#270: The Madman’s Room (1990) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2017]

Madman's RoomReader, brace yourself for a shock: I — the man who curated an online celebration of Paul Halter’s 60th birthday last yearloved The Madman’s Room.  Given the hue and stripe of originality Halter has brought to the impossible crime genre (The Demon of Dartmoor, The Lord of Misrule, and The Invisible Circle, among others, all contain what surely must be original resolutions to the inexplicable), it’s no surprise to find him resolving the mysteries herein as inventively as he does.  What I especially enjoyed was the simplicity brought to the answers, particularly the way he occludes that simplicity so smartly so that you look back on come the end and go “Oh, hell, how did I miss that?”.

My good friend Bradley Friedman and I regularly fail to see eye-to-eye on the matter of puzzle novels: I am struggling hugely with his beloved Ellery Queen, he disdains my delight at the works of Rupert Penny, and Halter will probably be someone over whom we agree to disagree for the rest of our lives.  I do think, however, that our shared love of Agatha Christie keeps us together for the sake of the kids, and I’m going to put even that under stress with the following pronouncement: this is the most Christie-an of the books by Paul Halter yet translated by John Pugmire.  I’ll leave that hanging so Brad has a chance to calm down, and come back to it in due course.

The setup goes thus: Harris Thorne moves himself, his immediate family, and his in-laws into big ol’ country family pile Hatton Manor, where a crazy great-uncle once prophesied the death of members of the family.  Since, as Philip K. Dick pointed out, “false prophecy” is a contradiction in terms, the older generations did indeed die as Uncle Hector foresaw, but not before Hector himself perished in the room where he did his soothsaying — dead of a heart attack with only a wet patch on the carpet to suggest cause.  With such a frivolous background and the sinister room long-sealed to protect everyone from its evil influence, it’s not long before some bright spark decides to start using it again.  And soon enough it is the location of all manner of sinister happenings of the sort that inhere in this sort of tale, every time the mysterious wet pool appearing in the same place on the carpet.

The most frequent objection raised against the impossible crime genre, and one I struggle to see merit in, is how much of a stacked deck you’re often dealt at the start.  Christie, mustering all of her immense crime writing talent, brought a tremendous naturalism to her crimes: they came out of the situation, rather than the situation coming out of the crime she wanted committed (mostly, anyway).  And this is why I feel this to be so firmly in the Christie mould: the solutions to the series of fairly low-key events really do come out of the situation, rather than the book opening already stacked against you.  A large part of the opening section is spent getting people in place, and then slowly the nightmare unfolds, normal people caught in an escalating, festering series of crimes that bring everyone under suspicion…it’s Christie to a T.

Structurally this may even be the best of the Halter translation thus far; there are legitimate clues (though, yes, there’s one point where a figure is observed and its gender and actions are left deliberately vague — but, hey, this is far from the first novel to employ this), and aside from the occasional lurch forward in time — a year here, two months there — builds at a steady pace, with a good scattering of inexplicable acts.  There’s no central tentpole Massive Conundrum on which to hang everything, so each little act reinforces itself and plays into the larger scheme, and the solutions are just brilliant: the explanation for the accuracy of the predictions made by Thorne’s brother Brian in particular being something far more in Christie’s bag of trick than in Carr’s.  And those wet patches…goddamn, that’s some clever stuff right there.

Atmosphere-wise, this benefits from not seeking to overstate its case.  A compact treatise on the history of seers and premonitions fills out the more potentially ridiculous side of the plot, and that one incident above aside there’s no deliberate attempt to stop you knowing something that later becomes useful.  I like the simplicity of his language — hmm, who does that remind me of? — and the fact that Halter just gets on with the business of showing you what you need.  John Pugmire’s translation is swift and very easy on the brain, and I find his rendering of Halter’s voice a damn sight easier to read than a certain pair of cousins mentioned above.  You’re also not overburdened with characters just to force smaller plot points into place — the actions of everyone involved never seem to contradict what we know about them, and as a result the guilty person is hidden with a very high degree of proficiency.  Wins all round, as far as I’m concerned.

So, yeah, my love affair with the books of Paul Halter continues.  The explanations here are among the best he has yet offered, delightful to the Halter veteran as much as the neophyte, and the plot builds perfectly, pays off extremely satisfactorily, and leaves you kicking yourself into the bargain.  Honestly, dive in.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filled

Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated

Featuring Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst:

The Fourth Door (1987) [trans. 1999]
Death Invites You (1988) [trans. 2015]
The Madman’s Room (1990) [trans. 2017]
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) [trans. 2012]
The Tiger’s Head (1991) [trans. 2013]
The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) [trans. 2012]
The Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) [trans. 2018]
Penelope’s Web (2001) [trans. 2021]

Featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock:

The Lord of Misrule (1994) [trans. 2006]
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) [trans. 2005]
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]
The Mask of the Vampire (2014) [trans. 2022]
The Gold Watch (2019) [trans. 2019]


The Invisible Circle (1996) [trans. 2014]

Collected short stories:

The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004 w’ Adey]

Individual short stories [* = collected in the anthology The Helm of Hades (2019)]:

‘Nausicaa’s Ball’ (2004) [trans. 2008 w’ Adey]*
‘The Robber’s Grave’ (2007) [trans. 2007 w’ Adey]*
‘The Gong of Doom’ (2010) [trans. 2010]*
‘The Man with the Face of Clay’ (2011) [trans. 2012]*
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (2014) [trans. 2014]*
‘The Wolf of Fenrir’ (2014) [trans. 2015]*
‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’ (2015) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) [trans. 2017]*
‘The Helm of Hades’ (2019) [trans. 2019]*

54 thoughts on “#270: The Madman’s Room (1990) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2017]

  1. Yes, I simply fail to understand why Brad criticises his writing style, though he himself admits that his books are easy reads ! If the writing style were really poor, it would be a chore to read them, which is definitely not the case. On the contrary, once a Paul Halter novel is started, it becomes difficult to put it down.
    Whatever the famous drama teacher may say, I think that in the sheer variety and sheer originality of crazy, weird, impossible situations created by Paul Halter, he has no match (not even Carr) !


    • Yeah, for sheer range of problems no-one has gone out of their way to make life more difficult for themselves as Halter. I’ve just read a couple of very disappointing books containing impossibilities that baffle the supposedly brilliantly detective but merely had the first solution anyone with a brain would consider. Halter certainly isn’t guilty of that in these translations — as shown by the wet patches here, on which I was a mile wide…!

      As for written expression…well, subjectivity plays a part. You and I find these very easy to read, but there would be frustrations there for people to find as in any book (those lurches forward in time, for one). I imagine those with genuine problems once we really get into it would be in the minority, though…


    • I seem to remember that being flagged in advance, but I could be wrong. The sheer range of ingenuity here more than wins through for me, though. What he creates and disassembles here is just genius misdirection and perfectly rationalised.


        • My recollection could be wrong, but I have a feeling the *ahem* was mentioned before then being used. I get the impression I’d’ve had reservations had it just appeared with no warning… I shall attempt to check and get back to you!


        • Yup, it’s there, at the end of chapter 22:

          “There were three *ahem*s in there with assorted *ahem*s [the colours are noted]….I remember her putting the red one on…”

          Had a feeling this wasn’t just dropped in at the end with no setup — I’m not that blindly loyal…!


          • That doesn’t really stop it being ridiculously convenient though – I do like the book, but given the type of story that it is, things like that tend to gate. Granted, it is always a question of degree but to me it stuck out whereas I didn’t feel the same about most of the pother ‘implausible’ elements. (If you want plausible, you are so in the wrong place after all 🙂 )


            • Ah, fair enough, I misunderstood: I thought your issue was that it hadn’t been prepared for. Sorry, my mistake!

              I do like — and GIGANTIC SPOILERS HERE SO LEAVE NOW IF YOU’VE NOT READ THIS NO I’M NOT KIDDING FINE ON YOUR OWN HEAD BE IT — how the idea of imposture is essentially there from Patrick seeing the dead man outside the house at “his own” wake…the notion that someone is going around pretending to be Harris when that’s exactly what already happened, that really appealed to my sense of the structuring here. So maybe I’m more accepting of it on those grounds, hein?


            • I agree there, that sense of ‘pre-ordained’ logic is perfect for the clockwork cuckoo land of Golden Age detection. The disguise bit just needed to be a teensy teensy bit more credible, for me …


            • Wait, what? The explicit and implicit mention of something later relied on to provide part of the solution isn’t playing fair? What am I missing?


  2. A 5 star! I really need to get on with reading Halter! Look forward to Brad’s thoughts on this. I wondered JJ (when you are back from holiday), do you feel the ‘telling not showing’ style of writing is there as much as Brad sees/feels it? I had a similar thing with ‘So Pretty A Problem’ by Francis Duncan, it was a lovely mystery, with a great set up, but just so many times the lead saying ‘but was it really an accident…’, or ‘not with the second world war around the corner’ type off stuff ended up making it such a slog to get through.


    • That’s a big question that will have to wait awhile, but essentially while I see some problems in some of Halter’s writing I think overall he’s not as prone to this as has been claimed. Undoubtedly the likes of The Seven Wonders of Crime suffer from this I’m the closing stages, but equally his clewing in other regards — the outdoor murder in The Lord of Misrule, say — is hilariously brilliant. So, yeah it’s there, but no it doesn’t dominate. Though a think piece may be forthcoming on a novel that does do this to a horrible extent…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve got a birthday coming up in a few months and I’ve been thinking about putting some Halter books on my wish list. I don’t have any experience with the author and I’m a bit reluctant to pay full price for his books until I know I’ll love them.

    With that said I am certain I’m going to love these. So, where to start? JJ – you posted a “5 to try” list on getting started with Halter a year and a half ago. Do you stand by that list or do you want to adjust it now that you have a few more of his books under your belt?


    • I still think Death Invites You is the best place for the neophyte to begin with Halter. Then perhaps Tiger’s Head and Seventh Hypothesis (definitely SH early, since the focus is less on impossibilities and more on the blitzkrieg back-and-forth plotting…it’s amazingly insane). Then you can venture out into the looper ones — Lord of Misrule, Demon of Dartmoor, Picture from the Past…if you’re not a fan by then it’s fair to say that you’ll probably never be…!


    • Ben:

      With Brad, I’m a “Halter Scoffer,” and I know you only asked JJ, but (if you’re interested) my top 5-to-try (of the limited few I’ve read) would be these:

      1. The Night of the Wolf (I think Halter’s best work so far has been in the short-story form. “The Abominable Snowman” is a small masterpiece of the impossible crime; “The Cleaver” has the best explanation of an old problem that interested such a diverse collection of authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Agatha Christie, Anthony Abbot, and Craig Rice; and the titular tale is a lovely story all-round.)

      2. The Phantom Passage (I will publish a review of this soon! It’s the best Halter novel I’ve read so far–better written than most and far clearer, with grand solutions to all the puzzles involved. Tons of fun.)

      3. The Crimson Fog (Better as a book than as a puzzle-plot, remarkably for Halter. The central twist is very clever, and the writing better than most. Also the best use of a trick Halter has used over and over in his writing–fine, but please don’t use it again!)

      4. The Fourth Door (The puzzle-plotting is superb; the writing is very weak, and the grand twist is superfluous and off-putting. But the solutions to the two mysteries are first-class.)

      5. The Invisible Circle (A great ATTWN set-up–oh, we should have put this on the list, JJ! Much of this book is as silly as anything, and the solutions don’t completely satisfy, but I had fun with reading it–and that’s what counts, I suppose.)

      I didn’t like The Demon of Dartmoor; but, as it’s admired by nearly everyone, that may be some problem of mine and not the book’s. I’d still advise checking it out. I also didn’t like The Tiger’s Head anywhere near as much as JJ; the one solution was fine, but that to the main problem was an utter disappointment to me.

      There are still many that I have yet to read, so I may have to change this list eventually…


      Liked by 2 people

      • ‘The Abominable Snowman’ is a masterpiece and insanely clever, but I have one HUGE difficulty with it that stops me in my tracks. Maybe I should reread it; I’ve not got anything on TIE about three or four of Halter’s books and the collection is one of those…perhaps a reread of all the stories and a review/reflection at some point would be a good idea.

        Crimson Fog is loads of fun, but damn you need to make sure you know nothing about it going in. You already know too much, in fact…it’s tricky like that, especially as, well, I better not say any more at this stage. The stabbing of the magician is very smart, though, and has a great couple of false leads.

        Dartmoor I love for that main impossibility, admitting as I do that the rest is somewhat overstuffed and underwritten. But, damn, wasn’t it ever worth it. Aaah, it saddens me that people don’t get as much out of Halter as I do; the guy’s not perfect, but he’s always working so hard to give you something new or novel…I’d love everyone to get the pure joy out of his books that I get. Still, we’re he universally loved he’d be the first author to be able to say that…


    Did you people read my review of this one? (https://ahsweetmysteryblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/puzzling-puddles-paul-halters-the-madmans-room/) I liked this book, so lay off!!!!

    On second thought, don’t lay off! I’ll take you all on in one comment.

    JJ, I get your point about this being the most Christie-an Halter. I think Death Invites You contains a lot of the same qualities, but it’s much more clearly Carr-ian in terms of the problem and solution. I always prefer explanations I can follow, and they are plentiful here. Like you, I most enjoyed the explanations of Brian’s psychic abilities.

    But, like Sergio, I had a bone to pick with the sequence involving the asexual figure lurking about. The witness watches IT do what IT does – which turns out to be an integral part of the murder plot – and holds that information in until after the solution is revealed. Christie would never pull a stunt like that. I can think of one situation where she didn’t reveal the sex of the culprit in early scenes, and that’s Toward Zero, but the scenes are NOT necessary to figuring out the killer. In another, she flaunts the sex of the klller but does it so brilliantly that we don’t know who she’s talking about. (I won’t reveal that title, but it’s one of my very favorites.)

    Santosh and Dan, I stand by my earlier comments regarding Halter’s prose style. I totally get why JJ and Ben are having trouble with Ellery Queen, but it’s a completely different matter. Queen is writing in the dense, stilted prose of S.S. Van Dine, and we modern folks have outgrown or outlived or out-somethinged this style. Heck, I loved it when I was a kid, but in this modern, fast-moving age, I find some of it unreadable. As Dan Savage said about something much more important, “it gets better!” But even if it doesn’t for you, I think Queen’s plotting is often brilliant.

    I don’t think Halter is brilliant. I think he employs some ingenious tricks in the area of impossible crime, and it’s easy to see why you would like him for that. But he often couches it in plots that are overladen with stuff (The Demon of Dartmoor is one of his best, but you have to admit there are two or three too many legends and past crimes to sift through!). The structure is often off the rails (the passage of time in this one is a bit awkward, but the narrative structure of Picture from the Past and, to some extent, The Fourth Door nearly collapses under its own cleverness.

    And I stand by what I said to Dan in my own post on this book about the writing style. Maybe it’s the translation? (Hell, JJ, maybe the problem is that you’re reading Pugmire’s translation of Queen!) I think it’s the way Halter writes, with dialogue crammed with exposition and scenes that just peter out. Someday, we can all sit around a table with a bottle of glug and all the books, and I can show you what I mean. It doesn’t mean that the books aren’t “easy to read,” Santosh; in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, I’m sure Halter is more like Christie than Carr.

    Ben, I know you asked JJ for his “five to try,” and there’s no reason why you should choose to listen to such a Halter Scoffer (hey, that sounds like Helter Skelter!! :)). We disagree on so much (I think The Invisible Circle is absolutely ridiculous, despite the cool setting and shocker ending. But there’s nothing wrong with a cool setting and a shocker ending. If I were to offer you my top five, I would say, in no particular order of preference:

    1) The Madman’s Room
    2) The Phantom Passage
    3) Death Invites You
    4) The Demon of Dartmoor
    5) The Tiger’s Head

    I have some problems with most, if not all, of these. The Tiger’s Head also has a very Christie-like set-up, one of my favorites, but the ending is weak. And as I’ve said, one of my biggest problems with Halter is that I nearly always guess the killer. I did not guess Madman, and it was a nice feeling to be fooled (although I truly think Halter didn’t play totally fair here.)

    JJ, if you’re reading this while basking on the sun-drenched beaches of Thessaloniki or wherever, next week I’m off on a three day stint to Vegas, and I’m taking with me the only two translated Halters I’ve not read: the other Owen Burns titles, The Lord of Misrule and The Seven Wonders of Crime. Then I’ll be caught up, and Dan can host a podcast between us just like the “point/counterpoint” that Jane Curtin and Dan Ackroyd used to parody from 60 Minutes on Saturday Night Live. (I just want to be able to say, “JJ, you ignorant slut . . . “) Have a great vacation.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I have a feeling you will not get on with Seven Wonders, Brad; my comments to it are linked above where Kate and I did a dual review…it’s fine, but definitely more ambitious than successful. Needs to be about twice as long as it is to fit everything in, so a lot of stuff is skipped or condensed.

      Misrule again my comments are linked above; it is without a doubt Halter’s version of The Hollow Man, and I’ll do a post one day to prove this. The indoor murder has some problems (though harks back to a classic of the form..) but I think he outdoes Carr for the outdoor murder. You’ll probably still not love it, but I prophesy that being the one you view more favourably… Looking forward to your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, you piqued my interest with your infectious enthusiasm about the wet patches and giving the book a whopping five-star rating. Not entirely sure when I’ll get around to ordering/reading the book, but The Madman’s Room has priority over The Vampire Tree on my wish list. So it better live up to your praise!

    Speaking of Halter at his most Christie-en, Xavier Lechard has a decade old review on his blog (here) of Le toile de Pénélope (Penelope’s Web) and have wanted to read it ever since. A very Christie-like detective story with, what sounds like, an extremely original and brilliantly handled locked room scenario. Alas, Pugmire keeps us waiting for that gem!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yup, that does indeed sound wonderful. Well, Phantom Passage is from 2005 so maybe this isn’t as far off as we fear (given that it’s mostly the early stuff that’s been made available thus far).

      And if you don’t love Madman’s Room, well, you’re clearly a charlatan and a poseur when it comes to locked room fiction, and not to be trusted. There you go: the challenge is laid!


    • I have just obtained La Toile de Penelope (used copy from Abe Books) and will be reading it soon. I will post a review at Goodreads.


  6. I’m delighted that the latest Halter offering promises to be not just a strong title, but a very strong title. How would it fare against the best of the Twist and Hurst entries? Of the Halter novels I’ve read, I think the most enjoyable titles feature Twist and Hurst. Would this one make it into your top 3 Halter novels…? I might need to change which Twist and Hurst novel I save for the last – at the moment, it’s ‘Demon of Dartmoor’.

    Thanks for the review. 😀


    • For the overall effect of this — it’s great for readers old and new to Halter — it has to go in my top handful, yes. There are no awkward narrative tricks to wrap your head around, or no touchstones to adapt your thinking to…it’s just a great, fast, low-key, and superbly solved and rationalised set of puzzles. The explanation is easily up there with Demon of Dartmoor, but this novel works better overall — that so many little things play into the grand scheme is wonderful to watch, and really reinforces the construction. I’d advise you not to leave it too long, since it’s a book there’s much to enjoy in and putting it off will only delay that…!


    • It is Halter’s purest character piece, I’d argue, and shows a lot of depth in an area you often find him lacking.

      Someone has already spoiled Curtain for me, knowing that the reading of Agatha Christie’s novels in pretty much chronological order is a 17-year undertaking of mine. I’m sure I’ve mentioned how furious I am and always will be.


      • Not the best, no, but that doesn’t stop it being very good in my opinion. Overuses the same trick one too many times, but I think it’s among his strongest writing and a fabulous piece of character work.


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  10. Thanks for the review, JJ. 😊 I returned back to read your review more closely as I’ve only just finished ‘Madman’s Room’, and my overriding thought pertains to the enigmatic endings. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts:


    (1) What do you make of Twist remarking to Hurst in the last chapter that the case ‘is far from being solved’? It seems to suggest more than just the observation that the events required multiple coincidences?

    (2) The Harvey-manuscript that Bessie discovers in the hidden panel begins the way the novel does – is that meant to suggest that Harvey Thorne “predicted” the events that happened?

    Feeling 😵…


    • I don’t remember 1), I’m sorry — there have been a lot of books between then an now, but I saw 2) as you call it, yes. More widely, it’s just halter having a little bit of fun, as we know he likes to throw in last line surprises if he can. I was quite surprised at how many people felt this to be the pinnacle of ridiculous over-the-topness when it’s clearly just a smirk at the reader before they close the final page. But, well, people respond in different ways to so many things!


      • *Possible Spoiler*

        I didn’t mind (2) quite so much – to me, the recourse to the supernatural right at the end was reminiscent of that controversial Carr novel. I minded (1) more, as it seemed to suggest that Twist was toying with the possibility of a mastermind standing behind the culprit identified in the previous chapter – especially since Twist commented on the culprit’s sudden and implausible descent into madness/evil. Combining (1) and (2), perhaps Harvey was the ultimate mastermind/culprit? Whatever the case is, I didn’t enjoy (1).


      • Sooooo funny! John reaches out to both of us with the same question on our own respective posts, and I answer exactly as you predict “many people” would. Don’t you think, JJ, that sometimes Halter would do better to leave well enough alone???


        • Sure, sometimes. But sometimes it’s just nice to have fun, innit? I see this as Halter just playing around a bit with the narrative, throwing a wink out to the reader while also indulging in a bit of humour. He’s working his arse off to provide these new, original, and tightly-structured plots, and must have been delighted that TMR turned out so well. Why not allow him a moment of relaxation come the end?

          Ah, whatever. We could disagree about this for years, I sense.


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