BIRTHDAY WISHES TO PAUL HALTER (from a skeptic)

Bon anniversaire, M. Paul Halter. You have hit the same birthday landmark that I did nearly six months ago. Even more amazing is the fact that you have penned forty novels and two collections of stories, all in the past thirty years. If you are going for prolific, like your idol John Dickson Carr, you are doing a damn fine job of it!

Peer to peer, I must tell you that I, too, am a writer. I have been actively blogging for, oh, eight months now. I have forty ideas for novels that I, er, haven’t written yet, but I have been reading mysteries since I was eight years old, which qualifies me to be highly judgmental of others’ work. Thus, here I stand in acceptance of Monsieur JJ’s open invitation over at his maison, The Invisible Event, asking all readers of your work to celebrate your 60th by posting about our experiences avec votre libres.

If I had only one of your books under my belt, trust me, I wouldn’t be here! I did write a review of my first Halter, which, coincidentally, was the first of your novels to be published. I fear I was not especially kind to The Fourth Door as you can see for yourself here. Oh! Vous n’adorez pas les reviews mauvais? Okay, be like that, don’t read it, but to sum up, I said something to the effect that I liked everything about your book except “the prose, the plot, and the people.” Oh, yes, and the proofreading of the English translation, which wasn’t your fault.

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Now, I’m the first to admit that, in terms of –dunnits, I prefer the who- and the why- to the how! When Lord Percival Forkington keels over in his soup one weekend night, the only one poisoned at the table despite sharing the same food and drink with the assembled party, I care about who’s dining with him, how they got there, and why they hated old Percy. If it’s a question about whether the strychnine got into the vichyssoise because Bertha the cook served it from a laced ladle, or Lady Caroline doused her mouth with poisonous lipstick before kissing the old duffer, or Hector Crockett, the secretary, who was not even in the room at the time, trained his special hive of doctored bees to enter the room and pollinate Milord’s savory pudding, I’m as game as the next man to play along. But when old Forkington is found in the middle of a golf sandtrap on a windless, blazing hot day, with no footprints on the sand, bound in handcuffs with the key in his mouth, and he’s ice cold and soaking wet . . . sorry, but my eyes start to glaze over, and I simply don’t care anymore, unless I can count on good atmospheric writing and strong character sketches to accompany the impossible crime.

Still, don’t say I didn’t give it the old college try! I picked up two more of your roman policiersThe Demon of Dartmoor and The Invisible Circle, and I set out to piece together what makes you tick and whether we can ever be compatible. And, truth to tell, I’m not sure we can be amies anymore . . . but I’m not saying au revoir either.

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I much preferred The Demon of Dartmoor, counting it the best of the three I’ve read. It certainly starts off better than The Fourth Door, with a mysterious death in an atmospheric setting. Victor Sitwell, the saintly local schoolteacher of the village of Stapleford, is interrupted from his evening rest by a pair of teenagers who have gone spooning on Wish Tor, the local “Lover’s Lane,” only to witness a baffling event: a teenaged girl named Constance Keats, in the midst of a romantic tryst with an invisible paramour, suddenly falls from the precipice into the water. The teens assure Sitwell that it was no accident:

“ . . . it was exactly as if she’d been pushed forward by some invisible creature. She didn’t fall by accident, and she didn’t throw herself off like a suicide. She suddenly put her arms out in front with her hands apart, as if she wanted to brace herself to stop from falling. Just as if someone was pushing her in the back . . . Only there wasn’t anyone behind her.”

Eventually, her body is found trapped in the rocks of the raging waters below. And near the body is a playing card. What’s more, exactly one year earlier, another girl died in a similar way after being seen talking to “an invisible man.” And playing cards were found beside her body. What’s even more more, the playing cards figured into a long ago death in the village of Stapleford. Oh and in addition to the much more: the town drunk saw a headless horseman on the scene! Furthermore, and more, and more: a year later, a third girl is seen on the Tor, talking to nobody. And she is never seen again.

Ancient crimes, headless horsemen, invisible killers, playing cards . . . exactly how many ideas do you intend to include here, Monsieur??? Okay, I’m game because I know that, no matter how many magical myths you try and stuff down our throats, the whole solution is quite simple and grounded in reality, right? Which villager is pushing these girls to their deaths, and how do they manage to remain “invisible”? Oh, this is the place where I should mention the legend of the witch and the magic ring. Sorry, I forgot.

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And would you believe it? All I’ve recounted is merely the background to the main plot, which concerns unnatural doings at Trerice Manor. Fifty years ago, a murder occurred that seems to have involved an invisible killer pushing a woman (who may or may not have been a witch) down the stairs. And now Nigel Manson, a successful actor who is currently starring in a play he wrote based on this past crime (called “The Invisible Man”), has bought the house and brought his new bride there to live. When he invites his producer and leading lady/mistress for the weekend and then befriends all the locals involved in the deaths of the three maidens at the Tor, the stage is set for yet another impossible crime. Enter Inspector Alan Hurst and his crony, amateur criminologist Alan Twist, who specialize in impossible crimes. In The Fourth Door, Twist’s appearance amounted to little more than a cameo. Here, he is in full flower, and I have to say, M. Halter, that in Alan Twist and his relationship with Hurst (whom I like even more), it’s the first time in reading your work that I’ve come across a pair of characters whom I truly enjoy.

In a recent post on “plot vs. characterization,” I suggested that the three most important characters in a mystery were 1) the detective (who, in GAD mysteries, tends to be a fixed character), 2) the victim, and 3) the murderer, whose real depth of character is most often not revealed until the solution. In The Fourth Door, there essentially was no detective, a lot of victims and a tricky murderer, and we never really got to know any of them. The characterization is far richer in The Demon of Dartmoor, in terms of the detective team and that trio of village cronies you included to link the murders on the Tor to the mansion crimes. I sure wish you had paid more attention to that minor mystery of whether the teacher is as saintly as he appears to be. Unfortunately, you crammed it all into a rushed coda at the end that barely touches on something that might have been delicious if it had been more carefully cultivated.

Demon is definitely on the short side, but it seems all your novels are short, which many impossible crime fans consider a plus since, as a result, it crams a thousand incidents into the first fifty pages, and then focuses the rest on the mechanics of the crime. I couldn’t tell you after reading this novel what year it takes place in, and each of the suspects is little more than a list of qualities, not a full-blown person. But the setting is well drawn here: I could picture the spooky tors and the warmth of the village pub. And I did want to praise you on your denouement: while I did not see the point of including quite so much supernatural “cover,” the final solution was quite clever.

I also notice that, true disciple of Carr that you are, you love to surprise us with the killer’s identity. I would say that you basically succeed here. I suspected a certain person because of a quality that was mentioned about them in passing, but I failed to connect this person properly to the train of events. But come, sir! Did you really play fair with your readers? It seems to me that, despite the inclusion of numerous old village legends, we never received the backstory that was necessary to give us a fighting chance to match wits with Alan Twist. Oh, well, I suppose this is merely a quibble, and so I was willing to give you one more chance, despite the fact that, in terms of your writing, both novels felt like the lengthy précis for longer, better books.

And so I tried a third one . . .

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JJ told me I should check out The Invisible Circle because its premise is mildly suggestive of a classic Agatha Christie novel, and JJ knows I revere the Queen of Crime with the same passion he holds for John Dickson Carr. The novel in question is And Then There Were None, and the opening did remind me of that book as it followed various persons converging on a storm swept castle in Cornwall, reputed by its owner to be the original home of King Arthur. The island – and the story – are awash in Arthurian legends, and the host, a genial sadist named Gerry Pearson, assigns every guest a corresponding character from the King Arthur tales. There’s even a sword in a stone, one that cannot be removed and has special markings put on it to prove its identity just in case it is moved. (Can you doubt it) After a while, you start to get the idea: in an impossible crime story, the louder someone shouts that a thing can’t happen, the more you can be sure that it will.

And then a murder takes place in a high tower. (You must have read Carr’s He Who Whispers, didn’t you mon cher? How I miss the quality of that novel here!) Anyway, a person is shut in a high tower and the doors are locked and sealed with wax marked with symbols (a gambit you used already in The Fourth Door!), and of course that person is found dead with the previously stuck sword now unstuck from the stone but stuck in the victim’s body. Oh, and did I mention the Holy Grail that has been stolen?

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I’m sorry to say this, Paul, old buddy, but from there, the plot degenerates into utter ridiculousness. This story is filled with atmosphere and some great set pieces. But the characters – ? The two older males are completely interchangeable, and one of the only two female characters spends most of the novel hiding in her room. It’s almost impossible to sort everybody out or to figure out what, if any, part each person has to play in this miasma of misadventure. But, we soldier on, don’t we, mon petit chou, until you hand us one of the dumbest surprise endings I’ve ever witnessed, made all the worse because I guessed the killer right away but could never swallow the means and motivation behind this fiend’s plot even after you revealed them. Come on, Halter! Do you expect me to believe that a group of people, some of them highly intelligent, could fall for this codswallop? It defies belief! I’m sorry, but it really does.

So there you have it, Monsieur. I have no doubt that you intend to take me off your Christmas card list after this. I only hope that your fans will be more understanding of the difficulties that keep cropping up in my attempts to embrace you. I do appreciate how deeply you must love classic detective fiction. I’m sure you take as much delight as Charlie Brown with his kite in making up these fiendish, unnecessarily complicated murder plots. I can’t ask you to make your characters deeper or your plots richer. If you did that, you wouldn’t be you. I just can’t make up my mind whether to read you anymore. You are a dish of bon bons, and I seem to prefer a torte.

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7 thoughts on “BIRTHDAY WISHES TO PAUL HALTER (from a skeptic)

  1. Brad–quite lovely. And, I must say, you’ve been a lot nicer in your revie–er, letter than I have been in mine. I wasn’t all that impressed with The Seven Wonders of Crime and I said it far more bluntly and pointedly than you did with those you read. I’m quite sure I won’t make Monsieur Halter’s Christmas list either. But, like you, I do plan to give him another try….

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    1. That’s great, Bev! We can be martyrs together! Maybe between us we’ll find a Halter or two we like. As I said in my comment to your review, give Demon of Dartmoor a try. Or we could do a duel review of Death Invites You. I think that might be my next stop.

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      1. I don’t know when I’ll get to another Halter–although I do want to give him another chance or two. I have SO many books on my TBR stack it isn’t funny. 🙂

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  2. Oddly enough, I actually enjoyed The Invisbile Circle, if just because it’s so over-the-top I couldn’t help but love it. It’s more or less Halter’s own summer blockbuster: makes no sense when you think about it, but fun while watching.

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