PUZZLING PUDDLES: Paul Halter’s The Madman’s Room

“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.

Chambre-Fou

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:

  1. What do people see while standing in the doorway of the room that causes them to become horrified and collapse?
  2. 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.)
  3. How can the varied predictions brother Brian makes come true unless he does have the gift of second sight?
  4. 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?

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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.

Twist and Hurst copy

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.

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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!

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25 thoughts on “PUZZLING PUDDLES: Paul Halter’s The Madman’s Room

  1. “In addition to a wealth of spelling and grammar mistakes that suggest a rush job in editing/translation,..”
    Well, it may be because JJ was not given the proofreading job ! 🙂
    And, yes, I agree, the last bit was totally unnecessary !

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve skimmed this, Brad, as I have it sitting on my own Kindle — ready to go once I’m out of the country and lying by the side of a pool in Greece.

    I’m getting the impression this flirts with making you quite happy, but draws back at key times. I seem to remember Santosh enjoying this in French and (I think…) Sergio not being so keen on it in Italian, so that’s about the range of responses now covered. I look forward to adding my own take on this in a few weeks from now.

    Regarding last line twists, however, they do seem to be something of a feature of Halter’s work. The Lord of Misrule reveals the main clue to the killer in the very final line, and others (The Seventh Hypothesis, The Phantom Passage, etc) have a kick right at the end. Interestingly, there’s also one book where it seem that Halter’s about to drop an amazing twist on you and then…doesn’t. I wonder if this was something he went through in a particular phase of his early career, and then dropped. These are, of course, not being translated in original publication order, so a chronological assessment of the titles we have might reveal something interesting.

    Hmmm, I wonder who’d be willing to do something like that…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear God, what have I wrought . . . ?!?

      I don’t want to say any more about the story until you’ve read it. But I do get tired of all you folks forgiving Halter his prose. You like what he has to say so much that you’re willing to basically ignore how he says it. All too often, he substitutes vagueness in place of genuine misdirection, especially in his dialogue, to maintain an air of mystery. I think that’s lazy. And the guy is sixty and has been writing for over 25 years; he should know how to put a sentence together correctly by now!

      Of course, all of this stems from my own intense jealousy, as Halter is living the life I had often dreamed I would live: writing puzzles and amassing fans. He has much to show for it, and I find myself reduced to the role of scathing critic. Such is life! Now bugger off to your poolside in Greece, you %#$&@^@%!!!!!

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      1. Well, I can comment more on the prose when I’ve read it. But, if it helps at all, don’t forget that this was originally published 27 years ago when Halter was still rather new to this lark…indeed, of those translated only The Phantom Passage has been originally published since the year 2000, with everything else so far translated originally from the decade 1987-97.

        I’m not making excuses — far from it, I’m much more a “take a book on its merits” kinda guy — but it’s possibly a little specious to expect this one to represent 25 years of writing just because we’re able to read it only after he’s been writing for that long… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Wow! I know this has nothing to do with the post really but… Greece? Up to last autumn I’d lived full time in Athens for close to 20 years, and I may actually be on my way back in the not too distant future. Where are you going to?

      Oh, and yeah, nice review, Brad. 🙂

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      1. I’ve been most summers for the last several years, each time to a different island or region. Loved Athens when I was there in, like, 2011; this year it’s Halkidiki.

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      2. Ah, up Thessaloniki way – very nice, enjoy yourself, eat well, swim, drink a little tsipouro, watch a pretty girl dance tsifteteli late at night…
        Μου λείπει Ελλάδα.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That is an excellent point, darn it! The jealousy part stands of course, since at 33 all I could manage to do was get a teaching credential! Still, one has to wonder how the books are getting chosen for translation: there is next to nothing in terms of continuation in Halter’s canon, and one would think that the first books introduced into a new language/nation should be among the best in order to entice! Think of the people whose first Christie was Third Girl, whose first Carr was The Demoniacs, whose first Rupert Penny was . . . . oh, any of them!! 🙂 These people stopped reading those authors! The Phantom Passage has a good plot, but this reader was also impressed with the writing! Evidently, Halter improved with time.

    Of course, you’re going to crow that we have so much great stuff to look forward to . . . but then you have the optimistic outlook of a soon-to-be Greek beach bunny. I’ve got two days in Vegas to look forward to!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would be nice to think that the first book we get to see would be among the best, but international rights and…other…stuff…must also come into consideration. It’s my understanding that LRI are publishing those books to which Halter himself holds the rights, so there’s that slight restriction, and it’s hardly as if everything put out so far is full of sentences that make no sense or are poorly parsed.

      Sure, you haven’t liked them as much as, say, I have, but that might be purely that Halter ain’t your kind of thing, in the same way that the first couple of Ellery Queen books (Dutch Shoe coming soon!) have nearly killed off all prestige I used to feel obliged to exude upon mention of that distinguished personage. Aaah, well, at least this gives us each our own personal demons with which to struggle.

      And I’ve still got a week of school yet, so Greece couldn’t look more distant…

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  4. There is one aspect I found particularly ingenious.

    SPOILER ALERT ! SPOILER ALERT !

    There are 4 occasions when the carpet in front of the fire place is found wet. The explanation is different in each case !
    Also, there are 3 occasions when a person in the doorway appears to see something in the room and becomes terrified and collapses. The explanation is different in each case !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Santosh, I obviously didn’t want to get into too many details in my review, but I completely agree with you. I also love that just about all the explanations are basic, simple stuff, especially the ones about Brian’s prophecies. Nobody needs to be an Olympic sprinter or pole vaulter or trapeze artist.

      Another thing I liked was that I didn’t figure out the killer’s identity. The only thing I was sure of was SPOILER SPOILER that the person Brian saw coming back into the house and up the stairs was NOT his brother. That meant that Sarah was in on some part of it, but even then the explanation is far more satisfying than my idea.

      I just wish the guy knew how to write a sentence.

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  5. I have just started La malédiction de Barberousse which is the first novel written by Halter in 1985, though it was published 10 years later in 1995. I find that it reads well.
    As a challenge, I have decided to translate it into English chapter-wise after reading each chapter. I have completed the translation of the first chapter. If you are interested, I can send you a copy of the translation so that you can judge the writing skill.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I had to laugh when you posted the first review of the English translation that I’ve seen. I officially deem you Halter’s #1 fan.

    I’ve yet to read any of Halter’s work, but they sound like they are right down my alley – multiple impossibilities per book, atmosphere, and rooms that kill. Got to love rooms that kill. The Red Widow Murders is the best example that comes to mind, although Hag’s Nook is fun as well.

    One thing that has kind of kept me away from Halter (and this is going to sound super shallow) is the cover art is dreadful. I feel mean saying that, as I’m sure someone worked hard on it, but really, look at the cover of the English edition. It is almost slapstick. Obviously I don’t judge a book by a cover, but the artwork lends a mystique to a work, and that’s just missing here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, Ben, don’t let the cover art stop you. There is sooooo much more to dislike about Halter that the artwork will feel like Modigliani when you’re done. But you will probably be like JJ and ignore all the other things – the lousy writing, the lack of characterization and setting, the meta-madness – for the sake of another locked room puzzle by a man who clearly adored JD Carr!

      Still, as puzzles go, this one was pretty good; so is The Phantom Passage and, on retrospect, The Demon of Dartmoor. There! You have my Halter recommendations! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ben.. it is by no means shallow to be turned off a book by it’s cover art! I totally judge a book by its cover! I am an artist so it goes a long way for me for sure. In fact I knew one artist friend who would cover the front’s of his books that he didn’t like the design of with brown paper so he could read them on the train without feeling embarrassed.

      Unfortunately hiring a half decent designer is expensive, or finding one that understands the project and would be willing to give something out for a lower rate for a small publishing house is not easy – (and my wife is a graphic designer so I should know!).

      Let’s hope things turn around some day. The copy of Rim of The Pit I am reading at the moment is just horrid. It makes it so hard to concentrate on the book when the book is the wring size in your hands, badly designed, with type setting that feels like you are reading a medical reference text book.

      Rant over (for now)

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  7. Great review Brad, and thank you for powering in with this series, it makes for great reading to engage with reviews from someone who is skeptical about a writer. It’s all the more interesting to pull these works apart.

    What struck me, and I wonder if you feel the same having worked in theatre, is the passages you pulled out as bad examples felt to me like poorly written screen-play scene description. It was as if he was trying to write what we would see through their eyes, but which would work on screen, but that doesn’t work in book form. If you were to have seen that shape, and get a fair glimpse of the ‘thing he could see clearly’ it might feel like it made more sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Dan! I’m on my tablet, or I would pull out a line of dialogue and show you why I think if it as bad book dialogue rather than bad screen dialogue. Everyone sounds alike, and everyone speaks like an omniscient voice, so that – if I can be forgiven for making up some Halter-like dialogue here, it would go something like this:

      “Monica, my darling, did you visit Lawrence Taylor, the psychic, as you planned yesterday afternoon?” asked Ronald Wilson.

      “Yes, Ronald,” Monica Welles replied with a shudder. “What a strange, frightening man he is! His face is lean and saturnine, with eyes of a deep cobalt blue that seem to pierce right through your soul. And I couldn’t look away from his hands that were attached to long, ropy arms – the hands whose fingers opened and closed with evident hunger, as if they wished to wrap themselves around my throat!” Monica shuddered violently again.

      And what a pretty throat it is, thought Ronald Marsh with a relish that would have been evident if he didn’t keep it a secret from Monica Welles, for whom he had long cherished feelings of a secret kind.

      You know, I tried to be satirical here, but I think I hit the nail on the head.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m amazed that you got through this review without mentioned that awful cover. It looks like a cheesy B-movie (but then considering what this book has it might be improved thinking of it that way!)

    I’m not surprised Halter seems better at smaller problems; one of the issues with his novels is his habit of throwing everything and the kitchen sink at you and the puzzle buckling under that weight. I honestly think that his strength is the short story. Have you read The Night of the Wolf?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The short story isn’t really my form, oh Dark One – although I love Ellery Queen’s shorts, and I prefer Holmes in small doses to novel length. And I didn’t mention the cover for the simple reason that I bought the Kindle edition (saves me ten bucks). I will say that this quality you mention about Halter’s overloaded plots collapsing under their own weight – which I totally agree with – wasn’t as much in evidence here, and it’s amazing how much that improved the experience!

      The Night of the Wolf is one of the only two Halter titles in our entire library system. I might give it a try one of these days.

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      1. “….Halter’s overloaded plots collapsing under their own weight …….. wasn’t as much in evidence here..”
        In fact, though there are several weird or impossible events, everything fits in brilliantly (as mentioned by JJ for The Moai Island Puzzle)

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  9. By the way, how do you find the writing skill of Paul Halter in the first chapter of “La malédiction de Barberousse .” In my opinion, it starts with a bang.

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