underappreciated.

        I’ve let the Carr comparisons go, largely because they’re not accurate in the same way that comparing Halter to Henry Wade simply because they write books set in the same era isn’t accurate. Halter and Carr worked mainly in impossible crimes, and aspects of Halter’s work echo and acknowledge Carr’s. Here endeth the lesson. Halter’s doing his own thing, and eliberately making life difficult for himself by not simply lazily repeating things that have come before…and he deserves credit for that. He’s the heir to Carr, not a reinCarrnation.

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      • Yes, we definitely agree about the brilliance of the outdoor murder in Misrule; indeed, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

        “Here endeth the lesson” indeed, and we haven’t yet even moved on to the Gospel. 🙂 Obviously, Carr and Halter are trying to do something similar—well-plotted detective stories featuring impossible crimes—but I think they’re very different writers in every other respect. I don’t think Carr would have ever written The Crimson Fog.

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      • JJ says:

        But, then, most people wouildn’t have thought Carr would write The Burning Court 😉

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      • Oh, that’s true, and it’s the response I knew I’d get when I wrote that. 😉

        But Burning Court only breaks Carr’s pattern in the ending; he would have to reorient himself completely as a writer for [SPOILER] a serial-killer hunt [end SPOILER] like Crimson Fog.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read The Invisible Circle, The Madman’s Room, and The Demon of Dartmoor from your list and really enjoyed them all.
    1. I would personally rank the three books in reverse order to how you have them.
    2. I’m excited that you have all three so far down the list, since that implies there are still some really solid titles to read. Many of the titles that you have higher up seem to fly under the radar for me, or have been criticized by others, so it’s nice to see someone championing them. Unfortunately I only own one of them at the moment.

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    • Well, as I said, my opinions are idiosyncratic… 🙂

      I’d never want something I write to dissuade anyone from picking up a book—you may well like it! Which one do you own?

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      • Out of the higher items on your list, I only own The Seventh Hypothesis. The Crimson Fog and The Phantom Passage had already been on my radar as titles to purchase next. I’m sure I’ll love The Night of the Wolf, but I have a tendency to delay reading short story collections in favor of novels (which is an odd behavior on my part, as I love short stories in this genre).

        I also own Death Invites You and The Tiger’s Head. I really have no clue which title I’ll read next from Halter. I’m taking a forced break because the temptation to just tear through his entire library is too great.

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  4. TomCat says:

    I agree with you on the short stories, especially “The Abominable Snowman,” “The Cleaver” and “The Flower Girl,” and the brilliance of the main impossibility from The Phantom Passage, but I can’t believe you actually placed The Lord of Misrule above The Fourth Door, The Seventh Hypothesis and The Demon of Dartmoor!

    I realize there’s no accounting for taste, but The Lord of Misrule is objectively his worst novel, in English, to date. The story is completely devoid of atmosphere and the titular figure, cloaked in black, who’s presence is preceded by the tinkling of bells never made anyone’s spine tingle. And the backstory of this legendary figure painfully laid bare the fact that Halter is not the gifted story-teller that Carr was (c.f. the Plague-Journal from The Plague Court Murders).

    I also recall that the story was poorly clued and, if I’m not mistaken, there was some sloppiness in the historical details of the story. I vaguely remember this sloppiness in the historical details had something to do with the second murder, which is probably why I wasn’t too impressed with it either.

    So, personally, I would rank even The Vampire Tree above The Lord of Misrule, but hey, that’s just me.

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    • Hey, one-half—4/8—ain’t all that bad!

      I completely agree that the novel[la]’s devoid of atmosphere and that Halter is nowhere near the storyteller that Carr was (one of the reasons why, as I told JJ, I think the comparisons are unfair). (A digression, but I should write a post one day on how much Carr is inspired by non-mystery writers… Amusingly enough, I think that’s one of the reasons for his talent!)

      The difference here is, I went into the story expecting a lack of atmosphere or a clever ghost-story, so that I was not disappointed when PH didn’t deliver. That old devil expectation, hm? While I would usually criticize that element in any book, I must take Halter on his own terms, focus on the plot—and I thought that made up for it. (It also helped that the writing wasn’t all that bad—certainly not Nine Man’s Murder quality!)

      I’m a bit surprised, though, that you say it wasn’t fairly clued. The identity of the “Lord” was more or less a guess (and somewhat unconvincing at that), but the main murders, I thought, were particularly well-clued. When you say “historical details,” perhaps you mean one of the murders-in-the-past with which PH likes to clutter up his stories? One of those might not have been particularly well-clued. Let me know.

      I know, I’m just not all that wild about Dartmoor or Hypothesis (or even Door, for different reasons). I think that for Hypothesis I wanted to like it so much after that opening, too… Halter’s just not good at writing Sleuth, though!

      Thanks for the comment, TomCat.

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      • TomCat says:

        The difference here is, I went into the story expecting a lack of atmosphere or a clever ghost-story, so that I was not disappointed when PH didn’t deliver.

        My disappointment indeed had to do with a devil of an expectation.

        You see, I read The Lord of Misrule in early 2011, mere weeks before my blog opened, which was a time when Halter was still somewhat of a magical and elusive creature himself.

        For years, there was this talk of a French mystery writer who was compared to G.K. Chesterton, had he written novel-length Father Brown stories, or even called the reincarnation of John Dickson Carr himself. Surely, the short stories in Night of the Wolf were full of promise, but The Lord of Misrule completely deflated his reputation that had been building long before his short stories even appeared in English. All the magic and wonder was gone. Just like that.

        I remember John Norris didn’t even review the book, because he felt bad for Pugmire, who had moved mountains to introduce Halter to an English-speaking country. Looking back at that period, I’m surprised Pugmire continued his effort after that initial, soul-crushing reception of Misrule.

        So, yeah, we went into the book with very different mindsets.

        I’m a bit surprised, though, that you say it wasn’t fairly clued. The identity of the “Lord” was more or less a guess (and somewhat unconvincing at that), but the main murders, I thought, were particularly well-clued. When you say “historical details,” perhaps you mean one of the murders-in-the-past with which PH likes to clutter up his stories? One of those might not have been particularly well-clued. Let me know.

        I wish I could remember the exact details, but, as stated above, it’s been some years since I read the book. I remember thinking that the story was not particularly well-clued, which means that were probably clues, but probably didn’t think too highly of it. The shoddy historical details might indeed have been tied to one of those murders-in-the-past, but again, the plot-details have blurred in my mind.

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      • And I only read it about a week ago, after the short stories, The Fourth Door, and a number of Halters in between. Expectations can really turn us off at times.

        Halter’s ability comes nowhere near Carr, let alone Chesterton. As I said before, Halter’s really very modern with his streamlined prose, his acroidal narrators, and his postmodernist tricks—very different from the Baroque brilliance of Chesterton and Carr at their best. The two are ultimately lively, full of wonder; Halter is more clinical or even cynical (which is, I think, a major reason why his romances come off so flat). Reading the latter and expecting the former is really going to turn a reader off, which is why I’m not surprised.

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      • I would personally love to read a post about Carr being influenced by non-mystery writers…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, though first (I think) I’ll finally work on an alternate solution for The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins. I promised JJ months ago that I’d work on one, and I think I finally have a kernel of a good idea…

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