Disclosure: I proof-read this book for Locked Room International in October 2015.
Death Invites You, the third novel published by Paul Halter – who is swiftly gaining a deserved reputation as a deviser of baffling locked room puzzles – is based around the murder of man found dead in his study with the door bolted from the inside, seated at a table set for a meal. The victim, Harold Vickers, is an author who has gained a deserved reputation as a deviser of baffling locked room puzzles and whose next novel – Death Invites You – was due to feature a victim found dead in his study with the door bolted from the inside, seated at a table set for a meal. It is unfortunately never revealed whether Vickers’ victim was an author of some repute working in the field of locked rooms and whose next novel was due to feature such a crime, but, given the hall of mirrors that you enter at the beginning of any Halter narrative, it frankly wouldn’t surprise me…
Vickers’ novel was, alas, incomplete, and so with the method remaining a mystery Inspector Archibald Hurst and criminologist and amateur genius Alan Twist are called in (this was the first Halter novel to pair them on page) to untangle a mess involving suspicious neighbours, suspicious house staff, suspicious family members and generally suspicious everyone. If it sounds like I’m being dismissive, I’m really not – this book is a joy, and rockets along through a combination of Halter’s deft plotting, wonderful eye for the obscure (the bowl of water under the window, for instance) and John Pugmire’s fabulous translation. You get the impression that Pugmire is now immensely comfortable and confident doing this – not just the translating, but capturing Halter’s voice and atmosphere – and has really relaxed into the role over the last few Halters he has put out. The last time a John and Paul worked this well together for your delectation, they produced Let It Be.
I could cite many other acknowledged locked room classics, but I prefer to enjoy Halter for being Halter. This lacks the complexity of, say, The Tiger’s Head or the monstrous thrust-and-parry of The Seventh Hypothesis, but it’s more believable than The Seven Wonders of Crime – the plot-within-a-plot structure recalls Halter’s debut, The Fourth Door, and he even ties in his second novel, The Crimson Fog, into this universe (giving away – in chapter one – the direction that book takes, though naturally without spoiling anything specific). There are some lovely flourishes that complicate the commission of the crime, too, as if he isn’t content to simply give you a murder behind a bolted door, instead filling out what could otherwise be a fairly routine setup with something much more arresting. If anyone does this kind of elaboration even half as joyfully as Halter, please let me know in the comments as I dearly love seeing it done so well.
From Vickers’ magician brother-in-law to the aforementioned suspicious neighbour, and the young policeman – fiancé to one of Vickers’ two very different daughters – desperate to settle the matter for the sake of his wife-to-be, the characters feel slightly more rounded than criticism of Halter would otherwise have you believe him capable of. I mean, sure, you’re not getting a nuanced portrait of grief in the face of the unknown, but you didn’t sign up for that (I’m hoping); eschewing the easy option of falling back on archetypes, Halter has at least given his characters some personality beyond a mere function in the plot. Hurst is good value here, too, clearly more than just a Rent-A-Watson but never veering into easy parody or buffoonish slapstick, and gets some of the best lines (I’m itching to give one as an example, but would hate to spoil some of the laughs you’ll get). Only Twist is an enigma, perhaps deliberately, held back to reveal the startling truths everyone else misses, but a slightly pale presence even in his finest hour.
This doesn’t get five stars because, as the eleventh Halter novel that Locked Room International have published, I’ve already seen how fantastic he is elsewhere and this falls perhaps a tiny bit short of the originality of The Phantom Passage or freshness of The Invisible Circle. That’s perhaps being a trifle unfair, but at his best he really is in the top-rank: the solution to the locked room here is a little derivative in light of how versatile his solutions would become, and there’s one key aspect elsewhere (a feature of this type of fiction, let’s say) that’s possibly a trifle underdeveloped. Nevertheless, for a third novel it’s a bold statement of intent, significantly ahead of what practically all his contemporaries are offering, and even more exciting for having seen this promise already fulfilled.
However, if you are looking for somewhere to start with Paul Halter’s books, or with locked room mysteries in general, this is practically perfect – lacking the contortions of his more complex novels that might dissuade the unfamiliar or unwary, and positively overflowing with excellence in virtually every other department. Another superb job from John Pugmire and Locked Room International; encore, encore!