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:
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.
“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.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
I didn’t do it, I tell ya! I didn’t do it!!!