I want to make it clear right from the start. I have nothing against ambition.
They called the Wright Brothers foolhardy for imagining they could fly. Yet this real-life Daedalus and Icarus gave vent to their ambition, and because of them I can now relax in my cramped seat on Jet Blue, hoping against hope that the passenger in the seat next to mine is not wearing that mask because he has the plague or that the flight attendant won’t run out of tomato juice.
Ironically, the first section of Paul Halter’s 1997 mystery novel The Seven Wonders of Crime is called “Icarus,” a name synonymous with ambition giving way to folly. Since Halter provides only a tenuous connection to Greek mythology in the novel, with detective Owen Burns’ constant pleas to the Nine Muses for inspiration, this section title must be a Freudian slip on the author’s part.
I knew going in that this might be a problematic read for me. I am always wary with Halter, but I try to ignore the ludicrous dialogue and cardboard characters in the hopes that this modern author of impossible crime mysteries in the classic style will play nice with his miracles (The Demon of Dartmoor, The Madman’s Room) and won’t jump the shark (The Invisible Circle, The Vampire Tree) or go all meta-fictional on me (The Picture from the Past, The Fourth Door).
So, like I said, I was wary. Even huge fans of Halter had warned that Seven Wonders wasn’t Halter at his best. Still, I had hope: I had recently discovered while reading The Phantom Passage that I preferred the Victorian sleuthing team of Owen Burns and Achilles Stock to Halter’s 30’s detective Dr. Alan Twist, so I thought: what the hell?
What the hell indeed?
The London police are confronted with a serial killer who is patterning his – or her – crimes after the Seven Wonders of the World. As Burns remarks again and again – and again – these aren’t just ordinary murders! They are works of art, each of them an impossible crime: a man is burned alive in a secluded lighthouse with no access in or out; the victim of an arrow could not have been shot by anyone in his vicinity; a woman is crushed to death by a falling flower pot (purportedly representing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon!) that nobody was present to push. There are crimes without footprints, and crimes in locked rooms, and . . . you get the picture. The killer is running through the “greatest hits” of Golden Age impossible crime situations as if he – well, as if he had devoured John Dickson Carr books. The fiend prefaces each event by sending a painting with a message to Scotland Yard, and the cops turn to Owen Burns for inspiration. Burns sees through these messages in a snap and just as quickly establishes the pattern for the crimes. Now it’s up to Burns and Stock to stop this maniac before an insane – or is it? – plot reaches fruition.
This was Halter’s 13th novel, and I wondered if this is a problematical number for prolific mystery writers. So I checked on some of the greats. Agatha Christie’s 13th novel was Peril at End House, the first of fifteen Poirot novels written over ten years that comprise Christie’s own Golden Age. Check! John Dickson Carr, Halter’s hero, wrote his 13th mystery in 1935, the year he penned three books: Death Watch, The Red Widow Murders and The Unicorn Murders. No need to worry about him. Ellery Queen was in the midst of growing pains: this was the year he wrote The Four of Hearts, which is . . . not great.
I’ll bet you can tell by now that I’m not going to surprise you and say I found this novel riveting. But here’s the thing – and I cannot say this about any other Halter novel that I’ve read, no matter how infuriated I sometimes get with the guy: I found this one really boring. Seven impossible crimes in one hundred and eighty pages suggests a mystery jam-packed with action and, well, mystery! But it doesn’t work out that way. As miracle after miracle occurs and painting after painting arrives at the Yard, I found myself becoming restless and devoid of curiosity or wonder, like kids at a movie filled with too many special effects. (Remember when we went “Oooohhh” as the spaceship landed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?) And, despite holding off any revelations about the manner of the killings until a massive info dump at the end, Halter all too quickly allows Burns to find connections between the victims and to narrow down the canvas to four suspects contained in one household, rendering much of the text mere filler between each murder.
I couldn’t help comparing this one to Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, an infinitely superior novel about a serial killer. The random selection of victims from every social strata, the placement of so mundane an object as a railway timetable under each body, the direct taunts by the murderer to Hercule Poirot, all played against sections of the novel that take us into the mind of Mr. Cust. The combination of mystery and adventure culminating in a movie theatre in Doncaster that leads Poirot to flip the whole thing around satisfactorily in the end! Now that’s a good book!
Halter gives Owen Burns plenty of time to talk but little time to make sense. In customary fashion, the author crams way too much into a small space: Egyptian sun cults, romantic rivalries, meditations on the power of art, Burns’ own infatuation with a prime suspect, and murder after murder after murder, none of which inspire a jot of feeling in the surviving characters – or this reader. There’s hardly time to take in the horror of any individual crime and no opportunity to bear witness to the effect any of the deaths have on loved ones. In The A.B.C. Murders, we never meet any of the victims alive either, but at least we get to know their kith and kin. The victims in Seven Wonders remain ciphers throughout, pieces in a jigsaw puzzle waiting with the reader to be placed in the correct shape.
At some point, each member of the household is granted the status of Suspect #1, which at least ramps up the suspense a little bit, as there’s no chance for a sucker punch in terms of the killer’s identity. Each character is accorded at least one trait that casts doubt on his – or her – innocence. Burns and Stock interview these people repeatedly, but with dialogue like the following, there’s not much forward motion in the action during these sequences:
- “Anyway,” (Burns) added, “it’s not from scratching our heads curiously that the answer will come. Lady Memory likes to be treated with consideration, at which she will show herself as bountiful as the nine ravishing muses – who seem to have deserted us today. Actually, it’s quite a while since I sensed the warm caress of their inspiration.”
- “Supposing you were to let drop Greek mythology in favor of an Egyptian god: Aten for example?” Amelia suggested with an ironic smile.
- “I could also attend the Helios club meetings regularly, perhaps?”
- “Why not? Attempt to enter into contact with Aten and I’ll wager you’ll recover your flair. And perhaps he’ll plant a clue which will lead you to the path of light.”
- “The light,” repeated Owen, amused but also pensive.
- “Don’t you like the sun, Mr. Burns?” asked Amelia, with the trepidation of one who fears a negative response.
- “ Where’s the Englishman who doesn’t?”
- “Close your eyes and think of the soft diffuse clarity of its light.” She put words into action. “Think of the gentle warmth of its caresses on your body. Your spirit becomes enriched by its contact. Isn’t it the best way to clear your mind? And to concentrate only what’s essential: truly important? With an intellect such as yours, you should be able to penetrate the mystery of these murders.”
- For several seconds, while the young woman held her inspirational pose, it dawned on me that Owen was seized by doubt. He leaned towards her and asked, hesitantly: “Are you serious or in jest?”
- “A bit of both, as someone once said,” retorted Amelia gaily, opening her hazel eyes wide. “But, seriously, you should try it even so. Put yourself at ease, lie down in the sun, and think. Some time soon, one afternoon, I’d be happy to give you some advice on how best to profit from the technique. Then, perhaps, you’ll experience the great illumination which will reveal the secrets of the enigma!”
What the hell does any of this mean, and what does it have to do with the case at hand? This sort of dialogue frequently drives me crazy in all of Halter’s books, yet it’s something his fans ignore, so long as the impossible element passes muster. So, with seven impossible crimes to deal with, how does Halter do here? The murder in the lighthouse is clever, and the one with the killer flowerpot is, I think, my favorite in its combination of simplicity and audaciousness. The rest rely in varying degrees too much on luck, on having the victims react to certain things in certain ways. It doesn’t pay to think too hard about this plot, about the selection of victims and the amount of preparation required. But when Burns finally confronts the killer and puts together the rambling mess of a motivation for these crimes . . . well, all I can say is that I was sorry I had ordered this on my Kindle and thus couldn’t throw the damn thing across the room.
I have to admit I’m disappointed. I wanted perversely to love this one and thus confound my blogging friends who have come to expect me to dump on Halter. I’m not sure there is any rhyme or reason to which titles are released to LRI for translation and publication. I can only imagine that John Pugmire would jump at the chance to release a book under the auspices of Locked Room International that contained seven locked room puzzles. I don’t care if the next selection has one teeny tiny impossible crime; I just want it to be good!