LOCKED ROOM TALES: The Disciple, Paul Halter

As this baby blogger wanders through the sphere reading the work of others who have honed in on mystery fiction as their specialty, one name that keeps recurring is that of Paul Halter. Author of thirty-nine novels and two short story collections, nearly all of them impossible crime mysteries, he is considered the French John Dickson Carr and, thanks to the ever increasing number of English translations by John Pugmire that are published by Locked Room International, his reputation in America is growing. He has been lauded in a number of blogs, including At the Scene of the Crime, where Patrick and Christopher have recreated an invaluable page about him here – http://at-scene-of-crime.blogspot.com/p/paul-halter.html – and where they scored a fascinating interview with the author (and also published a translation of an interview Halter had with Roland Lacourbe, the author of a biography of Harry Houdini which inspired Halter’s first novel, The Fourth Door (1987).

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He is equally admired by my pal JJ over at Invisible Event. JJ even posted a helpful suggestion of five novels that the fan new to Halter could start with here.

I, of course, ignored these suggestions completely and chose for my first Paul Halter experience the aforementioned The Fourth Door. I had read many fine reviews of this one, and after a great deal of back and forth, I purchased it in book form. The paperback is expensive, and as it contains no maps or special features common to mysteries in the classic style, you can save half the price by purchasing it on your Kindle-type device. I say this also because, as an English teacher, I have to admit that I was pretty appalled at the number of errors in the text. For this kind of money, I would appreciate a better job of editing. So much for educational quibbling.

Door is also a slim novel – a mere 160 pages – and very much a quick read. One can recognize throughout the deep love Halter had for Carr’s work. In fact, one of the most interesting facts about the author is his original intention that his work would be a continuation of Carr’s and that he would employ the Master’s detective, Dr. Gideon Fell. The cards were not in Halter’s favor here, and he ended up inventing his own sleuth, Dr. Alan Twist. Unfortunately, in this novel Twist does not really appear until the very end, and I cannot gauge much about him yet from what I read.

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So setting aside the following – that this was Halter’s first published novel, that this is a translation from the French (and translations can often leave an odd impression), and that I always approach a locked room mystery with a certain reticence – how did The Fourth Door stack up for me?

Well, unfortunately, it infuriated me on several levels, such as the prose, the plot and the people. In preparing to write this, I happened upon a very positive review that basically suggested that these “flaws” were necessary in order for Halter to achieve his effect. Therefore, one could conclude that it was because of the “rather shallow and under-developed” peripheral characters, the series of crimes “piled on with too thick a trowel,” and the “odd” narrative style that this is “one of the best books of any description . . . a masterpiece of the locked-room genre, (and) really one of the best mysteries of all time (that) should be considered as simply a fascinating piece of literature . . . “ This opinion seems to be shared by many other reviewers, leading me to wonder, in my usual fashion: “What’s wrong with me???” Still, we’re all entitled to an opinion, so here’s my take on the aforementioned elements that left me cold:

The Prose: I recently picked up a copy of S.S. Van Dine’s The Winter Murder Case. This was an interesting exercise. Evidently, Van Dine would sketch out his plots, then write a basic manuscript – really a novella – covering the main events of the story. After this, he would fill out the details of character, event and conversation to form a novel. Unfortunately, Van Dine passed away before he could take this final step with Winter, so we really have a “novel in progress” here. All the basic scenes exist in order, but they are missing the rich imprint of an author’s work, the descriptions and dialogues that mark a writer’s true style.

This is how I felt while reading The Fourth Door. It is crammed with incidents, occurring at a rapid pace, but it feels like a wax mask with no detail drawn on to give it character. Something necessary at the heart of good writing is missing here. We are told far more than we are shown – how people feel, their motivations for saying and doing things – but we have to rely on these simple narrative bits of information rather than any scenic evidence that they are true. Whole scenes that are potentially rich in drama are dashed off in a paragraph.

The positive reviewer mentioned above suggested that this was necessary as a plot device in order to keep up the misdirection, but I don’t buy it. Clever plotting should not require weak writing, just as it should not excuse it. Furthermore, at least one of the major characters here is purported to be a wildly successful author. This person should have a distinct voice, yet that is not true here. Could this, perhaps, be a side-effect of translation? If so, I feel kind of helpless, not knowing what I am allowed to expect in terms of quality.

The People: It isn’t that I object to these characters being shallowly drawn. We’ve had this discussion, and while I admit to placing a greater premium on well-drawn characters than others do, I can enjoy a well-crafted mystery where the characters conform to type. (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Siamese Twin Mystery, The Crooked Hinge) What bothers me here is how Halter informs us of information about a character that is necessary to the plot only as the point comes up. If we need to know that the squire is allergic to arugula and speaks fluent Danish in order to deduce that he is the killer, that information should be cleverly embedded earlier in the novel. To have someone tell you as the solution unfolds that he swallowed the skeleton key because he happened to have had training as a sword swallower is simply unfair. And that happens all the time in Halter’s book. Characters are reduced to a series of mannerisms and abilities – okay, that’s fair – but these are not always revealed fairly.

The Plot: Halter centers a lot of his plot around the life of Harry Houdini (the alternate title is The Houdini Murders.) I, like Halter, am a big fan of Houdini. In fact, he is a distant relation of mine (FACT)! But the use of Houdini here is hammered into us in such a way as to make Carr’s The Three Coffins, which is about the murder of two magicians, positively subtle in its approach to the subject of magic. However, I guess that, in a mystery, a good plot means a good puzzle, and there are certainly puzzles within puzzles here. The explanation for the first impossible crime is quite clever, the reveals of subsequent criminal activities less so. Even at this early stage of his writing career, Halter shows a clear aptitude for staging the impossible crime. But he is also attempting a much trickier thing here, as demonstrated by a staggering twist three quarters of the way through. Mr. Positive Reviewer puts it thusly: “You are likely going to feel cheated, I know I did, but do not let this pause in the narrative let you put this book aside.” Well, of course I didn’t put it aside, but I did feel cheated – extremely cheated – and of course I can’t tell you why without spoiling everything! I will be happy to argue, er, discuss it with anybody in the comments section below.

The reviewer uses this twist to excuse or explain apparent weaknesses in the novel. I guess the point I would make is that, while a mystery writer’s job is certainly to delude us – which Halter accomplishes here – my problem lies with the nature and quality of that delusion. An author should be so convincing with his lies that we are willing to accept them as truth. When a reader scoffs at the unconvincing nature of a writer’s prose and is then informed at the end that this bad writing was all part of the game, I think the author puts too much reliance on the reader’s good graces. I am probably in the minority here, since I’ve only read good reviews, and I would certainly be willing to give Halter another try. I also would not say to anyone that they shouldn’t read The Fourth Door. It’s short, and it goes down easy. Unfortunately for me, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

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15 thoughts on “LOCKED ROOM TALES: The Disciple, Paul Halter

  1. I wouldn’t be as harsh, though I do agree that this isn’t Halter’s best showing. And I’m with you on that three-quarters of the way through twist, completely jarred me out of the book, which I was getting really sucked into! (The fact that I read it over the course of a day may have had something to do with that.) Still better than that final twist.

    Ah well, I dunno. I still like this book, faults and all. It’s a thrill ride, really. I actually like the style, in some ways, as it plays to Halter’s strength of making sure you don’t want to put the book down. 😛 Though at the same time, I get how it can be dry. Personally, I admit that I forgot that the story took place in a village, there’s so little atmosphere. But then, I got sucked in anyway, because I cared for these people dealing with all the insanity. Gah. I need to think my posts through, this is getting rambly. XD

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    1. Ramble all you want, Dark One, your thoughts are welcome. It’s clear from what I’ve read so far about him that Halter has produced some clever stories. Based on just one of his tales, I’m far from convinced he’s the heir to J.D. Carr, but I can tell how much he admired and was influenced by the Master, and maybe I’ll grow to like him more as I get a few more of them under my belt.

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      1. Sure! I admit, I can be a little unsure on Halter’s status sometimes myself, but then, I haven’t read near enough JDC to compare the two. But eh, I like him anyway, only two that I flat-out did not like would be The Lord of Misrule and The Crimson Fog.

        And if you want to try again, maybe go for The Night of the Wolf? Short story collection, but I feel that that format plays to Halter’s strengths.

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  2. Oh, Brad, I am sorry – I feel responsible for this lack of fun you’ve been having in your reading lately. First Carr and now Halter…if it’s any consoation, I’ve been going through a similar thing for about 19 or 20 books now!

    I know exactly what you mean about the twist 75% of the way through and, while I don’t seek to apologise for it, I think I see it more as Halter kinda stating his case: sort of “Aha, you think you’ve seen it all…well did you see this coming?”. It’s a promise he’s lived up to, too, since he continues to find new approaches and solution for a subgenre that’s not only extremely demanding but also about a century old, and there’s really only so muc space left to tread. Having read all the English translations of him available, I really do think he is the heir to Carr – not just because no-one else is doing this type thing so originally and consistently, but also because of how he fits the various aspects around each other in an intricate manner that is Carr through and through.

    However, I agree with you that the plotting is a little lumpy and characters a touch bland. I don’t excuse it like your positive reviewer above, but I see it as Halter being so focussed on the puzzle that he ended up in that van Dine-esque situation you describe above – the events defintely came before the people they were happening to (he’s written a few books where the reverse is true, too!). The prose is a difficult one to call, but I’m imagining it’s a combination of Halter’s first book and John Pugmire’s early translation – certainly The Crimson Fog and Death Invites You (the two books Halter wrote next but which were translated into English a couple of years after TFD) read much more easily in translation, but you’re right in that being a factor for some people.

    Hopefullly this doesn’t put you off Halter, as I think he’s the best puzzler going at the moment. Happy to make some recommendations if/when you want to try him again…

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    1. Well, I’ve got your “five to try” article to go by, and many people recommend the one where folks get pushed (is that Demon of Dartmoor?) and The Seventh Hypothesis. I think The Crimson Fog was ruined for me. I’ve also got a Rupert Penny and a Norman Berrow on my stack, as promised, which will either lift me out of MY doldrums, or I’m flying over there and you and I are developing a taste for Scotch!

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      1. But…what will we talk about? All I’ve got is Carr and Halter. And if you dont go for the Penny…well, how could I possibly look you in the eye?

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      2. I’d recommend trying Berrow before Penny, based on our similar-ish take on “how” mystery novels, as reading the solution for Penny’s Sealed Room Murder was actually physically painful it was that dry.

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      3. If I remember correctly, Brad has Policeman’s Evidence which is rather more usual in its explanations; it would probably be more to the taste of the average reader…even if I do personally think the SRM explanation is a thing of beauty!

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  3. This was the first Halter I read and my reactions were pretty much the same (despite expecting to love him since I’m a huge Carr fan). Unfortunately, his other novels aren’t much of an improvement IMO, the prose remains poor throughout and there are plenty of errors in every book, characters never really come to life and Halter still hasn’t mastered the “showing not telling” part.
    I also have a problem with some of the violence in his novels. Carr could be fairly gruesome (in a fun way) at times and Halter seems to try to pull off the same effect, but all to often he just ends up with mere cruelty.
    Halter might very well be the best puzzler writing today, but in the end he just reads like bad Carr fan fiction despite some great ideas.

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    1. Mark, that is not good news! “Fan fiction” is exactly what it reminded me of – some clever ideas couched in awkward prose. And, yes, some of the descriptions indicate the kind of gruesome violence you routinely encounter in today’s crime fiction. (Suitcase Killer, indeed!) as a squeamish sort of guy, I deeply appreciate the relative restraint shown by the classic writers. That was class!

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  4. Oh dear, a bad taste in the mouth does sound disappointing. I think the comment on ‘fan fiction’ is an interesting one, because I can see how that describes rather aptly the awkward handling of some scenes and characters in Halter’s works. I had a better experience of ‘Fourth Door’ than you did, which can be partly attributed to the fact that the previous two Halter titles I read were weaker: ‘Seven Wonders of Crime’ and ‘Crimson Fog’.

    I enjoyed the twists for ‘Fourth Door’ in terms of the locked-room scenarios; albeit, the first set-up I thought was stronger than the second. Where I do agree with you is that the twists in terms of the meta-narrative came across as unfortunately contrived and slightly clumsy. To be fair to Halter, I think Carr suffers from similar limitations: intricate puzzles but less-than-elegant story-telling.

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