GOING THROUGH PAUL HALTER’S SHORTS

Maybe it’s due to the mad whirl of school starting up again, but I’m having a hard time focusing on murder mysteries. I’ve been juggling a Carter Dickson, a Rex Stout, and a Theodore Roscoe, and I can’t finish any of them. I’ve lost my follow-through! Maybe there’s just too much teacher stuff running through my mind at the moment to allow me to stop and savor a full-length novel. Rather than go cold turkey, however, I thought I might venture into short-story territory, a land through which I seldom travel.

And that sparked a memory! In a recent post of mine about Paul Halter, an author with whom I have a most complex relationship, one of my blogosphere buddies, The Dark One, suggested that perhaps Halter worked better in the short form and recommended the story collection, The Night of the Wolf. Whereupon I hustled over to the library where Wolf is one of only two Halter titles that anybody in the entire Bay Area carries. I pored through these ten tales of mystery and impossible crime, and here’s what I thought:

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The first story, “The Abominable Snowman,” is nothing less than a complete Halter novel in miniature. Over the course of twenty pages, we are introduced to no less than eleven characters, a tragic death from the past that haunts the present, a murder seemingly committed by a ghost, and even a touch of the mythological in the form of Kali, the goddess of revenge. Before an eyewitness, a man is seemingly murdered by an inanimate snowman that comes to life, battles and destroys him. The case remains unsolved for a generation until one snowy Christmas eve when two men meet at the same corner where the murder was committed, and all is made clear. The solution reminded me very much of a classic story by Ellery Queen, one that generates mixed feelings to this day. The one Noteworthy difference of to me is that in the queen story there is a definite clue which points the detective towards a solution. The answer is not so fairly determined in Halter’s tale; rather, the detective present a solution that certainly fits the facts and is clever in its own right, yet to my mind is not proven beyond a doubt. And then, not content to present a novel’s worth of plot in short story form, Halter gives us a  twist at the end which is cute but unnecessary. Still, the sense of atmosphere is nice, the solution is clever, and the fact that John Pugmire is working with a co-translator, Bob Adey, makes for a smoother flowing prose..

The second tale, “The Dead Dance at Night,” places us firmly and comfortably in short story territory. Here we find Dr. Alan twist, halter’s noted criminologist, investigating the supposedly haunted crypt belonging to the tragic Simmons family. Again, Halter presents a great deal of back story to explain why the remaining members of this clan are in, to say the least, a very bad mood. But here he never overloads us with too much information, and what he presents to us here is key to understanding the present mystery. I would love to take a blue pencil to the first page of the story and begin on the rainy night when Dr. twist finds himself stranded on a country road with a flat tire. From that moment on, the facts of the case sort themselves out beautifully and in a manner rich with atmosphere that doesn’t stop until the final haunting sentence.

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The Call of the Lorelei” is described in the preface (by renowned scholar and Halter fan Rolande Lacourbe) as one of the most haunting stories Halter wrote. I don’t see it, but I fear that with this third story Halter begins to feel formulaic. We have the ace detective (Dr. Twist again) meeting someone with a tale to tell of a mysterious past tragedy. This one is set at the Rhine river and deals with the legend of the siren Lorelei, who lures men to their doom from her foggy river lair. Except the lair doesn’t figure much in this story, and the setting resembles any of the generic English villages Halter employs. Again, there are one too many characters (do we need the uncle with the limp?), and while the solution is elegantly simple in its cleverness, we’ve visited this territory in this very collection. To add to the sense of deja vu, Twist asks the exact same question of his companion: “can you remember any detail, no matter how trivial, that happened around that time?” What, again?

The next two stories are very short indeed, but then I remembered that Ellery Queen, whom I consider a master of the short form, could always offer a fine deductive turn with only a few pages. Alas, that is not the case with “The Golden Ghost.” I would describe this as Halter’s version of A Christmas Carol in miniature, as it concerns another miser who gets his comeuppance on Christmas Eve. With far too many jarring changes in character and a bizarre vengeance plot, this story failed to fill me with the holiday spirit. Much better was “The Tunnel of Death,” where for once Halter doesn’t try to cram in too many characters or too complicated a back-story. What we’re given is a neat little puzzle where a policeman comes back to the scene of a past murder, seemingly committed by a long escalator housed in a tunnel. It’s a clever trifle of a tale that moves along quickly and acts as a digestif for the stories to follow.

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We have reached the halfway point, and I’m starting to think the Dark One has a point. Short as Halter’s novels tend to be, they feel padded with too many elements tossed in to distract the reader from the central trick. I also think that the co-translating going on here feels much smoother than what we get from Pugmire in the longer works, but this may have to do with the way Halter himself approaches the long form.

With a title like “The Cleaver,” one can hope that the next story will be nice and juicy (as in bloody) – very Robert Bloch-ian! Lacourbe describes it as “a masterpiece of crime fiction.” And it really is a delightful story, perhaps my favorite in the collection. For one thing, it features Owen Burns and Achilles Stock, the Victorian duo who feature in several of Halter’s novels whom I enjoy much more than Dr. Twist. When the author writes about Burns, his sense of humor comes to the fore, and this tale is no exception as Burns, burned (excuse me) by a comely American lass, latches onto the first American he comes across and lands one verbal barb after another. The U.S. citizen is undaunted, and as soon as he learns about Burns’ adept handling of impossible crimes, he launches into a story. This one takes place in Colorado, and for once the setting doesn’t feel like a generic English village transplanted to anywhere. The story centers on a horrific dream that a traveller has of a friend of his being brutally murdered, and when his train pulls into the station, he looks out the window . . . and sees the murderer of his dreams! Extra points to Halter for calling that vicious lout Harry Friedman; clearly, this is one of my distant relations, both in name and character. Of course, the dream is prophetic, and the authorities are forced to consider whether or not their informant has had a true paranormal experience. Burns and Stock toss around several theories, and the actual solution is brilliant in its simplicity. Imagine me, tossing around the words “brilliant” and “delightful” when talking about Halter! JJ, are you paying attention?

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The next story, perhaps the longest in the collection, is titled, “The Flower Girl,” and I worried that it would resemble the cloying lump of Christmas coal that was “The Golden Ghost.” But no! Once again we get to hang out with Owen Burns, who may be an excellent art critic and solver of impossible crimes but tends to lack in the tact department. After being tossed out of a museum opening for pronouncing the work of an up and coming painter, “ugliness defined as fine art,” Burns flirts brazenly with a married woman at a dinner party. Fortunately, her husband, a famous playwright, is more bemused than bothered, and he, Burns and Stock share some conversation philosophically appropriate to the holiday season. This results in yet another recounting of a past impossible murder, one that has the teller believing in the existence of Father Christmas.

The victim, Drake Sterling, is another Scrooge-like figure: “Pity and charity played no part in his thinking, solely occupied as he was with the smooth functioning of his business affairs.” As he gathers together a Christmas party of relations (who might inherit his fortune) and new business associate at his Tudor mansion, Sterling brags about firing his employee Buckley simply because of the man’s good humor. Buckley has taken to drink as a result, forcing his young daughter out into the streets to sell dried flowers (hence, the title) in order to survive. Sterling might as well be wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with, “Kill me please!” on the front. And with Halter repeatedly informing us of the smooth white blanket of unbroken snow surrounding the house – a favorite trope of impossible crime writers – you just know things are not going to turn out well for our host! “The Flower Girl” does a fine job incorporating the legends – or are they facts – of Christmas into the plot in an original way, as well as finding an intriguing set of answers for the inevitable questions of “prints in the snow.”

Next up is the short-short with the delicious title of “Rippermania.” Halter displays a nice sense of humor with a psychiatrist coming up with an actual diagnosis for those who are obsessed with the Whitechapel madmen, but the story turns out to be a blatant rip-off – er, an audacious homage to a much better story by Robert Bloch.

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Murder in Cognac” is the longest tale in the book and shows all the promise of being one of its best. Dr. Twist and Inspector Hurst investigate murder by poison in a prosaic French village. We find classic elements that Halter will explore in his longer works: the heated rivalry between two men one an expert on crime fiction and the other a magician/occult charlatan (The Seventh Hypothesis); murder in a locked tower (The Invisible Circle); there’s even an Ellery Queen-style dying message. The cast is suitably small, allowing us to focus on the real mystery: how did M. Soudard manage to die of cyanide poisoning despite all his precautions?

The problem for me is one that I always have when reading Halter: the singular lack of finesse with which he foists information upon us. Each character has certain qualities or conditions that must contribute to the solution. An early uncomfortable moment between Hurst and a certain character must be significant at the end. And that dying message is the worst, a clear example of an author laying out a clue and refusing to allow the characters to ponder its true meaning merely so he can stretch the affair out longer.

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The final story is the one that gives the collection its title. “The Night of the Wolf” also marks the return of Irving Farrell, the elderly amateur sleuth we met in the first tale, “The Abominable Snowman.” Farrell arrives fortuitously to the village of Eastmorland just as a vicious killer has struck. Mr. Wolf had been found in his cabin in the woods, his body shredded by an animal yet stabbed by a human. Yet more shenanigans involving footprints in the snow suggest the deed must have been committed by a werewolf. Farrell, at least, has the good sense to question the authority’s jump to such a ridiculous conclusion. Yes, there’s another past crime spree that had been laid at the door of this supernatural creature. Farrell might have good cause to wonder that all the people who were involved in that twenty-year-old werewolf case were found in the vicinity of this latest crime. And again, we’re offered a bizarre, seemingly irrelevant little detail that proves to be the crux of the problem. I will say, though, that the explanation of the “werewolf” prints is pretty clever.

Except – Halter has something else in mind, as he reveals a whole different layer to the tale at the very end. I know what he’s trying to do – I even know what inspired him to do it. But I can’t help thinking the final effect is just silly instead of spooky. (The first line of the story might clue you in to why I think so.)

I know, I know, I tend to get snarky when talking about Paul Halter. But in the end, I agree with The Dark One: Halter’s imagination fits well into the short story format. Give him the room to stretch his tale out to full length, and I’m sorry to have to say it – Halter tends to falter.

enhanced-1312-1435088986-17 I didn’t do it, I tell ya! I didn’t do it!!!

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19 thoughts on “GOING THROUGH PAUL HALTER’S SHORTS

  1. Thanks, Brad, for the thoughtful discussion. There are some authors who just simply do short stories better than novellas or novels. There are also those who do better novels than they do short stories. Unusual is the author who does both well…

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    1. I agree with you, Margot. Agatha Christie wrote a few short gems – “Witness for the Prosecution” comes to mind – but the long form was really her metier! She needed the length to weave her spell of misdirection!

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    2. I guess a writer can’t have it all! Even if he/she could write both short stories and novels very well, I’m sure, positive even, there will be some duds in the bunch. No writer will have an all out string of hits and successes throughout his entire career, that is if they are prolific and produce a huge body of work.

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  2. I think, and you seem to concur, that this is a fairly solid collection. I haven’t read any of Halter’s full novels yet and this volume is my only experience of him so far. I also thought that golden ghost gubbins came close to sinking the whole thing but it’s more a temporary lapse than fatal flaw, and the material surrounding it is generally superior.

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    1. The thing is, the other Christmas story is so good that one wonders why The Golden Ghost was added. The impossible aspect is half-hearted, and the characters fly by too quickly for us to care about this revenge plot. But I was pleased that I liked the bulk of these!

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  3. Wait a minute! So “The Golden Ghost” had the potential to sink the whole thing, but not a word about the horrendously mismatched “Rippermania,” which had absolutely no business being in this collection. Not to mention that’s a really poor story.

    That being said, I liked the collection as a whole and the overall quality is excellent with some great impossible crime stories. I particularly loved “The Abominable Snowman,” “The Cleaver” and “The Flower Girl.” One thing I remember loving about the first one, besides a solid plot, is silliness of two men standing out in the freezing cold, late in the evening with ankles deep in the snow, while one tells a long story to the other. I recall they had to be there for the final twist to work, but a better writer would have found a way to place them inside in front of roaring fire. Still, it’s a great story.

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    1. Like you, I thought “The Cleaver” and “The Flower Girl” were the best stories. I wasn’t quite as crazy about that snowman but it wasn’t a bad tale. I thought my reference to “Rippermania” as “a blatant rip-off of a much better story by Robert Bloch” was a clear enough diss of that dreadful story. But I will re-affirm my contempt of that one right here just for you, TomCat! 😉

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      1. That comment about “The Golden Ghost” and “Rippermania” was directed at Colin’s comment, but I’ll take the blame for this misunderstanding, because I’m an idiot who didn’t click on the “Reply” under his post. 🙂

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      2. My question to you, TomCat, is: why do I always have to “approve” your comments? Are you a secret government agent? Are you banned from normal internet access? I want you to feel welcome at my house, and yet I always have to go through this little step. (Which I am more than happy to go through as I always enjoy your insights and opinions!) Just wondering!

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    2. Aye, I’ll grant you Rippermania is pretty poor. I still maintain, that golden ghost business is, if you’ll pardon me, cack – unpleasant in every respect and not at all entertaining, as far as I could see. So there. 🙂

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    3. My question to you, TomCat, is: why do I always have to “approve” your comments?

      I’ve absolutely no idea, Brad. Every single comment I attempt to post on a wordpress blog is queued until it’s approved. Some do not appear at all. This also happens on blogspot, but, weirdly enough, not on every single one. For example, I can freely post comments on Ho-Ling’s blog, but my comments on Pretty Sinister Books have to be approved first. Admittedly, that’s not always encouraging to comment on a post or review.

      Only the only reason you can even approve my comments is because I leave out a link to my blog in the comment-form. Whenever I add a link to my blog, every single comment simply vanishes into the void after hitting the “post comment” button.

      Ironically enough, this began to (noticeably) happen earlier this year right after a discussion on JJ’s blog about censorship or un-PC opinions. Something like that. I said I was opposed to censoring books or ignoring (long-dead) authors for opinions they might have held almost a hundred years ago. Ever since, my comments have trouble getting through. If I were a conspiracy minded person, I would almost start to believe I was added to some sort of black or throttle list for wrong-think, because not wanting the past edited is ++ungood.

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      1. I find it slightly ironic that I just had to approve a comment by you about censorship! And while I sometimes find old attitudes or inherent racism offensive, I agree with you that they should not be cut out as a reminder of what used to be. We learn from the past by remembering it, not by editing it.

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      2. “…but my comments on Pretty Sinister Books have to be approved first. ”
        Actually Pretty Sinister has deliberately turned on Comment Approval feature in his blog. Hence everyone’s comment will have the same fate. I once commented protesting against such “censorship” but that comment itself was not approved !

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  4. I was reflecting recently that I this is one of the Halter books I’ve not yet featured on my blog and so I should write about these stories before too long — maybe next week, since I would largely be able to review it without too much rereading and time is of the essence now term has started. So, I’ll hold my full thoughts for whenever I get round to this myself.

    However.

    I will just say that I love ‘The Abominable Snowman’…but — but — I got to the end and was struck by the thought “Yeah, but to actually make [that thing that needs to be made and appear a certain way]…dude, that’s just not possible…”. However, it remains probably my favourite impossibility that I don’t believe.

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  5. I don’t know if I post enough to be a “blogging buddy” but I’ll take it. 😛

    But see? I was right. 😛 Short stories are Halter’s forte, or at least they force him to focus on what he’s good at. I decently enjoyed The Golden Ghost, if just because the ending was darker than I thought, but other than that I think I’m in agreement with what you have. I don’t think I was as fond of Murder in Cognac, but like I said in my own review I think I accidentally short-circuited it.

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    1. I had to go back and read what I wrote because I don’t remember loving Murder in Cognac either. If I mentioned “the singular lack of finesse with which he foists information upon us” and described the dying message as “the worst,” then I can only imagine what a stinker you thought the story to be.

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  6. One of the elements that I love about mysteries are when I, the reader, is given a clue and the detective and his sidekick discusses the meaning and interprets it. It not only “stretch the affair out longer” but it invites the reader to match his/her wits with the detective. And as a result it keeps the reader glued to the story. Not only that but we can learn what the detective is like from his deductions. But when there is no pondering over the true meaning of the clue, why would the reader care? How do we receive an inkling of what the detective is thinking if this element is omitted? Not too long ago I re-read Agatha Christie’s “The ABC Murders” and throughout it Poirot and Capt. Hastings discussed the letters that the anonymous writer sent, possible aspects as to this killer’s character, and any clues that could be culled from those letters. It raises my interest in the mystery. You want to find out who the “ABC murderer” could be. If the detective cares and thinks through the case, making sense of the evidence, I care even more because I become a participant.

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    1. This is certainly a standard and welcome part of classic mysteries for
      me too, Brian! It’s highly likely that. O true detective talks like this, but such pondering are highly entertaining, as well as adding to the challenge aspect of a GAD mystery. I highly recommend the work of Norman Berrow. While his mysteries seldom end as cleverly as they began, Berrow is a master at the interplay between cops!

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