After the fun of jointly analysing Paul Halter’s The Seven Wonders of Crime with Kate at CrossExaminingCrime, there’s now collateral damage to tidy up. Namely, that the inevitable question for anyone eager to take the plunge with the French maestro des impossibilités (and, frankly, how can you not be?) will be: Where do I start? Well, start wherever you like, of course, but if I had to pick my first five of the eleven currently available they’d look something like this:
Death Invites You (1998) [trans. 2015]
As I said in my review the other week, if you’re starting completely new with Paul Halter and/or impossible crimes then this is the perfect place to do it. The balance of plot and character is just right, the contortions for the murder of a man over a table set for a meal in his locked study – matching exactly the novel he was writing – are not too outré for the novice and, while the locked room element isn’t completely original, there’s no excess of foliage to obscure your view of what’s going on. This was the first book to feature Archibald Hurst and his harried genius amateur Alan Twist together, and it’s a relationship that feels natural from the very first page of them discussing impossible crimes while drinking in a pub. If Hurst ends up rather abject following his expressed desire for some “really meaty” case to get involved with, the reader is treated to the beginnings of a rather special relationship that will bring a great many hours of reading pleasure.
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]
To introduce Halter’s other series detective, connoisseur of ‘beautiful’ crime Owen Burns, it’s between this and The Lord of Misrule (he also features in The Seven Wonders of Crime, but keep that for later). This wins out because it’s far less conventional – a magic room that tells the past and foretells the future, an alleyway that disappears behind people once they’re stumbled upon it in pea-souper fog and encountered the two nonsense-spouting characters who seem to reside there permanently – this overflows with imagination and shows how wonderfully Halter is expanding the impossible crime in original ways (not to knock Misrule’s ‘no footprints in the snow near a dead body’ of course). Making an entire street disappear without simply turning a signpost around is no mean feat, and it’s this exact approach to his plots that excites me about Halter’s books: you’ll say it can’t be done, then you’ll believe a man can fly.
The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) [trans. 2012]
Striding boldly into the setting of one of the most popular and enduring crime stories ever written, Halter falters a bit on the character front here but pulls off all manner of other surprises. A headless horseman on the moor, young girls disappearing on the same day each year, and best of all a phantom pushing people to their death from a great height when witnesses swear no-one was near them. When this phantom goes walkabout and shoves a man out of a window in full view of four people – including one standing right outside – Twist and Hurst are on hand to unravel things. If I had to pick a single trick of Halter’s from the books that have been translated – forget the context, forget the plot, the motive, the murderer, the wider scheme, and take just the pure moment of how itself – this is probably my favourite. It is so infernally devious, and probably just about outdoes the body swap in a sealed room from The Fourth Door. Probably.
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) [trans. 2012]
If you’re renowned for your impossibilities, the obvious thing to do is write a book where the impossibilities aren’t a major factor of the plot. Oh, wait, no it’s not. Here we have a dead body miraculously appearing and a live body miraculously disappearing, but more importantly we have a duel of wits between an actor and a playwright who could be best friends or who might just loathe each other enough to commit a murder and pin it on the other one. This central battle becomes a sumptuous, insanely dizzying whirligig as it unfolds, revelling in the kind of sturm und drang of interpretation and reversal that should leave any fan of puzzles delighted. It’s a superbly sustained piece of writing, and displays Halter’s oft-overlooked skill at construction which tends to get missed amidst the impossibilities he’s throwing out left, right, and centre. I think this was the third one that I read, and it convinced me to sign up for everything else of his ever.
The Tiger’s Head (1991) [trans. 2013]
This might be my favourite of the books currently translated, but then that will probably change tomorrow. The dismembered limbs of young women are turning up in suitcases at railway stations, with the killer miraculously vanishing when caught in the act of disposing of his latest victim…a series of inexplicable thefts mystifies the small town where the first body was discovered…two men lock themselves in a room with every exit observed from outside and when the doors are opened one has been killed and the other battered half to death and insists it was done by a genie. The strands all dovetail perfectly – the thefts in particular add a wonderful dimension to things – the use of the genie is necessary and very clever, and the explanation of the locked room is subtle, immensely satisfying, and staring you in the face for a good long while. There’s even the old “people weren’t where they say they were” aspect, too, which adds a Christiesque air to proceedings that’s always going to go over well in my house.
These are all available in both print and e-book versions from Locked Room International thanks to the tireless efforts of translator John Pugmire. We’re losing too many small publishing houses, so I’d take it as a personal favour if you’d buy these new to keep me in Halter translations for the forseeable. And you, too, obviously. But mostly for my benefit.