A couple of days ago, I wrote about the latest Paul Halter translation, The Man Who Loved Clouds. I bought the book as soon as it came out because, for some perverse reason, I like to be among the first to review Halter. But work prevailed, I read slowly, and several fine bloggers beat me to the punch. Feel free to pause and read what the Puzzle Doctor (of the Classic Mystery blog), Nick Fuller (at The Grandest Game) and Aidan (of Mysteries Ahoy) said.
In summation, there was pretty high praise all around. In his review, the Puzzle Doctor referenced Halter’s inspiration, the Master of the Game, Mr. John Dickson Carr: “All the talk of fairies brings to mind ‘The House In Goblin Wood’, the single finest short story ever written – sorry, but that’s a fact – and that similarity went on for a good while for me
Nick mentioned this story, too, and Ben at The Green Capsule has listed it as one of Carr’s masterpieces. It got me to thinking. I’m actually not much up on Carr’s short tales. I’m more familiar with his radio plays due to my love of classic shows like Suspense and Murder by Experts. Still, I had recently picked up a cheap used copy of The Third Bullet, which contains “Goblin,” so I decided last night to sit down and read it and figure what all the fuss is about.
And now . . . well, I find myself challenged on several fronts.
First, I don’t know how to praise this story without getting drippy. PD calls it “the single finest short story ever written.” Does he confine his praise here to the mystery genre? He does not. And you know what? I don’t blame him. I actually think that the fact that Carr wrote within one of the most restrictive genres of them all makes his accomplishment even more masterful. In seventeen pages, he creates one of the best mysteries I have ever read. Although I agree with my peers that comparing short stories and novels is a silly exercise – the fact of the matter is that, for any author, writing a short story is harder than writing a novel. The latter’s length allows for flaws in execution; a successful short story must be near perfect. “The House in Goblin Wood” rises head and shoulders above most of the full-length mysteries I have read and is certainly one of the best short stories in any genre that I have encountered.
Which brings me to the second point. I understand how the fairy references in Halter’s novel might bring Carr’s tale to mind. But when PD writes, “ . . . and that similarity went on for a good while for me,” I feel like the grumpiest Gus in the universe. Right now, I want to go back to my review of Halter and downgrade it. It has never been enough for me that Halter sought to emulate the best. Heck, I wish I could write like Christie – which is to say I wish I could plot like Christie.
I’ve never been a fan of Halter’s writing style, but his plots are often very clever, although many are too overloaded with ideas. (The Demon of Dartmoor, The Tiger’s Head, The Madman’s Room, and many of his short stories rank among my favorites.) With Clouds, ironically, I found myself enjoying Halter’s prose a lot more, but the plot was less compelling. The impossibilities this time around turned out to have rather bland explanations, and the solution relied on one of my least favorite gambits in detective fiction.
The third, and biggest challenge here is that I so want to talk on and on about “The House in Goblin Wood,” . . . and yet I don’t dare! I don’t want to spoil a minute of it for anyone who hasn’t read it. Ben is correct: it isa masterpiece. There is not a wasted moment in it, and the way Carr weaves plot, character, tone, and misdirection into seamlessly brilliant effect takes my breath away. The final page of the story created the same open-mouthed shock for me that I felt reading the solution of She Died a Lady and the final page of He Who Whispers. I’m dying to tell you why, even in the most general terms, but I find (to my surprise) that I’m too nice a fellow to do so.
I’ll go so far as to offer one spoiler-free comparison between the two authors. Let’s examine the sleuths. I know that Halter originally wanted his novels to be continuations in the adventures of Gideon Fell. When he was denied the rights, he invented Alan Twist. Here’s how Twist is described in Clouds:
“Tall and thin, with a splendid ginger moustache, his pleasantly smiling face gave no hint of the famous criminologist behind the pince nezglasses. There was a gleam in his brilliant blue eyes, which did not augur well for (Inspector Hurst).”
That’s all we get. It’s pretty much all we get through the series. Now, I don’t need a litany of quirks to separate one detective from another, and Twist is almost quirk-free; the only thing I can think of is his prodigious appetite, as the man spends every scene stuffing food down his throat. But this guy has almost no presence beyond the fact that Halter tells us he is a presence – “a famous criminologist,” with “brilliant blue eyes.”
Furthermore, the prologue establishes a man who is bored without a crime to solve. This is not original: Sherlock Holmes and many who followed complain of the same thing constantly. Nearly every detective is an egoist and an outsider. He exists outside the circle of characters directly connected to the mystery, and this community serves as antagonist to our hero. But still, does Halter have nothing original to offer? Here he doubles down even more directly on the reference to other detectives:
“’It’s all very sad, Archibald,’ (Twist) said. ‘Not a single crime worthy of interest in the last several months. If it continues, my little grey cells are going to rot . . . “
Is Twist paying homage to a peer in his profession, or is he co-opting Poirot’s most famous character trait? Throughout the novel – nay, the series of Twist novels – a clear and interesting personage never quite emerges. Let’s compare this to Sir Henry Merrivale, who solves the case in Goblin Wood. Carr wrote twenty-two novels about Sir Henry, compared to Halter’s twenty-one featuring Dr. Twist. Let’s give the advantage to Halter: we won’t even talk about the novels here. Let’s just examine Merrivale’s entrance in this story:
“Out of the portals of the Senior Conservatives’ Club, in awful majesty, marched a large, stout, barrel-shaped gentleman in a white linen suit.
“His corporation preceded him like the figurehead of a man-of-war. His shell-rimmed spectacles were pulled down on a broad nose, all being shaded by a Panama hat. At the top of the stone steps, he surveyed the street with a lordly sneer . . .
“As a matter of fact, H.M. was in a good humor, having just triumphed over the Home Secretary in an argument. But not even his own mother could have guessed it. Majestically, with the same lordly sneer, he began in grandeur to descend the steps of the Senior Conservatives’. He did this, in fact, until his foot encountered an unnoticed object lying some three feet from the bottom.
“It was a banana skin.”
I have nothing more to say. If you want to talk about “THiGW” below, let’s do it! Mark your remarks with SPOILERS in case you have read it. Let’s not ruin this for anyone! God, I love this story. Only a master of the craft can accomplish this sort of thing, and Carr is THE master!