With Christian recently starting his blog looking at impossible crimes in short fiction, and with a new Paul Halter translation in the current issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the time seemed ripe to go back and reread this collection of Halter’s short fiction and get my thoughts on record. Originally published in English by Wildside Press in 2006 (in slightly modified form from its original 2000 publication in French) and then taken in by Halter’s subsequent English publisher Locked Room International, the ten stories here serve as a great primer for the breadth of Halter’s ingenuity, and rediscovering them has been a huge amount of fun.
Fun fact: ‘The Abominable Snowman’ was the first Paul Halter story I ever read. If the idea here — a man killed by a snowman that has been standing in a snowbound street for weeks on end — doesn’t intrigue you, there’s something wrong with your heart, brain, and other vital functions; c’mon it’s wonderful. I’m not convinced the solution completely works (was there no-one in any of the other houses?), but for ingenuity applied to that which cannot be done it takes some beating. And it’s told with a creepy, oppressive atmosphere that’s possibly a bit heavy on the detail but pays off beautifully in the final lines.
It is inescapable that ‘The Dead Dance at Night’ be compared to the work of John Dickson Carr, as this “coffins moving around in a family vault” story carries over distinct strands from Carr’s The Burning Court (1937) and The Sleeping Sphinx (1947). Alan Twist is in full armchair detective mode, demystifying this supposed curse that has held a family captive in fear without stirring himself from in front of the blazing fire on a cold night, helped by a delightful clue that I was chuffed to catch on my first reading. Great atmosphere again, even if the timeline is a little muddled (surely going back 150 years takes a 40 year-old man beyond his adult grandparents…)
Twist — who clearly does his best work when sat on his arse with a drink to hand — is in full Armchair mode again in ‘The Call of the Lorelei’. That the newly-engaged Hans Georg would willingly drown himself in a pond on a snowy night is out of the question, but only his footprints are in evidence and a witness saw him struggling to resist the sweet siren call of the eponymous temptress who’d recently appeared to him and him alone. The fact that it takes place in a two-storey house is what stops me loving this more, but the essential idea is very canny and beautifully simple.
‘The Golden Ghost’ is atypical because it doesn’t really contain a crime to be solved, and on first reading I didn’t really get into its groove. Upon revisiting, I’m now convinced it’s actually a masterpiece: the late 19th century setting is captured in some of the most effective scene-setting Halter might have ever done, essentially a two-hander as a street urchin tells a miserly old merchant about the ghoul that pursues her — and his friend drops in to confirm sightings of the same. Probably quite divisive, but I’m hopping to the other side of the fence this time around.
The clewing in ‘The Tunnel of Death’ is rather wonderful — the moment our detective Roussel realises how three people were impossibly shot on an escalator, thanks to the beggar he’s been relating the story to, is gorgeous — and you really feel how the key idea here led to the story itself. It’s hindered by some of the joins being a little sudden (the _________g _____r comes out of nowhere, and was conveniently overlooked at the time) and a situation that is perhaps too narrow to make a really great impossibility, but legitimate clues and strong visuals win through.
Halter’s other series sleuth Owen Burns meets prophecy ‘The Cleaver’: a man is so upset by a dream of his friend being killed that he goes to investigate, and catches sight of the “murderer” whilst en route. The murder is discovered and sufficient evidence supplied for the accused to be found guilty…but how to explain the dream? This is phenomenally hard to do well, but if you know of a better deployment of the ‘dream that foretells disaster’ I’m all ears. Unlikely as all hell, but there’s the fun; an absolute triumph, one of my favourite impossible crime short stories ever.
‘The Flower Girl’ makes it two Burns stories back-to-back, this time involving seemingly ineluctable evidence for the existence of Father Christmas. The opening salvo is a little odd, but the story nevertheless gloriously resonant for the time it takes to establish itself — and it all turns out to be frightfully simple for all its complexity. There’s one small aspect I’d remove, mainly because of the interpretation put on events, and the whole thing would work just as well without it…but that’s me. It’s well-motivated, too, and makes great use of an early observation and clever thinking to explain its various miracles.
It’s not difficult to figure out where ‘Rippermania’, the only non-impossibility in the collection, is headed, but that doesn’t stop it being an enjoyable ride. A man visit a psychiatrist to seek explanation for his Jack the Ripper-esque dreams, and just as you anticipate its eventual direction we veer off on an unexpected side road before the final scheme unfolds. The reveal here reminds me of Jeffery Deaver when his short fiction was as sharp and sure as this, and shows that halter doesn’t need to explain the inexplicable in order to show you a good time.
On first reading, ‘Murder in Cognac’ struck me as overlong, and that hasn’t changed with this reread. It does a lot well — atmosphere, the repurposing of a poisoning trick form an acknowledged source, even a spot of humorous wordplay come the closing lines — but the dying message clue feels entirely needless (does it work better in French?) and drags it down. The ingredients are there (the victim has a cold, the phone lines are bad), but this stew ends up tasting less pleasant than it would were only half as much included. Ah, well, there’s one dud in every collection.
I’ve said before that ‘no footprints’ problems are probably my favourite impossibility, so ‘The Night of the Wolf’ finding a man both stabbed in the back and mauled as if by a wild animal while a single set of canine footprints show in the snow around his house feels purpose-built for me. The solution is wonderfully clever, and the layering to enable the explanation breathtaking once you see it take shape. And the framing, recalling a certain Carr novel, makes it work even better. I was worried this wouldn’t live up to my memory, but the more I think about it the more I love it.
As well as all short story collections containing at least one dud, it’s a maxim of mine that collections (by a single author) are in the main stronger than anthologies (with several authors contributing a story each) if only because we tend to be more disposed towards the single author in question. The slew of impossible situations Halter unleashes on your here bear this out, and as a fan I delight where others may not. If the treatment of the impossible crime by many modern authors is anathema to you — and especially if you feel that the genre is closed and has very little if anything new to offer — then Halter’s strong streak of classicism might well be your poison (delivered while no-one else is within 50 miles and with no food or drink on the premises, naturally…). Wonderful stuff, hopefully we’ll see his other untranslated short stories before too long.