“A family united all together under the same roof, in an old manor, with a generous and very rich man. If this were a novel, it would end in tragedy.”
It would seem that the madman here is yours truly. My problematical relationship with author Paul Halter has been well documented on this site. And yet here I go again, snapping up the latest translation (by John Pugmire, published by Locked Room International) of one of the author’s impossible crime novels. This time, it’s the fourth Halter wrote featuring Gideon Fell-wannabe, Dr. Alan Twist, and Chief Inspector Hurst – The Madman’s Room (1990).
A staple of Halter’s plots is the horrific past event that haunts his present-day characters. This time, we’re dealing with that fine old trope, the haunted, sealed-off room upstairs – you know, the one that some idiot not only re-opens but insists on spending the night in. John Dickson Carr himself used this ploy to introduce audiences to Dr. Fell in Hag’s Nook; Helen McCloy’s later novel Mr. Splitfoot does a great job piling on the atmosphere with her own take on the haunted room. I’ve always been a sucker for this plotline – and since I actually had a good time with my last attempt at Halter, The Phantom Passage, I thought I would give this one a try.
The opening chapters introduce us to a rather large group of folks who are bound together by an intricate combination of relationships. A brother and sister named Francis and Sarah Hilton happen to get married within two months of each other. Francis marries the lovely Paula Lyle who, in an extended prologue that the author tells us is important, is advised to marry him by her best friend, Patrick Nolan, a private detective whose feelings for Paula are decidedly confused. Meanwhile, Sarah hits the jackpot when she weds the wealthy, gregarious and deeply jealous Harris Thorne, who lives in his family mansion with his weird brother, Brian, the requisite psychic that Halter seems to include in every other novel. Harris invites Francis and Paula and his bride’s parents, Howard and Dorothy (who have fallen on hard times) to live with him, and they frequently invite the neighboring doctor, Mike Meadows, and his fiancée, Bessie Blount, over for bridge – not a good idea, since Mike tends to make eyes at the new Mrs. Thorne. The honeymoon is bumpy for Francis and Paula as well, maybe because the new Mrs. Hilton keeps sneaking off for trysts with her old “best friend,” Patrick!
And that’s just Chapter One. Soon enough, Halter starts laying the foundation for the real weirdness to follow, involving an old room that belonged to the late Harvey Thorne, the brothers’ great-uncle and the reputed author of many lost works of occult – and possibly satanic – lore. His tampering with matters unnatural has not only led to Harvey’s death but to his cursing his family. Brian seems to have inherited Harvey’s prescient powers, and he respects the decision to seal off Harvey’s room. But his brother Harris is a bullish sort of fellow, and it doesn’t sit well with him when his wacky sibling warns him not to open up the room again. Before you can say “Bluebeard’s boudoir,” the chamber has been turned into Harris’ new study . . . and the real madness begins.
Quite a few deaths occur before this novel ends, and the mystery is compounded by a number of questions:
- What do people see while standing in the doorway of the room that causes them to become horrified and collapse?
- Why is the carpet in front of the fireplace always wet after a mysterious incident? (Halter employed a similar clue only two books earlier, in Death Invites You, but it’s handled in a much more satisfying way here.)
- How can the varied predictions brother Brian makes come true unless he does have the gift of second sight?
- Why can nobody speak definitely enough – even to the point of completing sentences – in order to allow a reader to follow a simple conversation here?
I hang out in the blogosphere with a lot of people I respect who have great regard for Halter (see illustration of typical Halter fan on the left). None of them push him on me. In fact, they often beg me to stop reading the guy and just leave him alone. What I have learned after digesting most of the Halter titles that LRI has published is that you have to focus on the plot and ignore as best you can the stock characterization and settings, the indifferent prose and the execrable dialogue.
In terms of plot, I would say this is one of the better ones. The psychic aspect is laid out well, and while the room itself never really comes to life on the page, the events that take place there are suitably puzzling. The story is action-packed and not bogged down with endless interviews or – another staple of Halter’s – an over-reliance on convoluted mythology from the past that ultimately has little or nothing to do with the affairs of the present. At the end, Dr. Twist gathers the survivors in the salon and pieces together a hugely complex plot in a mostly satisfying manner. For once, the reveal of the killer’s identity is not a flashy trick but a logical culmination of events and the explanations of the various impossibilities and psychic phenomena were, for the most part, wonderfully clever.
Dr. Twist and Inspector Hurst do not figure much in the book until the second half. This is too bad because I think Halter is at his best writing the scenes between his detectives. (The relationship between Owen Burns and Achilles Stock, Halter’s alternate sleuthing team, is even more satisfying to this reader, as evidenced in The Phantom Passage.) Unlike all the suspects, Twist and Hurst finish their sentences and don’t speak in vague generalities so that when Hurst says or does something and Twist smacks his head and says, “But of course! Archibald, you’re a genius!” we feel just like Halter wants us to feel – like we’re reading a classic mystery of the 30’s with the main sleuth always several steps ahead of the Scotland Yard dunderhead.
If only the rest of the book were written as well! In addition to a wealth of spelling and grammar mistakes that suggest a rush job in editing/translation, we’re bombarded with clumsy prose, like “Mike Meadows, wearing an impeccable dark suit, wore a haggard expression.” Even more maddening are passages like this one:
“On impulse he hid behind a bush and kept his eyes open. He had no difficulty identifying the figure that had just set foot on the path up to the manor. There was nothing extraordinary about its presence there at that hour. On the other hand, what it was doing . . . .
“Patrick, his breath taken away, watched the spectacle taking place before his eyes in amazement. No, he wasn’t seeing things. Of course, there was one thing he couldn’t see very clearly . . . but the shape left no doubt. He couldn’t believe it, nothing made sense.
“His stupefaction was such that he was unable to react. He stood there, rooted to the spot – which was a grave error, as he was to realize later – his mind bewildered by events.”
Scenes like this, which pervade not only this novel but all of Halter’s work, strike me as annoying and grossly unfair. Sure, we learn that Patrick saw something important, but what are we really supposed to make of a passage like this? The information provided is far too vague to take us forward. There’s no specific information to register, thus making this scene memorable. There is no fair play misdirection at work here because we aren’t pointed into any direction at all!
Even the details rankle: would a character really refer in his mind to another person he’s watching as “it?” And what on earth is the purpose of Halter saying, “there was one thing he couldn’t see very clearly . . . but the shape left no doubt. “ The shape of what? Nothing of Patrick’s observations is made clear! A good mystery author knows how to create a scene whose very specificity provides chills and bafflement. Off the top of my head, I think of Fay Seton being witnessed engaging in a little vampire action with a young boy in He Who Whispers or the observations outside the garden party in Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass, Darkly. The scene of the old woman eating buns in a teashop after Richard Abernethie’s funeral (After the Funeral) is a moment where the author – Agatha Christie here – paints a scene as plain as day and yet reveals nothing! That’s showmanship!
It’s a good writer’s duty to obfuscate in plain sight, to show us specific, weird actions and dare us to make sense of them. That’s what gives the reader those wonderful “Aha!” moments. When the above passage was explained at the end, I felt as if I had been treated unfairly. Fortunately, most of the solution here is eminently fair and cleverly done, making it one of Halter’s most convincing and satisfying denouements.
Until, alas, the final page! Maybe it’s his Gallic sense of humor or maybe he’s been reading too much Saki, but Halter has a tendency in several of his works to go all “meta” on us in his search for twists, usually with the most unfortunate results. I can’t even guess what we’re supposed to make of the last section. Well, actually I suspect I do know, but I want to be as unspoiler-y as I can, so I’ll leave it at the suggestion that the author is trying to pay homage to his mentor here. And that’s all I will say about that! At any rate, he should have left well enough alone! Once you’ve finished The Madman’s Room, give some thought as to how its final effect would be altered by the exclusion of the last page. Then come sit by me and we’ll talk!