After reading all of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories – most of them multiple times – I feel I can talk about her with, if not authority, then great confidence. After reading nine novels by Paul Halter, an author I have admittedly had trouble appreciating, I cannot admit any authority or confidence, but I feel I can be critical with some impunity. I’ve seen the patterns emerge, I’ve read the words of readers who admire him, and I’ve even read interviews with the author and essays about him. This past week, due to the December topic of “foreign mysteries” that the Tuesday Night Bloggers selected, I have had the welcome opportunity to hear from French readers and critics themselves who offered some insight into a way of looking at the motivations and sensibilities of French writers and readers.
I will be talking about this some more in a couple of weeks when I review a French television show for the TNB. Meanwhile, having just completed John Pugmire’s most recent translation of Halter from Locked Room International, The Vampire Tree, I was eager to apply some of the comments I heard last week to Halter’s output.
Coming from a culture that values atmosphere and emotion over carefully structured plot points, I was intrigued that Halter would choose to work in a genre that I always felt depended mostly upon good structure: the classic murder mystery. In the interview Halter gave to Roland Lacourbe he expressed his admiration for Agatha Christie, followed by his love for John Dickson Carr. I would suggest that both authors were masters of structure. There were two aspects of Christie, the writer, that caught Halter’s imagination: her choice of murderer as being “the most interesting suspect, the one most likely to give the reader a pleasurable shudder at the end of the story” intrigued him (although it also made it easy for the teenaged Halter to spot her killers), and Christie’s atmosphere gave “a very English feeling to her work; well, at least the kind that the French imagine.”
Yet Carr reigned supreme because he combined what Halter loved most: “My favorite is the mix of fantastical atmosphere and the impossible crime.” That, plus Carr’s genius at misdirection, led Halter to base his entire writing career on Carr’s work. That explains why Halter pours on the atmosphere in all of his books, relishes the surprise ending, and plays around with time, both in setting his series in the 1880’s and the 1940-50’s, and in layering each book with a backstory involving parallel crimes from the past or supernatural legends that serve as red herrings for the solution . . . or, more often than not, both of these things in one book!
And so, in The Demon of Dartmoor, we find murder plaguing a house that has seen a similar murder in the past . . . at the same time that a serial killer seems to be preying on the village . . . a village that has fallen victim to the attacks of a supernatural creature or two. This is a lot to swallow, and in my experience with Halter, Demon is a success because the threads are woven together pretty expertly here, the solution is surprising, the atmosphere is good, and the trick to the impossible crime is supremely clever in its simplicity.
Despite the fact that the “past crime” thread feels more tacked on in Death Invites You, that novel is almost as good because of how well Halter captures the character of a troubled English family. I also liked the set-up of The Tiger’s Head, a novel that only fell apart for me at the end.
I wasn’t a fan of The Seventh Hypothesis, which some consider to be Halter’s classic. Yet, taking into account this new view of the French aesthetic applied to what Halter is doing, I can see a level of success in the atmosphere the author is trying to convey and some have raved about its impossible crime solutions.
Sometimes the threads become too complicated or the attempt at misdirection becomes either confusing or ludicrous. That’s why I had problems with The Fourth Door (despite a nice trick to the impossibility of the first crime), The Picture from the Past, and, especially, The Invisible Circle. Door does a nice job of tapping into the aura of Harry Houdini, but the solution felt hopelessly contrived. And I just couldn’t buy into any aspect of Circle: the Arthurian legends, the impossible crime in the tower, and a “hidden” killer whose identity stretched beyond all credulity.
So now we come to The Vampire Tree (1996), and I would like to tell you that this time I approached Halter with a more open mind and more understanding about what makes a French mystery writer tick. And I did do that. The problem is, this book is . . . well, I just erased six ruder attempts at words that convey the meaning, “not good.” So I will just say this book is not good.
This is Halter’s twelfth novel, the eleventh featuring Dr. Alan Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst. He has already produced Death Invites You (1988), The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) and The Demon of Dartmoor (1993), so you would figure that he knows his pattern and how to make it work. We have a present day (1950) mystery, involving the recent marriage of Patricia Squibby (unfortunate maiden name) and Roger Sheridan. Patricia is a nurse and an orphan of WWII, having survived the Blitz. She is also an irritatingly odd woman. Roger belongs to a fine old family and has returned to the village of Lightwood to restore the familial home. Patricia describes him as “consistent and steadfast, never indulging in wild excesses which would inevitably be cause for regret the following day.” Who is she living with? Roger doesn’t stop doing upsetting things from start to finish including foisting Lavinia’s diary upon his bride . . .
Cue the past crime, told through Lavinia’s journal of her marriage to Roger’s ancestor Eric Sheridan and of the impossible crime that occurred under that twisted aspen tree on a bed of pristine snow. It is a crime that Lavinia herself dreamed about oly minutes before it happened. Is she psychic? Or is she something even more supernatural in origin . . .
Cue the even older legend of Liza Gribble, (another unfortunate name), who lived way back when and whom Halter asks us to believe was a cross between a witch and a vampire. She was blamed for a series of horrible child murders, just like the series of horrible child murders occurring in Lightwood in the present day, with the corpses mysteriously devoid of blood, and she was hanged by that very same old, twisted, ugly, noisy aspen tree!
This is Halter. This is what he does, so there’s no point in complaining about it. The question is, does he do it well here? He does not. Characterization is not Halter’s strong suit, which is fine since it arguably wasn’t Carr’s either. Halter admits this about his idol and seems to embrace that deficit in himself. Here, however, the characters aren’t so much cardboard as pieces on a game board that move however the author wishes them to move at any given moment, often in ways that defy any sense. Whole chapters or passages of dialogue simply don’t make any sense at all, and yes, I know that means we need to wait till the end when everything sorts itself out. That’s why, when the separate threads ultimately resolve themselves in a way that is really unsatisfying . . . well, I just don’t know what to say.
At this point, it might make more sense for me to speak in generalities. Herewith a series of suppositions:
- If I moved into a house with a hideous haunted tree right outside my bedroom window, scratching its withered limbs on my window all night, I would cut it down.
- I know that if a bunch of little kids were being murdered throughout my village, I would be upset. I think the deaths of children and/or puppies merit some emotional reaction.
- If I knew who amongst my little circle of acquaintances was a deranged serial killer, rather than say to everyone in that circle, “Well, it’s obvious to me who the killer is but I think I will keep this matter to myself just because!” I would go to the police and spill my guts.
- I find it difficult to swallow a trained medical professional being able to diagnose the mental ailment of someone they have never met and have read about in a highly irrationally written journal, and yet this same professional cannot recognize blatant symptoms in someone they know well or, for that matter, in themselves.
- Speaking of mental illness, I totally buy into the idea that insanity will make us do some crazy things! But there’s crazy, and there’s kahhhh-raaazzzyy! Sometimes a motive defies belief in such a way that saying someone is ‘crazy’ just doesn’t cut it.
- Dr. Twist refers to this case as “one of my failures.” I would cut some slack to a Golden Age style detective trapped in a mystery that is in no way fairly clued.
I have long suspected that one of my biggest gripes with Halter has been the way he manipulates people and events because it just has to be a certain way for the mystery to run its course. I think I understand more now that Halter does what he needs to do to succeed in two things: 1) misdirect his readers in a way that will leave them delightfully surprised at the end; and 2) create a luminous atmosphere of mystery and horror. If that’s what you want from Halter – and those are two great goals for a writer! – then do not delay and go buy The Demon of Dartmoor. If you want to read a good, creepy mystery about a vampire, go get Dracula.