THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS, or Why I’m Taking a Break from Paul Halter

“That’s the problem. No matter how far back I go, I can’t remember a case where we’ve talked so much . . . “

Amen, brother!

That’s Inspector Archibald Hurst, the rotund Watson to Paul Halter’s super-sleuth, Dr. Alan Twist, channeling the complaints of this reader in what some fans seem to consider their favorite Halter, The Seventh Hypothesis. Actually, the speech goes on a bit:

“That’s the problem. No matter how far back I go, I can’t remember a case where we’ve talked so much, concocted so many theories, combined so many possibilities, postulated so many hypotheses, demolished them, reconstructed them, brooded over them . . . “

Which all goes to make it sound like this entry in the series is jam-packed with interesting ideas and events. Except it’s not. Ostensibly it centers on the relationship between two men: the noted mystery playwright, Sir Gordon Miller, and his leading man/muse/frenemy/rival, Donald Ransome. The two are overheard challenging each other to commit a murder and frame the other one for it. When death ensues, it’s up to Dr. Twist to figure out who’s framing who.

Because Halter likes to include at least six impossibilities before breakfast, the book doesn’t actually start there. First, there’s a prologue containing an impossible event involving medieval plague doctors and missing corpses popping up in 1930’s London. There’s also a death in the past, which could be murder, suicide, or accident. Ultimately, Halter’s task is to link these events to the duel of wits between Miller and Ransome.

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A story that boils down to two people can go in one of two ways: it can bubble and boil delightedly like Anthony Shaffer’s brilliant murder play Sleuth, or it can hobble along like Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember, which asks the question: “Did General Ravenscroft murder his wife and kill himself, or did Lady Ravenscroft murder her husband and kill herself?” The answer to this question, and to the choice between Miller and Ransome, ultimately becomes, “Who cares?” For the bulk of the novel, both men are presented as egomaniacal sociopaths, to the point where I didn’t care which one of them did it – I wanted them both to leave.

I have now read five Paul Halter mysteries, and while that certainly doesn’t make me an expert, I feel more entitled to solidify an opinion. Herewith, my seven hypotheses as to why Halter doesn’t work for me:

 

Hypothesis Number One: Halter’s trademark layering on of complexities masks an inherent shallowness to the situation. There is no good reason why anyone, sane or twisted, would go about doing the things his characters do. It’s not coincidence that so many of his books contain mystery writers, along with the suggestion is that these kinds of people couldn’t do a straightforward murder if they tried. (All Agatha Christie had to do was to drive her car into a ditch and disappear. Now that’s a plot that makes sense!) There has to be an easier way for the killer to have accomplished his goals here. Yes, but then there wouldn’t be a book for us to read, you say! And I would counter with the possibility of a better book if only the ingredients of the sandwich were meatier and smelled fresher.

Hypothesis Number Two: Character, character, character! I’m not going to argue that Halter should pay more attention to characterization. It’s not his thing, nor has it stopped many Golden Age writers (and those who emulate them) from producing classic mystery fiction. But all of Halter’s characters sound the same and, until the finale, seem to think the same, and that fact is exacerbated when you only have two characters to deal with. It was hard to tell Ransome apart from Miller, particularly because they both had to sound like monsters to serve the needs of the plot.

Hypothesis Number Three: Absurd situations. There’s a line – and it’s not even a fine one – between baffling and just plain silly. What the heck with the whole plague doctor thing? It’s hard to discuss the specifics without giving too many plot points away, but the murderer’s plan here is, to my mind, absolutely ridiculous, and the motivations of the others involved do not justify the extreme nature of this scenario.

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The bulk of the novel centers around two conversations: the one overheard between the playwright and the actor, and the subsequent discussion of the hypotheses by Twist and Hurst. The first contains a series of “surprises” that struck me as ludicrous, and I cannot imagine how the person who overheard the conversation could have taken it seriously. It relies a great deal on a twist that formed the center of the mystery in The Invisible Circle, (which I also didn’t buy), and it made me pine for the much better use of this device in Sleuth (which Halter could have channeled for a guide as to how two twisted nutjobs really can one up each other.)

The list of hypotheses that Twist and Hurst come up with merely serves to point out what happens when you reduce a story to a math problem. How do you get the fox, duck, and bag of corn across the river without the fox eating the duck or the duck eating the corn? The intellectual satisfaction of solving that problem is brief, and that’s what I tend to feel at the end of a Halter mystery. Which leads me to . . .

Hypothesis Number Four: No emotional resonance. By the end, Twist is saying things like, “I swear I have never been confronted with such a sordid, ugly affair in my life.” Yet, although the final revelations explain why Twist feels this way, our disconnect from the characters as anything more than chess pieces makes it extremely difficult for the reader to engage sympathetically with their troubles. This is one of those novels where you don’t want to read the final sentence ahead of time, but as I stared at the words, all I could muster was a shrug.

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Hypothesis Number Five: Halter cannot write women. I see what he’s going after. It’s sort of a combination of film noir and the John Dickson Carr method of presenting females as alluring, mysterious creatures who are either angels or devils. There is only one female character in this novel, Gordon Miller’s stepdaughter, Sheila Forrest. Although she is someone who ultimately is crucial to the plot, she emerges as nothing more than a cipher by the end. The same thing happened with the two women in The Invisible Circle and, to some extent, The Demon of Dartmoor. My favorite novel of the five, Death Invites You, is relatively more successful; at least, it presents three women who are somewhat distinct and interesting. Contrast this with the women in a Carr classic like He Who Whispers. Oh man! I wish Halter would study this aspect of his idol’s genius and incorporate it into his own work.

Hypothesis Number Five: Unfair detection. My Facebook friend and fellow mystery lover Scott Ratner will mow you down with his arguments that there really is no such thing as a “fair play” detective novel. You could certainly make a great case for Scott’s opinion by reading Halter. Dr. Twist’s “method” tends to originate from a spark of divine inspiration that comes out of either nowhere or from a dubious chain of “deductions.” The final chapter’s explanation amounts to a large portion of guessing peppered with some esoteric knowledge about some of the odd things that have popped up in the story. One of the major “giveaway” clues centers on a psychological quirk in the killer’s make-up that would never hold up in court. In fact, when Twist confronts the murderer, he spends a lot of time imagining how the killer accomplished certain things, and we get no confirmation that this is how it happened. Never have I read a book where the culprit had more right to simply stand up, bid everyone adieu, exit and go on with their life.

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Hypothesis Number Six: Vagueness. Maybe it’s me, but I can never really follow the plotting and ideas in a Halter novel. Nor can I really see the people and places in my mind as I read. I have thought that the Twist novels are set in the 1930s, the 1950s, and in an indeterminate time containing only gaslight and fog. Between Twist and Hurst, I get confused over who’s the thin one and who’s the fat one. (Twist is the thin one, yet he does all the eating.) When the novels are set in the city, I get no sense of London, and when they are set in the country, the author might as well name the places Generic Village One, Two or Three. The most Halter can manage is atmosphere, which he often does well. In Hypothesis, I never bought the atmosphere.

Hypothesis Number Seven: Despite the author’s propensity for creating one baffling situation after another – and his books tend to resemble a seven-layer cake of crazy – the biggest problem for me is that I always guess the killer! Always! Halter is simply not adept at tucking in those glaring inconsistencies of event or that odd character trait that gives the game away. A great mystery writer has to become an expert at hiding the truth in plain sight in order to earn that “Aha!” moment at the end. You can stack up all sorts of information to try and convince us a person is innocent, but if you don’t expertly bury the fact that this character inherits all the money or that she was a champion figure skater or pole vaulter or master of disguise or voice mimickry, you don’t stand a chance with me. Plus, Halter tends to repeat ideas over and over again. I’m frankly sick of all the mystery writers and magicians and former gymnasts lurking about in all his stories. His format of piling on one baffling scenario after another may end up confusing me about the how – even after it’s explained! – but it never blinds me as to the who.

My dear blogging compatriot (and staunch Halter fan) JJ at The Invisible Event opened my eyes to how my relative lack of interest regarding murder method – the hallmark of Halter’s work – plays a big part in my resistance to his charms. I think that’s true, although I never felt that way about Carr. At his best, Carr balanced his books or at least framed his ingenious methods with fun characters, vivid setting and atmosphere, and grand dialogue. And some of his methods, like the second murder in The Three Coffins or the murderer’s secret in The Crooked Hinge, both intrigued and delighted me. And so, Paul and I are gonna take a little break from each other. I’m not saying “never again” because I like being part of the conversation. But I also realize that I’m being a “Negative Ned” here when it comes to Halter, and I know there is so much more out there to explore and rave about. Thus, in an effort to accentuate the positive . . . adieu, M. Halter, at least for now.

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12 thoughts on “THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS, or Why I’m Taking a Break from Paul Halter

  1. I’m with Kate on this Brad — can’t fault you for trying! Perhaps it’s time to accept that he’s not for you and move on to other things; certainly a 20% hit-rate does seem rather low when there are so many books out there to read (hell, I have no interest in reading Eilis DIllon again after just one book). I apolgise for encouraging you to waste your time and money, but no-one’s going to say you didn;t give it a bloody good go.

    May happier reading await you, my friend!

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    1. Why on earth should you apologize, JJ? It was an interesting experiment. And I DID enjoy Death Invites you, the one you recommended in the first place! I’m sure the day will come when you announce that there’s another one we doubters and ditherers would like, and I’ll pounce! Meanwhile, the Eilis Dillon experiment proceeds on this shore. We’ll see where I stand. I disagreed heartily with Kate over Miss Pym Disposes, so don’t feel you’re outnumbered just yet. And don’t think I’m going to let this idea of a Christie/Carr debate evaporate. I think an argument where both sides are so rich and fruitful would be a welcome relief to this American struggling through the current Presidential campaign.

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      1. You need someone with a better overview of Carr than I — my skills of analysis extend to “Hmmm, I liked that one” so when it comes to comparison I tend to get as far as “Well, I liked this one more…” and that’s about it. Carr is so obviously superior that he needs someone more attuned to the cut-and-thrust of critical writing when it comes to going up against you and your Christie analysis…I wouldn’t stand a chance, and Carr deserves better!

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  2. Great analysis. From the four Halters I’ve read, I agree with all of it, especially the paradoxical feeling that his mysteries are both too hard (or just unfair) and too easy. I rarely believe or understand the solution to every part of the impossible crimes, but the killer is always blindingly obvious. Also at least one impossible crime always seems to just be made up by the killer. Which isn’t unfair, as such, but it’s a complete cop out.

    Lots of interesting avenues for discussion, but two things spring to mind:

    First, I think it’s Halter’s complete lack of interest in anything other than constructing a mystery that really hampers his ability to hide a killer. Twists like the main character’s romantic interest being the murderer are only surprising if you believe the author has a stake in the relationship. Even with Carr’s wonky attitude towards women, you could at least believe he was including the subplot because he felt it belonged in the book for its own sake. Halter doesn’t have that luxury, so he’s got a lot fewer places to hide clues.

    Second, do you think this book would have been improved without the impossible crimes? I often think that Carr’s accepted position as the “undisputed master of the impossible” means people don’t have a clear idea of his talents. Obviously there are a few very notable exceptions, but I think Carr was actually pretty rubbish at constructing and writing about impossible crimes, all told. However, he was brilliant at constructing situations where the truth about the characters was a complete inversion of how things initially appeared, and even his middling novels usually have good ideas on this front. Halter feels like he might be the same.

    Obviously there’s still the fundamental issue of basic writing technique, but I think Halter would write much stronger and more baffling mysteries if he stopped trying to write to his perceived “strengths” and just tried to tell a clear story with a more standard array of mystery and non-mystery plots and subplots.

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    1. While I can’t endorse your dismissal of Carr as rubbish at impossibilities, I agree with what you’re saying about Halter, Rich. There is simultaneously a surfeit and lack of complexity at times, and his books — The Invisible Circele and The Seven Wonders of Crime in parricular — would benefit from some more attention going into the construction and a few extra layers of stuff (for want of a better word).

      Nevertheless, I’d rather have him writing bullet-fast narratives that expand the scope and possibility of the impossible crime subgenre than have 50% longer books with less originality and the constant repackaging of hoary old tropes like it’s something clever (as most impossible crime novels these days seem to be).

      I know that not everything Halter has written contains an impossibility, and clearly these books won’t ever be translated as part of Locked Room International’s output, but one day I’m hoping my French is up to scratch enough to try them and see how they compare. It might be that Halter is so exhausted from making his impossibility work that he hasn’t the energy or interest to add in the extra flourishes for a “full” mystery experience.

      I also wonder just how much of a French writing tradition he’s working under, too, and if we native English speakers hae a different expectation to the French. I base this solely on the one Noel Vindry novel I’ve read, which has more or less the exact same issues you exrpess here, and in the 60 years since then Halter seems to be adding very little to that fundamental construction — maybe it’s a cultural thing (like with Japanese honkaku and its unusual veering off topic at times).

      Anyway, I’m going on.

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      1. Sorry, I was a bit down on Carr, but I do think his impossible crimes miss more than they hit, and at least half a dozen are completely broken. But anyway, for good or ill, I think too much focus is placed on Carr’s impossibilities. To me they’re the least interesting part of his mysteries, and it’s pretty clear he felt the same way by the end. It feels like Halter emulated a lot of his bad habits and ignored or failed to appreciate his good ones.

        I didn’t know that Halter wrote mysteries without impossible crimes. That’s interesting. I’d be much more inclined to read one of those.

        While I’m definitely in favour of unpadded crime fiction. I think there’s only so far you can push it before efficiency becomes corner-cutting (and Halter is actually a very inefficient writer, on a line-by-line basis). Impossible crimes need to be explained, investigated, reflected upon and ultimately solved. Doing that properly five or six times in the space of a few hundred pages feels like an impossible task, no matter who the author is.

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  3. I feel like a happy host watching you two talk about this. I should just replenish your snifters and tiptoe out the door. But I do think Rich hits on good points that explain why Carr is so much more satisfying than Halter (beyond the simple statement that Carr is the better writer). There IS something to be said for the way that devotion to the development of character and emotional attachment, as well as time and place, within a story contributes to the writer’s ability to blend clues into the atmosphere. Since Halter essentially eliminates all of that in favor of pure puzzle layout, a reader like me ends up catching every bit of the solution EXCEPT the how, and once that is explained I STILL don’t understand it. It reminds me of students with learning challenges who, if they don’t achieve some measure of success quickly, end up as the troublemakers in the back of the classroom.

    I do think Carr is better at creating the howdunnit puzzle than you give him credit for, Rich, and without remembering all the methods he thought up, one of the reasons I admire him is that not everyone in his stories is a magician, mystery writer, or nut job who is out to baffle people. In many cases, there is a perfectly legitimate reason why the murder comes off as an impossible crime. Sometimes the most simple stroke of luck or accident occurs; other times, one simple gesture or task, and the crime becomes “impossible.” Those murderers who do work on making it seem that way do so for far better reasons than we find in Halter. And Carr manages to include information along the way that supports the final revelations, as well as our understanding as to why they happened the way they did. I agree with Rich that nobody did reversals as well as Carr (although Christie and Queen come close). It’s not just the solution but the whole revelation of character that Carr was so good at. He Who Whispers, Dark of the Moon, The Crooked Hinge . . . the list goes on. Halter wants to provide the same reversals, but they mostly are the EXACT same in every book, and he simply does not lay a thick enough trap to fool this reader. But that’s because he doesn’t provide himself with a rich enough foundation in which to plant the right clues.

    And yes, I add a third vote to wanting to read his non-locked room stuff. Anyone wanna take John Pugmire out to dinner???

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  4. You have two numbers fives and that makes eight hypotheses. No else noticed that?

    I couldn’t agree with you more with you on points 4, 5a, 5b and 6. Too many flaws as as a mystery writer for me. I tend to spot the killer very quickly as well. In one case I knew the answer to the entire mystery as soon as it was introduced because the “impossible crime” coincidentally is exactly the same as a riddle that I knew when I was in junior high school. This book and the other one with “Seven” in the title sealed Halter’s fate for me. You can only give a writer so many chances to deliver before completely giving up on him. Like you I’ve read five and only two of them even came a smidgen (and barely so) to earning him the hyperbolic sobriquet “the new John Dickson Carr” or whatever nickname he’s be given to liken him to the locked room/impossible crime master. The more I read his novels it really came as no surprise to me why no English language publisher wanted to publish his books for decades. He has extremely limited appeal, IMO, and would never sell to a wide reading audience which is something publishers look for these days. Niche markets don’t do it anymore.

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