Declaring that the detective novel was the only form of literature that put the reader to work, [S.S. van Dine] argued that “a deduction game emphasising fair play within a limited setting” would be the story structure with the best potential to result in masterpiece mystery stories […] But when the elements of the game are too severely limited and the building materials are all the same, only the first few builders will get all the glory and there will be an over-abundance of similar novels…
Identity or location. All detective fiction is essentially predicated on trying to mislead the reader over one, the other, or both. And yet, in spite of this seemingly limited scope, the range of output over the century or so since the tenets of the detective novel were established is staggeringly vast. Take the two arguably biggest names in the business: Agatha Christie’s 67 detective novels contain at least 20 absolute belters, and John Dickson Carr’s 70 novels contain as many classics for the ages while demonstrating a range staggering in their own right that approach the problems they set from a different perspective from Christie despite their being contemporaries (so one lacking, say, the introduction of forensic science that the other later has access to and so can spin to new ends).
You will, in all likelihood, have your own favourite who has added to the gamut run within the form: Anthony Berkeley, Christianna Brand, Anthony Boucher, Edmund Crispin, Georgette Heyer, Ngaio Marsh, Helen McCloy, Ellery Queen, John Rhode, Dorothy L. Sayers…that’s not anything close to a potentially exhaustive list, and yet all brought their own stamp to the detective novel in a period when they were all roughly contemporaries. The who and the where/when of detective fiction gave a tremendous range of possibilities to what is fundamentally only a two-pronged problem, and it’s due to this creativity that the popularity of these books endures over half a century later.
And then, of course, flourishes can be added, the easiest to distinguish being the how of impossible crimes. How can a man be crushed under a statue that must have been pushed on top of him, but in falling blocked the only exit and left him alone in the room? Catherine Aird knows how, and tells you in His Burial Too. How can a man be seen levitating outside a second-storey (note the British spelling) window before falling to his death on the railings below? John Sladek explains it beautifully in Black Aura. What the how enables is another twist of creativity to further dumbfound the reader while the who and the where/when scuttle about in the shadows.
But, as the godfather of Japanese honkaku Soji Shimada says, this tends to lead into the repetition of a lot of similar ideas. There are only so many ways you can stab someone in a snowdrift without leaving footprints behind you, or kill someone in an inaccessible room, or make a car disappear, or a dead body appear…the more of these stories that got written, the less scope there was to do anything genuinely new. Old motifs start to recur: I can think of eight impossible murders off the top of my head that in themselves are superb puzzles, but each essentially relies on the last person to see the victim alive being either the killer or in league with the killer. The same is true with most if not all of the different impossibilities you could name, and it’s arguable that the classic, Golden Age detective novel has already given up every possible explanation that can be found.
And so, finally, to M. Paul Halter, French proponent of the impossible crime in Golden Age form, and doubtless having a wonderful time today celebrating the completion of his 60th year. Working under more or less the same constraints as those classicists, Halter has weaved his own distinct path through the minefield of old explanations to add some beautiful explanations for classic impossibilities. Let’s not get carried away and claim that every impossibility he writes is completely original – Death Invites You, for instance, is a truly excellent book and one I commend highly, but the locked room trick is something seen elsewhere several times before – but the simple fact is that Halter has consistently found a new way to approach the impossible crime not in spite of this weight of history but rather because of it. He is a student of the impossible crime, not merely content with passing off someone else’s scheme as his own, but instead swelling the vaults of devilish explanation with an ingenuity that others should frankly learn from.
Take for instance The Lord of Misrule, which I reviewed her a few weeks ago while making the case that it’s a rather joyous re-imagining of Carr’s oft-cited The Hollow Man. Not only is the nature of the ‘indoor’ impossible murder very similar – disarranged furniture as evidence of a great struggle, witnesses on hand to swear to the presence or absence of anyone nearby – but each also takes a swipe at the ‘no footprints in the snow’ and, for me, Halter wins. Carr’s solution wafts some fairly decent clues that nevertheless rely on a certain fixedness of context (it is very difficult to do this without spoiling things, but I shall persist…), whereas Halter throws clue after clue at you – one is so brilliantly on the nose that on my second reading it stuck out amazingly, almost as if in different typeface and with a big arrow with HERE’S THE MAIN CLUE pointing at it – all of which tie up to a solution as unique as it is peculiar to its setup. I deliberately raised the point of ‘no footprints’ murders above because of how superb this one is; Carr’s skewing of the who and the where/when is one of the more controversial of his impossibilities (mainly because it’s his most widely-read novel on account of being the only one most people can find, grumbleCarroutofprintgrumble) and one that raises more than a few issues, but Halter arguably has everything tied up perfectly – even the motivation for doing the murder in that way.
Additionally, he includes one of my favourite subjects of debunking: a séance. While his take isn’t up to the glorious hilarity of the seance in To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis or the off-handed trickery of Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, there’s a nice line in dropping a key piece of information here and then simply letting it sit. While the workings aren’t exactly as explicitly clued as in the murder discussed above, you also can’t deny that he waves a key idea at you and allows you to speculate, building on the canny deconstruction that marked a similar scene in his debut, The Fourth Door, and showing further insight in how to exploit something that seems so open-and-shut into a much more sinister scheme.
Alternatively, The Invisible Circle – in which a group of people are invited to spend the weekend at a castle on an archipelago only for those present to start falling prey to a vicious murderer and so earning comparisons with And Then There Were None – gives you something far wider to deal with. For my money there’s also more than a whiff of Carr’s first Carter Dickson novel The Plague Court Murders in the impossible stabbing at the top if an inaccessible tower (behind a bolted door guarded by a wax seal, no less) by a sword that was not only too big to have entered through the immovable grill over the window but also most definitely securely fixed in a gigantic rock a la Excalibur. The explanation is brilliant – unlikely as hell, but aren’t most impossible crimes? – and again so perfectly worked into the setup that you find yourself accepting all kinds of weird goings on without realising how thoroughly Halter has you playing his own game. He also has a superb line in the who here, too, with all manner of identity-questioning that liberally throws out hints (I have a favourite, but – gah! – spoilers) and then dances around in sheer glee at the frank insanity of the scheme cooked up (it’s something of an experience, that book – not easily forgotten!).
I deliberately pick those two books because they share so much DNA with such rightly beloved classics and yet utilise very little beyond their essential setup – everything else is new, everything else is Halter quick-stepping over the bones of everyone who has come before. The idea that you can’t add to the classics is shown to be false again and again in just the 11 books that have been translated, and they represent only a section of Halter’s output to date.
When allowed to step out of the shadow of the greats and carve his own path, he has done equally superbly. The Demon of Dartmoor has a ghost shove a man out of a window to his death in what just might be my favourite explanation of any impossibility ever (I read it on a plane, and my exclamation of “Holy fucking shit, that’s awesome!” at the reveal had about ten people enquire what book I was reading when we disembarked). The Phantom Passage vanishes an entire alleyway (top that, Hugh Pentecost) without anything so crass as a sign simply pointing in a different direction and shares an antecedent a few generations back with the deliriously entertaining man-stabbed-to-death-by-a-snowman tale ‘The Abominable Snowman’ (what else?) published in the collection The Night of the Wolf. All of these are stamped with a hallmark of Halter’s indefatigable imagination – in an era where very few authors attempt even one impossible crime, and fewer still explain them in a way that is original, it is Halter’s ability to look at what has come before and then push it even further that makes him such an absolute joy for me.
And while there’s the risk of this new ground requiring overly-complex and intricate explanations, what’s most impressive is the clarity and simplicity of many of his ideas: the explanation of the body-swapped-in-a-sealed-room of The Fourth Door is a beautifully…let’s say ‘cinematic’ so as not to spoil anything…moment that stuck with me on account of how effortlessly you’re drawn into the assumptions the trick requires you to make. Does this always work? No – the appearance of a dead body in a dustbin at the start of The Seventh Hypothesis is equally simple but unlikely to baffle anyone to quite the same extent – but when something can be explained away quite easily it often is, with each book offering at least one moment of simplistic brilliance that disassembles the puzzle box you’re trapped in with a mere flick of the wrist. Even the contortions of The Seven Wonders of Crime, a book that should be twice as long as it is in order to better sell the story it tells, manages a couple of first-rate explanations amid some very, very lucky breaks.
That he won’t be to everyone’s taste in inevitable – who, after all, is? The narrative trickery of The Fourth Door infuriates as many people as it delights (and if you’re in the former camp there, perhaps a warning about The Picture from the Past, which twists and turns in tighter and tighter circles until you’re dizzy…and then pays off in a way that will delight and infuriate in equal measure once again), and his focus on almost pure plot – though, for the curious, there’s a legitimate case for The Crimson Fog being an extended character study – proves distracting to many. But, hey, our differences unite us and each of his books has so far been its own kind of delight to me. If last week’s Bodies from the Library conference made me realise anything it’s that there are astonishingly few authors I read these days who are alive, and most of them publish stuff that I only dip into for a break from detective fiction. So please forgive these nearly 2,000 words of fanboying if you’re not a convert (and well done for getting this far, too) – it’s rare that I get the chance to geek out over someone who’s still around.
So this is, if anything, firstly a thank-you to M. Halter for the hours of reading pleasure he has brought and the glee that I’ve been able to revel in when led down whatever garden path holds a seeming impossibility at its end – that there is arguably currently no-one to challenge him in these stakes is both a testament to his inventiveness and a source of some alarm to those of use who get so much fun out of these undertakings. Secondly, it’s an attempt to show how fully he has developed the impossible crime subgenre and how he has moved on from so much more than simply the heir to Carr, or how – massive compliment though that sobriquet is – there is more than enough cause to discuss Halter on purely his own terms now, in his own context, and without the many years of history pressing down upon him. He knows whereof he writes, and deserves all the respect that can be extend to someone who plays the grandest game in the world over and over again.
It is on account of Halter that I continue to believe that genuine classic impossibilities not reliant on magical technology or other such lazy answers can be created and explained, and wonder who there will be, if anyone, who can collect the mantle of Heir to Halter when needed. And how long will they last before going “full Jonathan Creek”on us? Thankfully we don’t have to worry about that just yet. With Locked Room International keeping we English sepakers in excellent translations, and a great many Halter novels still in French for those of us with the curiosity and ability to take them on, the present of the impossible crime mantle is clearly in very good hands. And long may he continue!