PAUL ET MOI DANS LE GRAND POMME!

Before we start, let’s take a quiz. One question only, multiple choice. Go on – you know you want to.

QUESTION: Look at the picture below:

ffc52388a82c2fa2fb34f8ca80d632b7

Can you identify who this is? Is it . . .

  1. A brilliant but disreputable (and proud of it!) classic mystery blogger (HINT: his name rhymes with “cray-cray”);
  2. A rip-off of the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta;
  3. The Lord of Misrule, who was an officer in medieval England appointed by lot at Christmas to preside over the Feast of Fools;
  4. A mythical evil spirit, possibly the ghost of a long dead guy named Peter Joke, who for decades has rained down bad luck on the Mansfield family.

If you said “e. All of the above,” you would be correct. The Lord of Misrule is also f. The title of the Paul Halter mystery that introduced his Victorian sleuth Owen Burns who, in both form and fancy, is sort of a straight Oscar Wilde. This is the novel I took with me to New York. It completes my reading of every available English translation of Halter’s work brought to us by John Pugmire and Locked Room International. (The only one I didn’t finish and review was The Crimson Fog because the ending was so apparent to me by the end of page one as a blatant rip-off of a Robert Bloch story that I jumped to the end, affirmed the correctness of my guess and put that sucker down forever.)

51bhlnW1DaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Halter has written only six novels featuring Burns and his handsome Watson Achilles Stock. In true me-fashion, I have read them backwards: first The Phantom Passage (2005), which I really enjoyed, mostly because I thought the writing cleverer than that usually found in the more numerous Dr. Twist mysteries, and because I genuinely liked the characters of – and repartee between – Burns and Stock, two aesthetes who are more than fond of good food, pretty women, and an intriguing impossible crime. Purveyors of locked room murders are, in Burns’ mind, true artists who are to be admired even as they are pursue

Next, I read The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997), which I – well, I liked it less. In my defense, even my good friends who enjoy Halter without reservation thought that this one was a bit of overkill. These are the guys who might be surprised that of all the books at my fingertips, I took Halter to New York with me. We shared a plane ride, we noodled together in Bryant Park over a coffee, we snuggled into bed in my too-chic hotel room, where I read the first Owen Burns novel until I nodded off.

It’s always interesting to examine the “origin” story an author creates to introduce a series sleuth to his audience. I think it’s safe to say that even the most famous and much read detectives evolved into something greater. Ellery Queen was a prat when he first graced the pages of literature; only with time did he soften. Poirot, Fell, Campion, Wimsey . . . all of them became richer, more human characters – changed by their casework perhaps but no doubt by the growing experience and confidence of their creators.

With that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that had I read The Lord of Misrule first, I would not have been nearly as fond of Owen Burns and Achilles Stock as I am. In this first incarnation, Burns comes off as an artificial mass of eccentricities, while Stock is an unsuccessful hound dog, mooning over every female suspect he comes across. In addition, Burns ceaselessly repeats his mantra of “the murderer as artist”, to the point where I believe that had I been a Scotland Yard inspector, I would have barred the door from this guy. By the second Burns/Stock novel, I’m happy to say, Halter would relax and let the men’s actions and words speak for themselves, rather than a random list of tics and gestures.

Misrule is a genuine Yuletide country house mystery, set in the home and environs of Charles Mansfield, whose ancestors built up their fortune as milliners but who have lately seen their good luck sharply reversed. As a result, Mansfield has arranged a marriage between his beautiful eldest daughter Sybil and his business associate, Mr. Piggott, a much older toad of a man who is the key to Mansfield regaining some measure of wealth.

lordmisrule5_mam

The problem is that Christmas is approaching, and this seems to be the time of year when the aforementioned evil spirit, believed to be the ghost of a man who died on Mansfield’s property, tends to kill the male member of his family, usually under the most mysterious of circumstances. You know the drill: an attacker who floats in the air, the absence of prints in the snow, scary faces at the window. With a potentially supernatural danger lurking over every man present at this holiday party, now including Sybil’s fiancé, Piggott’s homely sister Catherine hires Burns to protect her brother from harm.

But our hero is currently involved in a dalliance with an American actress, so he asks his new friend Achilles to take his place by pretending to be Catherine’s fiancé. Stock reluctantly agrees to be Burns’ eyes and ears and studies the house party for hints of where the source of danger may lie. Besides those already mentioned, the party includes Sybil’s perky younger sister Daphne, the married couple who faithfully serve the family, Piggott’s surly secretary, who might harbor feelings for Catherine, and the mysterious Dr. Morgenstone, whose reason for being there is a mystery for all too short a time.

For over half the book, people skulk about the house and grounds and talk about all the things that happened in the past. The most significant of these is the two-year old murder of Mansfield’s stepson, Edwin, an impossible crime that could only have been committed by a ghost orby Sybil herself, according to a former servant who witnessed the whole thing. Mansfield reasons that if the mystery of Edwin’s death can be solved . . . well . . . something will happen.

ragdoll-cats999                                      Just as good for what ails you as pomeranians!

The biggest mystery about this section is that Halter includes two floor plans to help you understand how it all played out on that fateful day. However, my iPad would NOT allow me to access these floorplans! @%@!^&!*(%$ technology! In preparing this post, I located one of the maps online and include it for you here, just in case you read this novel on a device and have the same problem that I had.

lord-of-misrule-edwins-room-1

Eventually, another murder occurs in the present day, also of the impossible variety. And then we get another vicious act of mayhem. In fact, Halter crams much incident in the back quarter of this tale in order to rev us up for the moment when Burns sits everyone down in the drawing room. There, he delivers a solution that is so blatantly full of falsehoods, you have to wonder if Halter did this only because his idol Carr does it all the time. Dude, if you’re going to emulate the best, please do it right.

It’s hard to complain about a locked room mystery without giving some part of the game away. So here is my big, spoiler-free, complaint about The Lord of Misrule: Stock, who narrates the story, opens with the tale of how he and Burns “meet cute.” Their introduction, their burgeoning friendship, andthe start of the case is dependent upon coincidence, and Stock tells us – in hindsight, I would call it a dire warning – that we should be prepared for coincidence to play a large role in their first case together. Now, if there’s one thing I know, having read this stuff for decades, an author should notbe overly dependent upon coincidence. One, maybe two, is fine. Sometimes the impossible nature of a crime is a result of a carefully laid out plan colliding with a fortuitous circumstance. But to pile one coincidence on top of another like this seems to me to be the height of laziness in plotting.

what-do-we-say-about-coincidences-the-universe-is-rarely-so-lazy

I often complain that I can spot the killer in a Halter mystery early on, and this has indeed been true 85% of the time. When it doesn’thappen, as in The Madman’s Room, is when I actually enjoy reading this guy. So – did I spot the killer correctly here? Well, yes . . . and no. The final solution is too convoluted for me or anyone to get it all right. I guessed a major point about Edwin’s murder, and I had a certain person’s guilt in my sights from the start. Could I have explained, point by point, what happened? No way, but in the immortal words of Meredith Willson, “Neither can anyone else in this town!”

That’s okay! I like to be fooled. What I don’t like is to be presented with a long series of weird mysteries and have so many of them wrapped up in such an unsatisfactory fashion. I don’t like to be bombarded with history and have it all turn out to be superfluous to the plot. (In short, the very opposite of what happened when I read The Red Widow Murders.) And that’s all I can say about that, without risk of spoilers.

So is it bizarre to you that I’m looking forward to the upcoming release of a newly translated Halter novel? Rumor has it that we’re getting another Dr. Twist tale, The Man Who Loved Clouds. I confess I’m a little disappointed. I enjoy the badinage between Burns and Stock. Halter seems to have a looser, more fun time writing about the Victorian era than the vague early 20thcentury that Twist and Inspector Hurst inhabit. My favorite short stories in The Night of the Wolf were the two Owen Burns tales, “The Cleaver” and “The Flower Girl.” And listen to the titles of the three remaining Burns adventures: The Twelve Crimes of Hercules, The Chamber of Horus, and The Mask of the Vampire. Such fun stuff – who wants silly old clouds?!

Please, Mr. Pugmire! Give us another Owen Burns tale soon. I’ll be nicer. I promise.

thumbnail_IMG_1165                                     We beseech thee, Mr. Pugmire . . . and we’re cute!

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43 thoughts on “PAUL ET MOI DANS LE GRAND POMME!

  1. Yeah, this is undeniably a problematic book if one is looking to be convinced about Halter. It’s not unlike The Seven Wonder of the Crime in that regard, though consider this to be superior overall. However I — as the internet’s resident Paul Halter Fanboy, LLC — really enjoyed how this is so joyfully an extended reworking of The Hollow Man by Carr (a not unproblematic book in itself, but still a great read), essentially fan fiction escalated to the point of writing a full novel puting a new spin on the same problem. I don’t remember everything being crammed into the last quarter as you describe, but you’ve read it more recently than me, and I was just enjoying watching it all play out once I realised what he was doing.

    I agree another Burns book would be awesome, too. Mind you, I’d say that about any potential Halter translation… 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      1. …and someone attacked in their room by a vanishing assailant, and an outdoor murder with no sign of footprints to explain how the killer got anywhere near their victim…

        Liked by 2 people

  2. ” We beseech thee, Mr. Pugmire . .”
    Well, you could have met him in New York and expressed your feelings ! 🙂
    However, I prefer Twist !

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  3. “It completes my reading of every available English translation of Halter’s work ..”
    Then you musat be a very big fan of Paul Halter ! 🙂

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  4. Good review – vividly written and engaging, as always. I remember rather enjoying this one…

    “Pomme” is feminine, so “la grande pomme”!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The gender aspect is the most maddening thing about French language. The classification into masculine and feminine seems arbitrary—perhaps designed by some sadistic linguists !
      We have the same thing in Hindi and the classifications in the 2 languages are not similar !
      For example, moon is masculine in Hindi, but feminine in French. Book is feminine in Hindi but masculine in French.
      And, though apple is feminine in French, it is masculine in Hindi !

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the review, and I confess I wasn’t entirely enamoured with this one. I think I’m ambivalent as to whether I like it more than I did ‘Seven Wonders’ and ‘Crimson Fog’. Certainly it doesn’t rank together with ‘Fourth Door’, ‘Death Invites You’ and ‘Picture from the Past’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Crimson Fog gets a lot of stick, but I really like it (unsurprisingly, perhaps). The impossible murder of the magician therein is pretty damn snappy, too, and contains some of the best actual investigation in Halter’s translated work,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, yes, I agree – “Crimson Fog” has a good puzzle in the first half. As a whole, however, I’m not overly-enamoured. 😅 Partly because for two-thirds of the book I was wondering if that particular twist/ trick was being played.

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      2. It’s a book that is, alas, difficult for most people to talk about with those, ahem, particular three words cropping up…but, man, if one can avoid them in advance I still think it’s a good read.

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    2. Death Invites You was one of my favorites, probably because it is the most Christie-like of his books. The only problem was that I guessed the murderer . . . but at least not right away. The Fourth Door was the first Halter I read, and aside from that ridiculous postscript, it looks better and better the more Halter I read. (The impossibility of the room is really clever.) I didn’t like The Picture from the Past; I thought he toppled over his own narrative cleverness there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I liked “Death Invites You”, but I also spotted the “who” because I watched an episode in “Death in Paradise” that pointed me in the right direction regarding the “how”. 😅 And yes, the postscript in “Fourth Door” made things somewhat absurd. 🤨

        I can’t quite remember the attempts at narrative cleverness in “Picture from the Past” – but my memory tells me that I liked it very much, second only to “Seventh Hypothesis”. Maybe I should read it again…

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  6. You really do baffle me Brad! You truly defy logic. Reading everything by an author who you’ve mostly not enjoyed. Seems a little like someone staying in a relationship that isn’t working, but I’m happy to be wrong. So what makes you keep going back? With my GAD hat on I’d be imagining some convoluted blackmail plot whereby you’re forced to keep reading and reviewing his work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, it’s part of my relationship with all these locked room-loving dudes in the blogosphere! It’s like a Dostoevsky novel or Chekhov play where the family is gathered to celebrate the youngest daughter’s birthday party, and I’m the cynical old doctor sitting in the corner downing shots of schnapps and making cynical pronouncements about the rain. Once in a while, someone claps me on the shoulder and cries, “Cheer up, Chebutykin, there’s a good fellow,” until I start crying about a lost love. By the end of the evening, I’m curled up snoring in the corner with the old hunting dog Volga, and in the morning I perform surgery on the youngest son, an artist, who has “accidentally” shot himself in the head with a rifle. I save his life, and everyone claps me on the back and says, “Good old Chebutykin!” But I just snort, reach for the schnapps, and mutter something about the swallows migrating early.

      It’s something like that which makes me read Halter.

      Liked by 5 people

  7. Actually, I couldn’t make head or tail of the title of this post. Then I looked it up and found that The Big Apple is a nickname for New York City !

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You make an interesting argument here, Brad, for not reading a series in order. Many main characters are more sympathetic and more interesting as they get more mature and evolve. It’s easier then to go back and see where they came from, so to speak, and be patient with them. Glad you found that to be the case here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I Intended to make that argument, Margot, but now that you mention it, it’s an interesting point to contemplate. So many people have written about wanting to read books in order to see the evolution of a series. That makes total sense, but the idea of reading an author’s best work, falling in love with the characters, and then going back to see their origins also makes a sort of sense!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The theory I’m developing with my experiences with Christie vs Queen is that someone new to an author should drink deeply from the well of great to excellent books and then start to explore the earlier works. I haven’t read any early Christies yet, but I imagine I wouldn’t have the same enthusiasm had I started there. As things are, I’m heavily resisting the temptation to go on a Christie binge. I’ve skipped ahead with Queen (you’ll have to wait and see) and I’m enjoying the stories much more.

        As you say, it’s those later versions of the characters that you fall in love with, and I think that makes reading the earlier books that much more interesting. I didn’t read the first four Carr books until I’d read a hefty chunk of his 1935-1943 material. I doubt someone would get hooked if they started with those (although they’re still quite good).

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Interesting to reflect on cases where this isn’t true, however. No-one is going to pick up a later H.M. novel and then be disappointed with Plague Court Murders. Or, if they are, they’re beyond all reason and help…

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      3. Interesting point. I would say no one is going to be disappointed with Hag’s Nook either, which introduces Dr Fell. For that matter, I’d say that once JDC hit his swing with his first few books under his belt, he was able to introduce one-off detectives quite successfully. I enjoyed John Gaunt, Dermot Kinross, the detective in Poison in Jest (who I won’t name since it is somewhat of a surprise), and Gaudan Cross very much. Even the detective in Fatal Decent (forget his name) was ok. I suppose we never really got to see any of these characters evolve though…

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Ben – None of the 1920’s Christies are great – none of them!!! – but many of them are good, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is justifiably famous. (But even it’s not a great book.) All of them, however, give evidence of Christie’s promise. I can’t imagine too many people will disagree with me here. Where we might part ways is in judging the 1930’s – clearly her Golden Age of puzzles – with the 1940’s – to my mind, her most mature decade with her best writing and most powerful stories. That is a matter of taste, just as the Fell vs. Merrivale lovers or the people who love 3rd period Queen vs. the 1st period folks.

    I think part of the reason you and JJ don’t love 1st period Queen is the writing. Because the later stuff is far less puzzle-centered/Golden Age in style. And yet, it’s eminently more readable. Anyway, we’ll talk! 🙂

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    1. Calling The Murder of Roger Ackroyd “not great” is a bit of an exaggeration, isnt it?

      I have not read any Hatler because I avoid non- golden age mysteries but I think I must break the duck soon. Since you have read all his books, is there any which you will recommend as a starting point?

      By the Way, may I ask why does your blog show British time?

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      1. I live in California, so the time situation is a total mystery! Can I control that?

        Ackroyd is one of the best of the 20’s novels, but until the end it’s very conventional. Caroline Shepard is wonderful, but most of the suspects are pretty stock.

        As for Halter, I could give you my favorites (The Demon of Dartmoor, Death Invites You, The Madman’s Room) or I could just say begin at the beginning with The Fourth Door.

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      2. “I live in California, so the time situation is a total mystery! Can I control that?”
        Yes, you can control that ! Aidan’s blog Mysteries Ahoy shows USA time.

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  10. JJ:

    Response #1: Yes, HM peaked earlier than most . . . or fell off in quality faster. Fortunately, I still have plenty of his best left to read!

    Response #2: I have no idea if you have read Siamese Twin or American Gun. BSed on your experience so far, however, I concur that you should move to Halfway House, grumble at The Door Between and then take a trip to Wrightsville.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. B-but I said I’d read them in order… And I’ve already skipped over, like, fifteen or something. Thank-you, however; if I decdie to ignore your advice, it’s entirely on my head 🙂

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  11. Regarding the floor plans, when I purchased the kindle edition about 5 years back, I found that the floor plans were not displayed. I complained to Amazon. They were good enough to refund me the amount and said that thay would take it up with the publisher. (I have mentioned all this in Puzzle Doctor’s post on the book).
    It seems that even after 5 years, the error has not been rectified.

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  12. Like you, I didn’t care much for this one. The problem is that every chapter feels self-contained. There’s one that ends with Stock caught comforting Sybil by her fiance…and this amounts to no more than a few glares at dinner. And I swear that Halter forgot to explain the candles going out early on. I like the solution, sort of, I suppose, I think I expected something more dramatic.

    It doesn’t help that I don’t like Burns as much as you do! Too arrogant. The Phantom Passage worked better because he spends most of it grumbling about how he has no idea what happened instead of being off-screen most of the book or smugging about how great the criminal is.

    (Off-topic, but I reviewed Death Invites You a couple weeks ago. I don’t know if I care for it as much as you, but it is probably a decent intro to Halter, even if I think that maybe someone should be familiar with him before reading.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am in agreement with you regarding Death Invites You. I would rate it as 3 stars.
      As you say, why should the killer make it so over-complicated ?

      Like

    1. Go to the dashboard. Click on Settings, then click on General.
      Under General Settings, go the item Timezone. Select a city with the same time zone as yours. Finally click on Save Changes at the bottom.

      Like

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