#382: The Night of the Wolf [ss] (2006) by Paul Halter [trans. Robert Adey & John Pugmire 2004]

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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.

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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…)

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Bats in the Belfry from last week because — let’s keep it simple — both have an animal in their title.

33 thoughts on “#382: The Night of the Wolf [ss] (2006) by Paul Halter [trans. Robert Adey & John Pugmire 2004]

  1. ” . . . and as a fan idea light where others may not . . . “

    I actually think I’m a little pissed off here. The quote above and the link to my post would naturally suggest to your readers that here is another example of ol’ Brad Halter-bashing, when the truth is that I liked this collection a whole lot. I went back and read my post again to see if I had been less kind than I thought. There are a few stories on whose overall likability we diverge a bit, but all in all I gave this one a positive review, JJ.

    • Firstly, I’m delighted at your use of idiomatic English — “pissed off” is, I uiderstand, not a common American expression, and you’ve deployed it perfectly. Picture me doing that chef’s kiss thing.

      Secondly, you do me a disservice, sir! My “where others may not” is a reference to there being certain stories here — ‘The Golden Ghost’, say — that I’ve loved this time around and you’ve not been quite so keen on. “Where” is a response not to you or the book overall, but to places within the book. My enthusiasm might just be a result of me getting carried away as an unapologetic fanboy of Halter’s, is what I was trying to say.

      However, my apologies if that didn’t come across.

    • “..idea light..”
      Deliberate spelling or predictive text or opioid addiction or very tiny hands or something else ?.

  2. On a whole, I agree with your individual ratings of the stories with the exceptions of the horrendously overrated “Rippermania” and “Murder in Cognac,” which I remember being better than your description suggests. But the details have gone all fuzzy in my memory. So perhaps you’re right about that one, but you’re definitely wrong about “Rippermania.” A single star would have been too kind.

    What actually surprises me, looking back at this collection, is that at the time I expected some of these stories, like “The Cleaver” and “The Flower Girl,” to become (locked room) anthology staples, but that somehow didn’t happen.

    Anyway, I’m glad you picked Cut Throat as your next read. There’s absolutely no way you won’t love that one. The first part of the book is an almost Croftsian tale exploring how the body ended up in a hamper at a political rally, while the second half destroys a truly brilliant alibi-trick.

    • I expected some of these stories…to become (locked room) anthology staples, but that somehow didn’t happen.

      I guess the one factor to consider here is that haven’t really been that many locked room anthologies since this was translated, right? The Penzler collection seemed to want a wider (and older) brief, it would be odd for LRI to’ve put it in The Realm of the Impossible, and the BL collections were composed along — shall we say — different lines. But, I agree: ‘The Cleaver’, ‘The Flower Girl’, ‘The Night of the Wolf’ and ‘The Dead Dance at Night’ would be perfect if anyone wanted to put them in anything. But then I guess I’d grouse about existing translations and wanting new stories…

      As to ‘Rippermania’…I like it. It’s not reinventing anything, it’s not going to catch anyone out, but…I dunno, I just like it. It does, however, cause me great relief to find us disagreeing again 🙂

    • “Anyway, I’m glad you picked Cut Throat as your next read. There’s absolutely no way you won’t love that one.”
      Well, well, well !

      • Well, well, well!

        What? You don’t believe we can agree, for the full 100%, on something? Just give JJ a chance. He has to get it right sometime and Cut Throat finally gives him that opportunity.

        I believe in you, JJ!

  3. I have this sitting on my Kindle – but my proclivity towards novels, and away from short stories, meant that I only dipped into it in between two novels. Thanks for the encouraging and enticing review. 🙂

    • Does the Kindle version have both introductions? The preview on the Amazon UK site seems to go straight into the first story, ‘The Abominable Snowman’, so I wasn’t sure how fully the text was replicated in the e-book…

      • I don’t quite know what you mean about “both introductions” – but neither are listed on the contents page. And there is no intervening material between the contents page and the first story.

        • There’s an into by Roland Lacourbe and a foreword by Robert Adey in the paperback version; nothing crucial contained therein, of course, but I was just curious as to whether the Amazon preview deliberately excluded them. Obviously not.

      • No, neither the Foreword by Robert Adey nor the Introduction by Roland Lacourbe are available in the kindle edition. The Acknowledgements and the Biographies at the end are also not available.

    • That’s the great thing about short stories, especially if you have them lying around on your Kindle or whatever electronic device you might use – you can just dip into one at any opportune time and get a whole mystery solved without having to dedicate a couple of hours to it!

  4. This is my only exposure to Halter so far, but I have a couple of his novels on the shelf. Generally, I thought the book was quite good with some excellent and intriguing setups. Having said that, the pay off didn’t always work for me – and that Golden Ghost story is not at all to my liking as it doesn’t seem to be clear as the kind of tale it wants to be – and the writing style sometimes feels a little off, although that may be a translation issue.
    I think I’ve said before that impossible crimes or apparent miracle problems may well be best served in short fiction.

    • I think what I especially like about ‘The Golden Ghost’ is how it isn’t clear precisely what sort of story it wants to be. Were it more focused in its setup, I think the direction it takes would be more apparent, but I love how the reader is essentially obfuscated out of what is going on because the nature of the tale is hidden for much of its duration. Sure, it frustrated me first time around, but I loved it at this second attempt.

      I’m sure you’ve already told me, but what Halter novels are on your TBR awaiting your attentions?

      • That sounds fair enough, and it’s something that may well apply to me when I (almost inevitably) return to the collection at some point.
        The Halter novels I have (acquired using that trusty scientific method of stumbling upon dirt cheap copies online) are The Invisible Circle and The Crimson Fog.

            • I don’t want to spoil anything for you. I think that when people wax enthusiastically about either of these, it’s all centered on the “how” aspects. My considerable problems center on the “who” aspects.

              Neither book takes long to read. Enjoy! Let me know your thoughts. But there are (much) better Halters out there.

            • I won’t read either before the summer (full-blown version) arrives but I wasn’t expecting them to be the best of the author’s work. I’d read the short stories and had a good enough time so just grabbed what was available at a bargain price.

        • Each of those novels will have detractors lining up to tell you how terrible they are, but each has much to recommend it so long as you accept that there are better Halter books available. The impossible murder of the magician in Crimson Fog is actually pretty darn good, but it gets somewhat swept aside by…other…things. But then I read TCF quite early on, in one evening without pausing, so I don’t see it as the poor title others do.

          Invisible Circle is best taken as a bit of fun — because it is huge fun; again, not perfect, some fair objections against it, but I tore through it and giggled my head off the whole way through.

          • Cheers, tempering expectations is generally a good thing, I find. With a relatively unfamiliar author I guess it’s practically essential – forewarned, forearmed and all that.

  5. Thanks for the shout-out.

    It seems you’re all alone in your liking of “Golden Ghost”, but on the other hand, I liked “Cognac” a bit more than you, it seems, so if you take your ghost into your corner I’ll be happy with my snifter over here.

    Otherwise, generally, we seem to be quite in agreement over this collection. You’re probably right that a reader might be more impressed with a collection of a particular author’s stories than by an anthology, though I think that most of our favourite great detectives would hold that to be a fairly obvious conclusion. 🙂

    On my blog I had a post where I hoped LRI will get on with a second Halter collection – there should definitely be enough stories available, especially since there are at least four stories published in EQMM that were not used in this one.

    • There are 9 stories published in EQMM not in this book:
      1.The Robber’s Grave (June 2007)
      2. Nausicaa’s Ball (Sept-Oct 2008)
      3. The Gong Of Doom (June 2010)
      4. The Man With The Face Of Clay (July 2012)
      5. Jacob’s Ladder (Feb 2014)
      6. The Wolf Of Fenrir (March-April 2015)
      7. The Scarecrow’s Revenge (May 2016)
      8. The Yellow Book (July-August 2017)
      9. The Fires Of Hell (May-June 2018)

      Incidentally, the plot of Jacob’s Ladder is the same as one of the crimes in Les Douze Crimes d’Hercules

  6. I’ve only read Paul Halter’s novels as of now and he is defiantly the best mystery writer still writing in our time (though that topic is extremely debatable).
    I have read The Call of the Lorelei as it was part of The Passport to Crime anthology published a few years ago.It was a very enjoyable and engrossing story with a lovely solution. I’ve read some people say that Paul Halter writes better in a short story format but with the little bit of experience I have,I couldn’t say.
    There seems to be several affordable copies of the book on Abebooks and I think I’ll defiantly snatch a copy up.

  7. Short stories do seem like the ideal for Halter, playing to all his strengths and downplaying his weaknesses in characterization and the like. Like you I actuality enjoy The Golden Ghost, that ending really unsettled me when I read it. Can’t say the same about Rippermania: much too obvious.

    • Ha. I don’t deny the obviousness of ‘Rippermania’, I just…really enjoyed it. Can’t defend or explain my position any more strongly than that, I’m afraid… 🙂

  8. Pingback: #434: Locked Room International is 30 – My Favourite 15 Books | The Invisible Event

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