Reader, brace yourself for a shock: I — the man who curated an online celebration of Paul Halter’s 60th birthday last year — loved 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.
Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated: