“IT’S CLOUDS’ ILLUSIONS I RECALL . . . “: The Latest from Paul Halter

I can hardly begin to sort the barrage of thoughts and feelings that have swirled around me like the wind while reading The Man Who Loved Clouds, the latest novel by French author Paul Halter to be translated into English courtesy of John Pugmire and Locked Room International.

The announcement several months ago of its imminent publication stirred up understandable excitement from many in my blogging circle – all of them men, all of them devotees of impossible crime fiction. And one has to acknowledge Halter’s courage in making the choice to craft his entire career as an homage not only to classic mystery fiction but to the peculiar niche of the locked room mystery and the impossible crime. You could count the number of modern detective novelists who specialize in this type of story on one hand . . . and still have several fingers left over. I seem to recall Xavier Lechard explaining in a long ago post that Halter has spent his life defying the crime fiction trends in his native country. You have to admire the courage of anyone who follows his or her own star and plays to a niche audience. And you have to be grateful to folks like Mr. Pugmire, who recognize that there are voices around the world who share this passion for the puzzle of “by what means?” and work tirelessly to give us access to those voices.

My relationship with Halter has always been a cranky one, and yet I have read all the translations. Part of the problem has to do with my feelings about impossible crime mysteries. I hate to generalize along gender lines, but I do think locked room mysteries are inherently masculine in their approach and appeal. I’m sure women have written some; I just can’t think of one at the moment. I’m sure women enjoy them . . . but 99% of the reviews I find about such stories are by men.

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I know I venture into dangerous territory suggesting that women played with dolls – and imbued their toys with character, feeling, and interrelationships – while boys played with trains and tools. We males are raised to be mechanically inclined and to tamp down our feelings. Unfortunately, I seem to have resisted that lesson all of my life, and if you apply the spectrum of gender to my reading preferences, I think they lean more toward the feminine.

You can accuse me of being specious here, and I probably deserve it. I love John Dickson Carr, yet despite his reputation as the king of the locked room mystery, that is the least of it for me. He also is a master at misdirection, and I am thunderstruck by how often he could fool me as to the identity of the killer. Rarely am I as fascinated by the method . . . but that’s just me!

Paul Halter, as we all know, is the leading living disciple of Carr. Yet he grew up reading English and American crime fiction extensively, starting with Agatha Christie, and you can often see her influence in his books. I would venture to say Halter read Ellery Queen as well – and probably enjoyed Queen a lot more than some of my friends have. In this newest translation, I see as much Christie and Queen as I see the influence of Carr.  The end result is still problematic for me, but there are interesting features that will no doubt impress Halter’s fans.

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The story begins as handsome journalist Mark Reeder, in search of a story – and apparently in pursuit of the above-titled clouds – drives his deluxe Delage car into the village of Pickering and smack into an adventure. A gust of wind dislodges his hat, and Mark gives chase, right into the presence of the beautiful young Stella Deverell. For Mark, it is love at first sight, and he has to know more about this girl. Fortunately, there is a lot to know – and many people to tell it!

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The first quarter of the novel, in fact, is structured like a series of fairy tales that inform our hero about the mysterious, fey creature of his dreams. Stella’s biography follows that of many heroines from Grimm or Perrault: she has a loving single parent, she seems possessed of mysterious powers,  and she is in thrall to an evil ogre.

There is a daunting amount of exposition here, as Mark interviews the town’s drunken aristocrat, the local schoolteacher and his wife, the old fisherman on the dock, the retired police chief, even the ogre himself – who is actually the miserly man who has bought Stella’s childhood home, a forbidding manor perched on the seacliff . Yet this was my favorite part of the novel because, for once, Halter renders the tales and the place in fine detail, especially the spooky manor. The imagery surrounding the village and especially Stella reinforces the fantasy aspects of the novel:

“Mark, following close behind the young woman, recognized the little wooded space he’d seen from the hilltop. As he set foot on the path through the trees, he felt as though he was entering into a fairy tale. The murmur of the foliage, the silver disc of the moon, and the graceful silhouette of the ‘fairy’ were all elements which combined to influence his reason and his imagination. Still holding his hand, Stella held him deep into the ‘enchanted wood.’ If a real fairy had granted him a wish at that instant, it would have been to make the magic moments he was now living eternal.”

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Of course, this is a whodunit, and the crimes have to start at some point. When they do – and there are several murders – the plot mechanics get a bit more shaky for me. Dr. Alan Twist and his companion Detective Inspector Archibald Hurst are summoned by Reeder to the village to figure out what the heck is going on. The murders themselves are powerfully rendered, for they seem to be committed by the great winds that crop up conveniently. (Too conveniently, perhaps?) Men are carried away into the air in full sight of witnesses. All of that is quite thrilling.

However, the notion that an entire village believes not only in the cursed winds but in the powers of a young woman to a. make herself invisible at will, b. turn things to gold with a touch, and c. predict the future (especially other people’s deaths) is a lot to swallow. The whole set-up is another example of Halter’s tendency to give us a bit too much of a good thing: a little Greek mythology here, some fairy tale there, even a dash of Poe, right down to the “ogre” bearing the name of Usher!

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The transitions from chapter to chapter are sometimes awkward. The characters, for the most part, are paper thin. The conclusion is certainly satisfying, but here’s my biggest problem with Halter: since he is an “homage-ist” rather than an “originalist,” he draws his ideas from the greats of the past. So, if you are a consummate reader of classic detective fiction, you walk into Halter’s work with an . . . well, you couldcall it an advantage but I hate to be right all the time. I figured out this mystery early on because I have diligently read my Christie and my Queen. (I won’t get any more exact than that, but I’ll be happy to explain to others who have read the book.)

I didn’t figure out any of the “how” because the “how” has rarely mattered to me. If you are a person – man, woman or in-between – who prefers to play with trains and tools, I think you might enjoy this one. (I promise, though, that neither trains nor tools enter into this at all!) If, on the other hand, you have more of a bent toward the emotional, you might also find the ending here rather affecting. True, I had some real problems with the killer’s central motivation and felt pressured to just let my objections go because – hey! it’s the 1930’s and this is how characters in mysteries behave. But this was far from being my most objectionable foray into Halterwood (*koff* koff* The Invisible Circle) and I look forward to chatting with you all about this after you have read it.

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25 thoughts on ““IT’S CLOUDS’ ILLUSIONS I RECALL . . . “: The Latest from Paul Halter

  1. As always, Brad, a thoughtful and interesting review. You make a really interesting point about men, women, and ‘impossible’ mysteries. I hadn’t thought much about it, but I see where you’re coming from on that. Hmmmm…food for thought, for which thanks.

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  2. “I hate to generalize along gender lines, but I do think locked room mysteries are inherently masculine in their approach and appeal. I’m sure women have written some; I just can’t think of one at the moment.”

    Christianna Brand is probably the first name to spring to mind. An early innovator was L. T. Meade.

    Dame Agatha did write a few. And Dorothy Sayers has actually written more impossible mysteries than Robert Adey indicates in his list of impossible mysteries. Though of course their careers were not dedicated entirely to the subgenre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To add a few more names to Christian’s list of female authors doing locked room mysteries:
      Carolyn Wells, Ellen Wilkinson, Roger Scarlett a.k.a. Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, Katherine John as part of a writing team with her husband, Romilly in their novel Death by Request and I think Anna Katharine Green used this element in her work as well.
      I think female authors did use the device but were not branded as locked room mystery writers hence that element of their work not being noticed or commented upon as much.

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      1. Carolyn Wells may have written books that can be categorized as locked room mysteries but almost all of them are trite examples of the subgenre. She relied far too often on secret passageways and locked rooms that turned out never to be locked at all, that is, the killer pretended it was locked as in that famous novel of the 19th century. Crime novels from the 19th century were what Wells drew most of her inspiration from. Green’s two impossible crime novels I’ve read THE FILIGREE BALL (ingenious and predates the kind of book Rhode wrote by two decades!) and THE MYSTERY OF THE HASTY ARROW are far more innovative and ingeniously thought out than anything Wells dreamed up.

        Of the women mystery winters who dabbled frequently in impossible crimes the best I’ve read are by Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand, Helen McCloy and Lee Thayer. McCloy’s MR. SPLITFOOT easily stands up against the best of Carr, I’d say. Two of the best impossible crime/locked room mysteries from the Golden Age are by women writers whose books you unfortunately will be hard pressed to find: MURDER UNDER CONSTRUCTION y Sue MacVeigh and BREATHE NO MORE by Marion Randolph. TERROR BY NIGHT by Lee Crosby is another ingenious example, but its more of a pulp thriller even with its detective mystery plot.

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    2. I’m intrigued the extent to which this perception — that, broadly, men wrote the majority of impossible crime novels — is informed by the similar assumption that most GAD writers were female: namely, that one or two people of that gender are responsible for a vast majority of what is discussed when the topic comes up (Carr/Dickson, Rhode in the former; Christie, Sayers, Marsh for the latter).

      Er, I thought I’d have more to say, but that’s a pretty darn good sentence so I’ll leave it as is.

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      1. Rhode as an impossible mystery writer? I can’t say that I’ve seen much discussion on that, to be honest.

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      2. Possibly not the best example, sorry — was in the midle of a busy day and wanted to get the thought down before I forgot, so just reached for an author I’ve read a few impossibilities by. Can I withdraw my example and replace it with…Leo Bruce?

        Oh, hang on… 🙂

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  3. I’d hazard a guess that it’s less a question of sex than temperament.

    I wondered about this when I read The Ginza Ghost, a collection of Japanese short mystery stories, earlier this year. The solutions are clever, but there’s damn-all in the way of characterization, style, atmosphere, or humour. There may be plenty of death, but they lack life. Some bloggers really liked them, because they were ingenious puzzles; others thought them dry, and lacking in emotional connection.

    The mechanically-minded, scientific, logical type likes detective stories because they’re problems to solve. Notice how many mathematicians write about mysteries? (Any engineers, scientists, techies…?)

    We’re both in the humanities. You teach drama, not math. I studied English and history; blog about opera; dropped science and maths in senior school; and am mechanically incompetent. (In the last fortnight, I’ve smashed my tablet, lost a contact lens, broken two pairs of headphones, and snapped shoelaces.)

    I like the cleverness and imagination of detective stories, but also their humor, cosmopolitanism, and understanding of human nature. The pure detective story leaves me cold; some well-regarded mysteries I can’t finish because they’re too badly written, while the detective and chums sitting around filleting logic like a fish (Morrah, Knox), without anything else happening, is wearying.

    I want, really, a detective story that is also a good story.

    That Carr offers in plenty. His ideal detective story was a sort of fantastical adventure, with swordfights and emotions running high.

    He would have found writing a dry problem, with nothing but the problem, a chore.

    (“The ones that are supposed to be very probable and real, where all they do is run around showing photographs to people…

    “You see, the critics, as differentiated from the reading public, are required to like any story that is probable. I discovered a long time ago the way to write a probable and real story. You must have (1) no action, (2) no atmosphere whatever – that’s very important – (3) as few interesting characters as possible, (4) absolutely no digressions, and (5) above all things, no deduction.” – The Eight of Swords)

    His impossible crimes are in the Chestertonian tradition – brilliant, blazing ideas that can be summarized in a sentence. He rarely does anything as mechanical as fiddling with window frames or door bolts. (The Crooked Hinge has nothing to do with hinges!) Paul Halter’s in Clouds are pretty uninspired, let it be said.

    II – Logical women

    Let’s put the impossible crime to one side, though, and look at the orthodox detective story – what Mike Grost calls the British Realist school.

    Christianna Brand thought that they were largely written by, and for men, with their railway tickets and tide-tables. Many of John Rhode’s, in particular, seem intended for the practical chap who likes to tinker with tools in his shed, and build gadgets out of wires and sprockets. (Whatever a sprocket is.)

    My eyes glaze over when he spends a page describing a Heath Robinson contraption made out of clockwork and string. Wireless-operated statues that brain the victim? Clever! I get the basic idea; I don’t need to know all the nuts and bolts (so to speak).

    BUT ! ECR Lorac, Anthony Gilbert (in her early books), and AE Fielding – all women! – followed in the dry footsteps of Freeman Wills Crofts: plodding policemen, meticulous method (madness in’t ! ), and unbreakable alibis. Sayers, too, wrote The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcase, which are full of Croftsian alibis, train timetables, and codes.

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    1. Wow, Nick! Thanks so much for the thorough response. I agree that women could be borin-, er, logical, and men could be emotional and brilliant. I often have powerful reactions to the endings of Carr’s books. She Died a Lady and He Who Whispers are both emotionally devastating. But I do think there is a gender division regarding locked room mysteries, both in who prefers to write them and who prefers to read them. Ben spoke recently about the fact that Carr is so much more than just a “locked room writer,” and that speaks to why he is one of my top three favorite mystery authors.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Christian and Kate, I have Adey’s book, and there are certainly women represented in the over 2,000 entries there. Christie, one of the most prolific authors ever, rated five novels and ten stories. But this was a genre where women reigned as queens, and yet the men inarguably dominated this sub-genre. Women could be as violent as men, if they so chose, but they were far less likely to focus on the mechanism of the crime than on the motivations or on a well-concealed killer.

    Of course, women and men both excelled at the unbreakable alibi, which often escapes the label of impossible crime. Christie’s Three Act Tragedy is not on Adey’s list, but it is as much about staged illusion as any other locked room murder. Maybe we need to expand what we mean when we refer to impossible crimes!

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  5. You have mentioned Poe’s influence in the name Usher.

    There is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat in Paul Halter’s “La mort derrière les rideaux”. Poe’s tale has a significance in Halter’s novel where also there is a one-eyed black cat incidentally named Edgar !

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    1. SPOILERS AHEAD:

      I read your Goodreads review, Santosh. Four stars for the killer’s identity. I couldn’t rate it high for that because of having read Christie, who taught me that when a scene occurs involving a character alone and no names are mentioned, only pronouns and general nouns, one must be wary of jumping to conclusions as to the character’s true identity. I also got help from reading Queen, who uses the Birlstone Gambit far too often for my taste. This novel reeked of that, since John Deverell was a far more developed character than most of the “living” villagers.

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  6. My problem with Paul Halter is the prose. I don’t really mind what sort of crime story I read, either dealing with emotions or train timetables. I just won’t spend my time reading something a 12 year old English student would not get top marks for in my opinion. Whether the problem is the translation or just me I don’t know. Probably just me😕

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    1. I agree 100%! If only I could read French I could determine whether or not it’s really is the translation that bothers the hell out of me. Something I have a tendency to blame first when reading books I’ve read not in my native language.

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      1. Perhaps someone who is multi-lingual could help. Although I don’t mind criticising the author for writing lousy prose I feel I don’t want to offend a translator for some reason. Also many people seem perfectly happy with the way Halter writes so I tend to think ‘Who am I’ etc. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this. From Brad’s review this seems a bit better in this regard so I might give it a try.

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  7. Really now – what a statement to make at the start there!
    The roots of GAD, and of impossible crime stories, are nearly a century ago. The gender dynamics of the time were quite different and more restricted. Who wrote what will have been affected by the context at the time.
    And moving into the present day – in some ways not much has changed. The roles are not so strict, but people of any gender are pressured to fit in to certain roles. Do you think these expectations are based on what people like, or do you think that what people like is based on expectations that they feel they must fulfil?
    I hope what I’m trying to say is coherent. Perhaps I am misinterpreting what you are trying to say, in my anger at reading these stereotypes for the 100th time.

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      1. I consider myself a fairly sensitive and enlightened man when it comes to issues like gender, and I’m still learning all the time! Anyone making blanket statements about gender through analysis of GAD fiction has to be taken with a grain of salt – and the salt might be crowded out by the tongue planted firmly in cheek! 😉

        However – and I’m not trying to rub salt in the wound here! – I’m not saying women don’t write locked room puzzles here and in no way suggesting they can’t. From a cursory examination of the people on Robert Adey’s list and from the direction of interest in these things that I find in the blogosphere, the interest in the mechanics of murder in a locked room murder seems to be more of a guy thing.

        If that still makes you mad, well, the statement was provocative and you have every right to your feelings. I also welcome your counter arguments, Velleic. All views are honored here!

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  8. Ah, I’m having to reply to myself here or something, don’t see the button on your comment.
    Anyway – it was the comment about dolls and trains that set me off, reading it again, perhaps there was irony present.
    Either way, my point is that I don’t believe that these differences in culture preferences are inherent to gender – I would say they are a product of existing biases. If a person never has the opportunity to read a certain type of fiction, how can they possibly like it?
    …well, that applies to everyone in this case, come to think of it.
    Let’s get Brand and Carr back on bookshelves everywhere, and then we can really discuss this 😉

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  9. Brad, this is the finest example of being critical in the kindest way possible. And you do something in this post that I have been attempting to write about for years now and have avoided because my writing style is hardly kind. When I get critical I tend to get hyperbolic, ridiculing, and dare I say incendiary at times? In that one paragraph where you talk about the “maleness” of locked room mystery fandom you have so astutely and not at all cruelly (as I would probably have done) summed up what I keep observing about the trend in the vintage mystery blogs. It hits the nail on the head rather accurately. Don’t think you need to doubt your insights at all. It is indeed a very male thing this obsession with dissecting (often with the kind of cold precision of a surgeon) the structure and plotting of detective novels, and especially the mechanics of impossible crime and locked room fiction. Read the women writers’ blogs crime fiction and you see a completely different take on what they get out of reading a book. And not just mystery novels, but any novel.

    And can you believe it? You actually have enticed me to purchase this book! I’ve avoided Paul Halter for years now after reading three books in a row that I couldn’t stand for a myriad of curmudgeonly reasons. (But none of that trio were as awful as The Moai Island Puzzle thing that dares to call itself a novel for adults!) The oddness of this Halter mystery, its inspiration drawn from fairy tale and fantasy, recall everything that I like about the weirdness in Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell books when they are writing at their most original and quirky.

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    1. You’re too kind, John. Maybe it’s because I’m exercising more, but I have been incredibly snarky about Halter – and most modern writers – in the past, and I’m trying to ease up on the sarcasm. I am no expert on translation or on French. My understanding from one review – was it Nick’s? – was that Pugmire actually edited this book, cutting passages, etc. I tend to think that he works hard to make the work as palatable for an English-speaking audience as possible. I think Halter’s transitions into and out of scenes is often too abrupt or nonsensical, and his dialogue can be kinda puerile. I’m not sure how much a translator can change or “fix” things, or if Pugmire even feels he needs to do that. The few reviews of Halter that I have read by people who read him in French tend to be complimentary, I think.

      I’m about to tackle the third Poirot continuation novel by Sophie Hannah. Watch the steam come out of my ears!!!

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