First up, and with thanks for his not taking legal action over me stealing his Crimes of the Century round-up idea for this post, Rich at Past Offencestackled The Demon of Dartmoor, his first toe into the Halter Pool (see what I did there?), and liked what he found:
From Halter’s reputation I was expecting ice bullets, asthma inhalers filled with rare Amazonian poisons, or some kind of fiendish clockwork device. Instead, the killer has actually been quite straight-forward, once everything has been explained. Would their method actually work? Possibly yes, with a following wind. Secondly, and also based on Halter’s reputation, I was expecting plot to massively outweigh characterisation, but again I was surprised. Admittedly, Halter doesn’t give us vivid thumbnail sketches of his characters, or insightful moral analyses, but they’re not terrible. Then again, I have been mainly reading Golden Age detection for a few years so maybe I’m desensitised…
I don’t know about you, but I get a surfeit moral analysis in my daily life and a dearth of impossible murders…that’s what books are for, the address the balance!
On the subject of balance, here’s my good blog buddy Brad at AhSweetMysteryBlog with a healthy dose of skepticism possibly coming from his lack of conviction about impossible crimes and their increasingly bonkers nature (hey, I’ve been trying my best to educate the man, but some people just don’t take to learnin’…):
When Lord Percival Forkington keels over in his soup one weekend night, the only one poisoned at the table despite sharing the same food and drink with the assembled party, I care about who’s dining with him, how they got there, and why they hated old Percy. […] But when old Forkington is found in the middle of a golf sandtrap on a windless, blazing hot day, with no footprints on the sand, bound in handcuffs with the key in his mouth, and he’s ice cold and soaking wet . . . sorry, but my eyes start to glaze over, and I simply don’t care anymore, unless I can count on good atmospheric writing and strong character sketches to accompany the impossible crime.
I’ll be honest, Brad – for someone who’s not such a fan of the how you’ve come up with a doozy of a problem there…!
By now, of course, I know that Brad is very much on the character side of things, and so he makes a case that anyone in sympathy with this perspective would be hard-pressed to disagree with, while also appreciating the cleverness as the core of The Demon of Dartmoor:
I couldn’t tell you after reading this novel what year it takes place in, and each of the suspects is little more than a list of qualities, not a full-blown person. But the setting is well drawn here: I could picture the spooky tors and the warmth of the village pub. And I did want to praise you on your denouement: while I did not see the point of including quite so much supernatural “cover,” the final solution was quite clever.
Faring less well in Brad’s opinion is The Invisible Circle, doubtless not helped by the unavoidable Christie comparisons, but I think it’s fair to say that the overloading of ridiculousness that I loved about this one simply ain’t Brad’s cuppa tea:
And then a murder takes place in a high tower. (You must have read Carr’s He Who Whispers, didn’t you mon cher? How I miss the quality of that novel here!) Anyway, a person is shut in a high tower and the doors are locked and sealed with wax marked with symbols (a gambit you used already in The Fourth Door!), and of course that person is found dead with the previously stuck sword now unstuck from the stone but stuck in the victim’s body. Oh, and did I mention the Holy Grail that has been stolen?
Yeah, it’s fair to say that one really has to be on board with the insanity of that book, love it though I do. But, hey, the last thing we should be doing is raving about books we’re not convinced about, and Brad’s nothing if not fair in acknowledging this just ain’t for him:
I only hope that your fans will be more understanding of the difficulties that keep cropping up in my attempts to embrace you. I do appreciate how deeply you must love classic detective fiction. I’m sure you take as much delight as Charlie Brown with his kite in making up these fiendish, unnecessarily complicated murder plots.
Its greatest strength would definitely be the resolution to the locked-room scenario: it was well-staged with subtle clues, and suitably ingenious in the light of situational limitations. There were a couple of plot developments that pushed the limits of my taste for the dramatic, but the slightly implausible flavour to these events was congruous with the nightmarish circumstances the characters found themselves in.
Personally, I think the situational limitations he’s talking about there are part of what I enjoy about it so much – you know what you’re getting early on and then, in a different way, it turns out that you really don’t know what you’re getting. But enough about me, I’ve had my chance today.
I always enjoy a good impossible crime. I have to confess that I was pretty disappointed by Wonders. The premise is quite interesting. An “artist of crime”–so dubbed by our hero Owen Burns, whose vanity and opinion of himself puts Holmes to shame–has set out to commit the titular seven wonders of crime. The murderer has concocted seven impossible crimes based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, so their artistry is two-fold: by creating the appearance of impossibility, whether it be the war-hardened soldier who dies of thirst with a glass of water right in front of him or the stabbing death of a man in a pergola surrounded by mud that shows no footprints but his own or the woman killed by a flowerpot apparently hurling itself off a high arch and landing on her head; and also by replicating in some form the details of the seven wonders. That’s really quite an interesting premise for a crime novel.
Alas, she came away disappointed, reinforcing the general opinion that this is a good idea unfortunately a little rushed and therefore lacking in its (ahem) execution:
If [detective, Owen Burns] really had solved the crimes, then he should have had a nice sit-down session with [chronicler/Watson, Achilles] Stock and explained the whole thing to his dim-witted friend. Instead he seeks out the culprit and, apparently, has details of the crime explained to him. There are moments when Holmes berates himself for being slow-witted, but I seriously think he would have figured this one out long before Burns and possibly saved a few lives in the process.
The good news is, Bev, that you’ll be onto a happier time with your next Halter, and hopefully the other comments here are convincing you to seek him out for another go around.
As he tries to follow the mysterious person Watkins encounters another odd person, this time a Dr Marcus in Victorian dress, rummaging through some bins and making incriminating comments such as ‘We’d have been better off dumping him somewhere else.’ But the strangest thing which happens to Watkins this sinister night is that whilst re-searching a bin, he finds a stabbed and sick looking corpse, a corpse which wasn’t in the bin when he checked it a few moments before and the Dr himself has disappeared. The corpse’s home is quickly tracked down, yet more puzzling events are in store as the owners of the lodgings recount to Watkins how their plague-ridden lodger, David Cohen was being carried out by three doctors, only to then disappear through a bricked up door.
This was an early favourite of mine, and Kate hits on the idea of how central identity is to the plot – one of the things that I most enjoyed about the whirligig game Halter plays here:
A criticism which has been levelled at Halter’s work is that characterisation is not one of his main strengths, with his characters sometimes coming across as 2-dimensional. However, this story contains characters which are more fleshed out (although not Sheila). The psychology of the characters is bizarre but works quite well and helps to add to the characterisation of the text. Moreover, I liked how the story looks at the slippery nature of identity and how much it can be based on or altered by external features. The second section of this novel in particular emphasises the artificiality of identity.
Star pupil of the day is Puzzle Doctor who gave us two posts at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. The first, a review of Death Invites You, also pays due deference to the superb work done by John Pugmire in bringing these books to us in English in the first place:
In total, there are currently twenty one Alan Twist novels, of which six have been translated to date, including this one, by John Pugmire, in a rather eclectic order. It’s worth pointing out at this point that the fact that the book is a translation could pass the reader by – it’s an excellent job on his part.
I think this might be my favourite book from Halter. The set-up is utterly bonkers and the reader may well suspect that there is no way that the author can possibly come up with a solution that makes an ounce of sense. And things get even more complicated before there is even a hint of an explanation. And yet…it works. The machinations of murder, bizarre as it may seem, have a reasonably straightforward explanation…
This is the reason why Halter shouldn’t be seen as the heir to Carr, as in my opinion, the only traits that their work shares is the impossible crime. Halter’s tales are much more imaginative, even fantastic. TakeThe Picture From The Past, one of my favourites, that has a clairvoyant predicting their own death, a picture that continues to disturb the lead character and an acid bath murderer. And that doesn’t even come close to hinting at what lies beneath the tale. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an audacious trick of the sort that Carr never even tried to come close to.
An excellent, passionate, and very clear-sighted argument. Doc, you need to do more of this kind of thing!
One night…David wakes up screaming. Alice rushes to him. David tells that he had a dream that he was in the house of Arthur Davenport in France having discussion with him. There was a dispute between them regarding the location of a place in India. David lost his temper and struck a blow on Arthur’s skull with a stoneware ashtray. He then strangled him first with his scarf and then with his hands till he died. He did not remember more.
Alice calms David and then they both go to sleep.
Next day, it is found that Colonel Arthur had actually been murdered in his house at exactly the same time and in exactly the same circumstances as described by David. Also, witnesses had seen a person resembling David in an inn near Arthur’s house…
When Santosh says the solution is “one of the cleverest I have ever read of an astral journey murder”, well, I’m aware of his standards and it makes me want to read it even more.
There is a mystery at the manor as the room that once belonged to a great-uncle, closed for decades, has now been re-opened. It turns out that the ancestor may have had the gift of divination and terrified his family with his ability to foretell the future – an ability that Brian now claims also to have inherited. Brian is angry that the room has been re-opened, convinced that this will spell doom for the Thorne clan – and he is soon proved right when Harris apparently throws himself out of the room’s window and dies. Why did he do it?
It sounds like aspects of The Phantom Passage there, methinks, and I’d love to see how Halter riffs on that idea of divination from another perspective. Is Italian easier to learn than French?
It also seems to me that Sergio enjoys this more than his final rating claims, though that’s probably just me imposing on his words my own eagerness to read it when someone with Sergio’s high standards sums up their feelings on the book thusly:
[T]hough there are a mass of implausibilities…this remains pretty ingenious throughout and benefits from being played completely straight. And one has to applaud Halter’s dedication as a craftsman as he goes to a lot of trouble to explain everything rationally, even Brian’s amazing ability to predict the future.
Genuine and delighted thanks to everyone who got involved in this, as there’s a real chance you all could’ve just ignored me and I’d’ve looked like even more of a fool than usual. You guys are awesome, and it’s been a load of fun seeing what people make of Halter’s spin on the impossible achieved. I’m sure this has given people a lot to think about and plenty of pointers on where to start/go next with Halter’s books, and really that’s the entire exercise of blogging boiled down perfectly.
Thank-you all once again. This has been a riot. Oh, and John Dickson Carr is 110 in November…anyone up for that?