For those of you who know me, and for both of you who follow this blog, you will immediately understand that this post’s title does not refer to my love of horseback riding (went twice – fell off the horse both times) or wearing brief tops. (I guard my assets well.) No, I am referring to Paul Halter, the popular French mystery writer of locked room mysteries, who clearly models his style and tricks after his idol, John Dickson Carr.
Readers can be divided over Halter, some relishing his intricate mysteries that pile one fantastic event on top of another like the Lasagna of Babel, while others find his lack of characterization, setting, good dialogue and over the top plots off-putting. After reading three Halter titles, I fear I’ve fallen into the second category. I sort of liked The Demon of Dartmoor, but I balked at The Fourth Door, and I really hated The Invisible Circle.
So what made me return to Halter? Well, so many people whose opinions I admire in the blogosphere seem to like him, including my buddy JJ at The Invisible Event. Then I got the idea of slipping one of these babies on my Kindle. The paperbacks are damned expensive, so I sacrificed the cover and downloaded one for half the price. And you know what? I had fun!
Death Invites You, translated from the French by John Pugmire, is actually the one that JJ recommended all Halter neophytes begin with. I can understand this because it feels like the most traditionally structured of all the titles I’ve read so far, more character-driven and better paced, and while the author does furiously pile on events and ideas as always – a bizarre murder scene, a vengeful ghost, a decades-old murder, a recently solved spate of serial killings – somehow this one doesn’t feel so over the top.
The novel begins with noted criminologist Alan Twist relaxing in a bar with his friend and colleague, Scotland Yard detective Archibald Hurst. They are discussing Jack the Ripper because that’s what chums talk about in the downtime in a Paul Halter novel. Hurst spots a subordinate of his, Sergeant Simon Cunningham, who has recently distinguished himself by capturing the notorious Lonely Hearts Killer.
Cunningham appears anything but smug this evening: he has to cancel a theatre date with his temperamental fiancée, the daughter of well-known mystery writer Harold Vickers, because the author himself has invited Simon and one other guest to a secret dinner that evening. Yet, when he arrives at the Vickers residence, Harold’s wife Diane greets him in confusion. Her husband has been locked in his study working for well over a day, something that is typical behavior for him, and he left no word that he was expecting guests. The door seems to be locked and bolted from the inside, and when the alarmed group decides to break down the door, a bizarre sight greets them: Vickers lies shot to death at a table laid for three. A just-cooked meal covers the table, and Vickers’ face and hands lie burning in a pan of boiling oil.
The source of this scene is part of the mystery that embroils the family members, a mysterious neighbor, and perhaps the ghost of Vickers’ father, who died of a heart attack after bemoaning his son’s choice of career. It appears to have been the scenario of Vickers’ next novel, and it also deeply resembles a decades-old crime that was never solved. In typical Halter fashion, one of the characters is an actress, another a magician, and everyone at one point or another comes under suspicion in a satisfactory way – even the victim himself!
After recently completing Norman Berrow’s Don’t Go Out After Dark, where nothing much happened. maybe I was more eager to read a book where very much happens. This time around, Dr. Twist lets Hurst take the lead in investigating and deciphering the events and clues that come up, and in true Watsonian fashion, Hurst is almost invariably wrong. But the mistakes he makes are amusing, particularly in the clever way that Halter utilizes the timeworn trope of twin brothers. Even though the novel is typically short, it never felt padded like some of the others do. The conferences between Twist, Hurst and Simon don’t rattle on and on, and they are interspersed with interesting scenes and interviews with the suspects, as well as another murder or two.
I will confess that this book did nothing to make me relish the mechanics of a locked room mystery. I didn’t understand the explanation when it happened, and frankly I don’t much care. There is a mystery of a bowl of water left by the window, and I thought the reasoning behind this was highly anticlimactic. But other than that, I’m sure the mystery played fair, and if you want to play along by trying this out in your own study, I’d be interested in hearing how well it worked for you. (Not the murder, silly, just the “locked room” part!) I can’t say the characterizations were particularly rich, but everyone stood out more than usual (I couldn’t tell anybody apart in The Invisible Circle), and some characters, like the magician uncle and the “crazy” sister, were highly enjoyable.
If there’s anything that kept me from heaping high praise on this novel, it’s that once you start reading Halter, it becomes easier and easier to spot the killer. I picked this one out with the same ease that I did in The Invisible Circle, but this time the killer’s actions and motivations made greater sense. I do think Halter gives the game away shamelessly in one odd scene, but even though I felt no shock at the end of the journey, it was a very enjoyable ride.
Another thing I think I learned about reading Paul Halter this time around was that it really helps to get it down in as few sittings as possible. The more you stall or interrupt the experience, the harder it is to keep things straight. And so I read Death Invites You pretty quickly for me, and I think I got more out of the whole experience. Enough so that I already possess another Halter, The Seventh Hypothesis, which some consider his masterpiece. I think this will be my reading on the plane ride to New York next week. We’ll see how I do with it.
Happy Fourth of July, everybody!