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.
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…
- 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.
- The Phantom Passage—by far the best Halter novel I’ve read so far. 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.
- 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.
- 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 excellent, 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?
- 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 trudging 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!
- 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 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.”)
- 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.
- The Madman’s Room—there was a lot that I liked about this one, 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.
- 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-threads 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!”)
- The Tiger’s Head—supremely disappointing, especially 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.
- The Seven Wonders of Crime—even more disappointing. Halter’s audacity should 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!
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!)