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.
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.
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!
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.”
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!
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.