This, my 200th post on this blog, will also be the 100th to be tagged with the subject ‘Impossible Crimes‘ and — since my very first was a review of Paul Halter’s The Phantom Passage — I thought I’d hold this milestone to look at the most recent Halter translation from John Pugmire’s Locked Room International, which goes by the English title The Vampire Tree. I will probably do this at some length, though without mentioning specifics past the 25% mark, and with a brief mention of only one slight spoiler, signposted in advance. So, let’s get into it…
The plot of this one is difficult to summarise. At times it almost feels like a sort of ‘lady in danger’ novel with gothic overtones, more akin to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or something by the Brontes but with a tree that strangles people (well, they probably would have used it as an allegory…), and at times it’s more of a ‘village secrets’ tale. Additionally, there’s a back-and-forth in time dual narrative element, in which regard it’s not dissimilar to Halter’s own The Picture from the Past, published a year before, and once again the two threads become increasingly linked, though here it plays much more upon our possibly-imperiled lady’s state of mind… But I get ahead of myself.
The lady in question is young newlywed Patricia Sheridan, who in a classic tenet as old as detective fiction itself, has known her new husband but a few months, has no surviving relatives, and is travelling down to his old ancestral home in a corner of the country where she has never been and no-one knows her. This opening salvo put me heavily in mind of, among others, John Dickson Carr’s radio play ‘Cabin B-13’ and is one of just many examples of how Halter uses the typical underlay of the classics to inform his framing and plotting. An encounter on the train leaves Patricia feeling uneasy, and this in turn leads to a sequence of events that gets her first night in the new house off to a rocky start.
From here, a lot of ground is then covered in a slightly uneven manner. Firstly, next to the house there is an ancient tree, beneath which is buried the vampire of the title, who was condemned as such following the deaths of several children in the area, and next to which was found — a couple of centuries later — a man strangled to death but with no other footprints anywhere in evidence in the snow around him. In the present day story, there is a murderer going around slitting the throats of children and leaving their bodies in woodland and other secluded areas, though without much blood at the crime scene, implying perhaps some vampiric intent on the part of this killer. Oh, and Patricia is reading the diary of the woman whose husband was killed — Lavinia, her name was — and Patricia’s husband Roger seems to show an inordinate amount of interest in dressing Patricia in Lavinia’s raiments and visiting Lavinia’s grave. Plus there’s a local artist carving a sculpture of Patricia out of wood in a way that definitely isn’t at all creepy, and the vicar going on about Evil, creeping around the gardens of the parish at night, and shoving a crucifix into the face of anyone he can get close to.
Also, there is dancing. There is lots and lots of dancing.
With all these threads in the fire, the first quarter or so is an unusual mish-mash of characters doing things for no particular reason and scenes ending at odd moments (though I genuinely would not be surprised if this last was a deliberate attempt at raising unease). It only really steadies when the series characters Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst show up, but you can’t fault Halter for trying something a bit different. I know classically we should have a) characters and setting, then b) an impossible crime, then c) the detective on the scene to interview and investigate, but I personally like a bit of mixing of my ingredients when approaching a setup that was, at the initial publication of this in French, already well on to retirement age. And it had worked so well for The Picture from the Past and, to a slighty lesser extent, The Seventh Hypothesis, so Halter isn’t exactly flying off in all directions without some form in doing so.
Nevertheless, that first quarter is very lumpy, made trickier by dialogue like this to contend with:
“It’s abominable: how can someone do that to a child? There can’t be a motive for a crime like that…unless it’s insanity. Which reminds me: I have a question ask you concerning strangulation.”
“I agree with you, Roger, of course. But I’d go further: she needs to be immortalised in wood.”
Uh, sure thing. But equally, on the other side of things, there’s the following reflection made to Patricia on the train at the start, which is only a mon ami away from being delivered in Hercule Poirot’s precise tones:
“How could there be such dramas connected with such a peaceful countryside, I can hear you say. Look at the soft lines of the distant hills, the verdant grassland, the old houses sleeping under the gentle sun… Everything to soothe the spirit. How could tragedy occur here? It seems absurd. And yet…“
Things do improve a bit, though. Events are given some more shape, there are a few genuinely sinister moments that read extremely well, and on the whole we start to settle into a more fully-formed picture than the beginning might have had you expecting…but it never quite comes together in a way that feels convincing or compelling. For instance, the need to adhere to the conventions of a classic detective yarn hamstring some of the developments: we like a closed circle of suspects, but the means by which it is decided that the killer must be one of seven people is…tenuous at best; equally, a huge amount of faith is put in hearsay with absolutely no basis: when a character claims to be on the trail of the murderer and later disappears, it’s unhesitatingly accepted that they were correct and therefore must have been killed by the killer. It never seems to occur to anyone that these are both potentially fatal miscalculations.
But then, the characters are a bit nondescript all over. Patricia seems to float through everything with a mental distance from everything that makes her somewhat difficult to engage with (though, in fairness, this might be dealt with in the conclusion, depending on how sympathetic you’re feeling…on which more later), and the others are often there to either look confused or blurt out the information they’ve just been given in strictest confidence: “I’ve been asked by the police to have a confidential think about who the killer could be…I told them it was you! Haha, what japes!” — “I think I know who the killer it, but I’m not going to tell anyone” — “Mrs. So-and-so told me she thought the killer was X, but made me promise not to tell anyone; so, y’know, don’t you tell anyone”. And none of this is really to any end or plot development (such as someone deliberately being given the wrong information, or someone possessing knowledge they shouldn’t), they just seem incapable of stopping their cakeholes from flapping.
And yet, and yet…there are some excellent character moments in here among the notable frustrations of them behaving like children. A scene involving the painter Maude Rellys and…let’s just say another character…has a weighty emotional payoff in both directions, and a confrontation that ends poorly for one character ends on a sting of a note that’s all the more savage for what you know is coming next. Oh! And the discovery of one body by an innocent witness is injected with an air of whimsy that is polluted with a brutal and subtle efficiency. String enough of these moments together and you’d have a very telling portrait, but Halter only dashes them off and so we simply get characters sketched around the edges and behaving weirdly the rest of the time. Still, Halter’s emotional pitch is always on the more gaudy side, so it shouldn’t be a surprise after 12 books that this is where we spend most of the time. Besides, you want to know about those solutions, don’t you?
The modern-day killings are resolved…unusually. Is it fair play? Probably not quite, since there’s too much information never addressed, but there are a couple of stings that I certainly missed, and one piece of misdirection that is really quite breathlessly clever for the calm way Halter uses it to explain a key event. It’s the little flashes like this that almost save the book overall, but the motivation and eventual resolution of that thread are, to be frank, kinda bullshit. There comes a point where you step a bit too far outside of the norm for it to really work, and the whole prophetic dream thing here is an extra push on an envelope that has already fallen off the table quite some pages back. No matter how good your moments of misdirection and construction are, you can’t save this as a scheme, I’m afraid.
The impossibility, however, is excellent, and a beautifully simple idea that is reminiscent of the simplicity of the invisible monster shoving a man out of a window in The Demon of Dartmoor. It would be nice if Halter spent more time on these aspects of his plot, because there’s no real examination of it in depth and some discussions about false solutions and other ideas connected to it wouldn’t go amiss as far as my tastes go, but either way I love the workings. What I don’t love is, well, perhaps best discussed in a paragraph with enough specificity to warrant a SPOILER tag. So, KIND OF SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH — SKIP OVER TO REMAIN UNSPOILED
Still with me? Fine. Effectively, a very broad and sweeping statement is made about a character’s actions on the basis that he is depressed — if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean — and I find the ease with which this is asserted really very insulting, especially as it falls into the kind of cheap, manipulative, lachrymose sentiment that borders on the exploitative. Saying “Well, even if he was depressed he still wouldn’t [do something]” is so painfully off the mark, unfair, and without basis that it actually makes me just the tiniest bit angry with how that idea is employed herein. But, I appreciate M. Halter doesn’t profess to be an expert in mental health, and I’m going to do my best to simply dismiss it as tone-deaf and unfortunate.
Okay, hobby-horse unsaddled. Overall, this is not the book that will convince anyone to love Halter’s work. I’m about as big a fan as exists in the English-speaking world — hell, I M.C.’d the celebration of his 60th birthday last year, if it’s nerd points you’re after — but even I can’t recommend this too strongly for anyone except the very curious or those with a completion complex. The impossibility and some of the ideas strewn throughout rescue it from complete oblivion, but those looking for a more enjoyable gambol through the delights that he has to offer should perhaps go elsewhere first — I’ll link my existing reviews below if you’re interested.
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: Characterization is not Halter’s strong suit, which is fine since it arguably wasn’t Carr’s either. Halter admits this about his idol and seems to embrace that deficit in himself. Here, however, the characters aren’t so much cardboard as pieces on a game board that move however the author wishes them to move at any given moment, often in ways that defy any sense.
Kevin Killian on Amazon.com: I tell you, one year, even 1958, isn’t big enough for so much evil! It has to span centuries, though Halter’s storytelling power is so great that he never leaves you confused about when is when, not even during the emotionally revealing parts where Roger gives Patricia the diary of Lavinia that describes the hideous events in the last moments of Eric’s life. From this moment on, and perhaps touched by a trying girlhood in London’s Blitz, and a nursing career out of which nothing much comes, Patricia becomes obsessed with Lavinia and her beautiful purple dress.
Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated:
This is technically a review, despite the absence of a star rating, so I should link it into the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge. Thursday’s A Quantum Murder links to this as both have plot-threads dedicated to solving a murder committed in the past of each narrative.