One dark and snowy night, a mysterious figure who is observed entering the home of an upright citizen commits a murder in an inaccessible room and vanishes without leaving so much as a footprint to tell of their presence, only for a second murder to then be committed outside in the snow but leaving only the victim’s footprints in evidence…you can’t tell me the similarities between Paul Halter’s The Lord of Misrule and John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (a.k.a. The Three Coffins) are anything less than an absolute fanboying homage to the master. And Halter would know the risk he was running, but having established himself as an artisan of the impossible crime by this stage in his career (this was, by my estimation, his tenth published novel – though the first to be translated into English by John Pugmire) it was clearly a task he was happy to take on.
It may seem like a facile basis for such comparison but, upon re-reading The Lord of Misrule for this post, I was struck by the sheer number of similarities – enough, in fact, to possibly warrant a future post dedicated to solely that topic – the most obvious of which is the use of enumerated maps to highlight the finer points of the murder scenes, disarranged furniture, slashed painting and all; click below to see for yourself.
And, in fact, the callouts to classic detective fiction don’t stop there – as well as a Sherlock Holmes reference there’s a conceit from one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and one aspect of key importance lifted from one of the genre milestones. There’s therefore plenty of scope to accuse Halter of a lack of originality, but honestly I think the guy is just in love with detective fiction and is hurling in everything he can to set up his own new spins on the impossible crime while acknowledging the work that has gone before him (as seen in his first-time sleuth Owen Burns’ elevation of this to an art-from). He has a lovely alternate take on the obliterated dates and surnames from the early days of the genre, and establishes his ‘isolated group containing a killer’ in an beautfully classical way. As Puzzle Doctor says, if you weren’t given the publication date of this you’d place it much, much earlier.
Halter’s fidelity to the roots of the genre is something that can be taken as both a strength and a weakness of his writing, however, particularly his brevity. I am no fan of gloomy introspection in my novels – I get enough of that in my normal life, thankyouverymuch – and find the lightness and sheer velocity of Halter’s puzzles as they whizz past you on the page a delight; there’s the odd ounce of fat here and there, but mainly it’s a liberal sprinkling of stuff happening (this being the second time I’ve read this book – well, I had to get the new version with the matching cover – I can honestly say that the clewing for the most recent murder is pretty bloody top notch) with just enough atmosphere to suck you in without drowning you, but then I’ve always sided with Jacques Barzun over Julian Symonds on this. However, in Symonds’ defence, there comes a point where some psychology plays a part and it’s here that Halter can be found wanting.
There is an argument that a certain amount of the work has been done with the characters in this regard and it’s up to you to fill in the possible gaps and justifications, but some people will disagree. I fully concede that aspects pertaining to the Lord himself aren’t fully fleshed out, but then Halter isn’t writing that kind of book and I’m happy to see the implications in the gaps he leaves. If you require your psychology to be tightly-woven, knock a star off my rating and go in expecting to be short-changed in this regard. A little extra work would undoubtedly have expanded the background myth of the murderous figure, but one of the things I enjoy about Halter is how easily he disassembles his own puzzle boxes and how unshowily he reveals the assumptions you’ve been lead into. He excels in my eyes at tying together a chain of implications – in this case the series of attacks committed by the Lord of Misrule – and then quickly showing how the state of fear may have created something that didn’t exist. But, yes, this perceived lack of resolution, not being played upon too heavily, won’t be to everyone’s taste.
His ‘indoor murder’ solution, then, will be slightly the less convincing; there’s a measure of convenience to it, but arguably that’s just a hallmark of the impossible crime. The ‘outdoor murder’ – in stark reversal of Carr’s solutions – is brilliant, however, tying in a sighting of the Lord of Misrule by another party is a deft and cunning way and in doubt right up to the final line (seriously, don’t read the final line ahead of time). In sheer construction, the dovetailing of these various elements is enjoyably as opposed to brilliantly done, but the joy of Halter’s approach and the love he brings to this neglected form is something to behold. A cracked diamond, yes, but still a diamond.
Hmmm, what’s that? Well of course it’s no coincidence that this review has gone up when it’s a month tomorrow until Paul Halter’s 60th birthday. But I’ll put up yet another reminder even closer to the event to re-remind anyone who’s vacillating about getting involved [SPOILER: Get involved! Not sure where to start? Allow me to help…].