#383: Success, and Being a Victim Thereof in ‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2016]

EQMM May June 2018

Having recently reviewed Paul Halter’s short story collection The Night of the Wolf (2006), and having previously shared my thoughts on Soji Shimada’s ‘The Running Dead’ (1985), Szu-Yen Lin’s ‘The Ghost of the Badminton Court’ (2004), and Halter’s own ‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) all from the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the time seems perfect to look at the newest Halter translation to come our way — the short story ‘The Fires of Hell’, published in this month’s EQMM.

It is another case for Alan Twist, who once again is told a story and asked to bring his observational talents to bear, echoing the framing of ‘The Call of the Lorelei’ and ‘The Dead Dance at Night’ from the above collection.  We open in The Hades Club — the first time I’ve considered the fact of Twist inhabiting the same universe as Halter’s other series sleuth Owen Burns, since Burns’ membership of this club is mentioned in ‘The Flower Girl’ — where Twist, fully preceded by his reputation, is approached by the pseudonymous ‘Colonel Martin’ who wishes to tell him of an “astonishing mystery, worthy of your talents”.

In short it runs thus: the clairvoyant Charles-Alexandre Villemore is able to forewarn the police about a series of fires he has foreseen, and yet in most cases — despite the most assiduous searches of the premises and untiring vigilance on the part of the police — the fires occur as warned.  Both Villemore and his wife have alibis for the fires and, even if he were responsible, what would be the sense in warning the police of the imminent destruction?  But how is he able to foretell disaster so accurately?  And, this being a story from an author who is somewhat known for dabbling in making the impossible possible, just what the ruddy hell is going on?



Halter’s previous encounters with prophecy — ‘The Cleaver’, The Madman’s Room (1990), and The Phantom Passage (2005), though obviously I’m limited here to those which have been translated — have all found various ways to take the future dream/vision/message kink and work an at-least-very-good explanation out of it all.  In essence, the scheme here is equally good, as is the motivation behind what is happening, but it falls down slightly for me on one factor.

There is a word that describes an event in this type of fiction — and indeed in real life, too — and when that word, or rather the event it describes, is used, it must be used carefully (no, the word is not “carefully”…though it does being with “C”).  At the heart of your impossible crime it can be an utter delight — see The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson for an example — or it can be something of a shambles that undoes the whole edifice, as in Think of a Number (2010) by John Verdon.  Halter is in neither of these camps with this 11-letter gambit, but rather frustratingly between them; it might have worked if we were given slightly more to go on, though too much would ruin it, and instead we’re not given enough and..well…I just don’t quite swallow it. I’d argue it could even be fixed with a slight rewrite — a line or two, no more — but then, well, that might cause other problems elsewhere…

Man, this is difficult to do without spoilers.

Your mileage may vary; others would be more forgiving than I, but I hold Halter to a very high standard and so could well be a victim of my own fandom here.  Elsewhere he’s on great form — the wider vista of the setting and the players involved is nicely sketched in, and the limiting of the crimes to a series of ten fires is superbly handled and explained.  And, while Twist is robbed of the opportunity to go Full Armchair on us he gets the chance to show he’s no deductive maladroit when it comes to picking up on the smaller cues in the background of the story, revealing a very pleasing layering to what has been told.  And Halter once engages in his passion for odd final lines — though nothing on he scale of Death Invites You (1988), this one really does come out of almost nowhere, but it’s a narrative trait of his I’ve come to enjoy.

Speculation ran riot in the comments of my previous post (well, “a few people wondered about it” is more like accurate, but that’s as riotous as anything gets round these parts) as to whether there would likely be another Halter short story compendium given that this is the ninth of his stories featured in EQMM as yet uncollected.  My feelings on such an enterprise will be no surprise to anyone, for selfish reasons as much as wanting more people to read the quite superb ‘The Yellow Book’, and maybe a second visit to this in a couple of years will warm me to that one aspect above.  Still, it’s always a joy to spend some time with M. Halter’s brand of ingenuity, and here’s hoping more short fiction follows before too long (though, that said, another translated novel can’t be far off…).

43 thoughts on “#383: Success, and Being a Victim Thereof in ‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2016]

  1. “There is a word that describes an event in this type of fiction — and indeed in real life, too — and when that word, or rather the event it describes, is used, it must be used carefully (no, the word is not “carefully”…though it does being with “C”). ”
    Yes, it is too much of a c——- to be a c——- !


  2. For a moment, I thought you were announcing on behalf of LRI the release of yet another delectable translation of Paul Halter’s novels… And then I saw that it was a short story. 😦 Only marginally consoled by those lovely chow chow puppies lined up contrapuntally.


  3. I read The Vampire Tree a couple of days ago, and it had

    ‘Tell me, Dr. Twist, have you seen Papa recently?’
    ‘Sir Octavius?’ replied the criminologist, who had been absorbed by an abstract painting whose subject he had struggled in vain to identify. ‘Why, yes. Not long ago at the Hades Club.’

    I would also prefer seeing another short story collection from Halter. I think (having read all these translated books now) his imagination and ingenuity is shown off better in the short form where it exists without the overwrought atmosphere and inattention to the nuts and bolts of detection I find in his novels.


    • Ah, grand, many thanks — I had no doubt there would be an earlier reference to The Hades Cub I may have overlooked (or may not have yet been translated). This was just the first time I had notived that establishement in connection with both characters, reading this and the collection so close to each other.


  4. It seems that the next Paul Halter translation is The Man Who Loved Clouds (L’homme qui aimait les nuages ). Can you confirm ?


    • I very much hope it is !
      The Man Who Loved Clouds is the Paul Halter novel whose translation has been my most anticipated.
      The posts on his French forum about the book are simply scrumptious with some even saying the novel is much more characterized than one of his normal books.Some of the mysteries in the novel include a woman who can magically disappear and deaths caused by the wind!
      Most Paul Halter translations come out in June or December so hopefully news of the new translation with soon emerge.


      • Even with my undeniable love of Halter maing me very excited about this prospect, I have to say that “deaths caused by the wind” is causing acid reflux at the memory of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening


        • I have never heard of The Happening, and a quick Google search revealed to me that it was a sci if movie from 2008.
          I have to say that it sounds simply dreadful, with those plants that release neurotoxin and mass suicides across the nation,but I read nothing about deaths in the wind.


          • I have to say that it sounds simply dreadful

            It’s not wonderful, mainly because the silliness of the premise lets it down, but, like all of Shyamalan’s work, it has its moments, especially visually.


            • Yeah, but the “running away from the wind” aspect is unfortinately hilariously hokey, and difficult to take seriously. And I say that as a huge fan of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Lady in the Water, The Village, and — yes — even Signs.


            • Yeah, but the “running away from the wind” aspect is unfortinately hilariously hokey, and difficult to take seriously.

              As I said, the premise is silly. (As is the premise in Signs that the aliens are allergic to water.)

              I’m pleased to find someone else who liked Lady in the Water. Last time I looked, that was his most widely panned movie.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Personally, I still love “The Village”. I thought it rather wonderful, but I’m a sucker for that type of twist.


            • Yeah, I never understood the hate that movie got; I loved it in the cinema, and have seen it about three or four times since and always enjoyed it. Signs I can see the problems more clearly — but the kids’ performances are so good I’m happy to overlook that — but The Village is just a really good film. Kindred souls, unite!


  5. I must be getting old: I’ve pondered and pondered what “the eleven letter word beginning with C” could be, and I can’t think of a one! I fear I’m missing the point of your review without that understanding, but I will go read the story and maybe figure it out.

    Funny thing! This happened to me last night when I was reading an article and a word had been rubbed out. It also began with a C but I just couldn’t fill it in. Coincidence? I don’t think so!


    • Very, very slowly I am turning these posts into cryptic crosswords. This will eventuate in my posts becoming a series of clues which when decoded will spell out my opinions. It seems long-winded, but I’ve studied my GAD villains well and gone native using their convoluted schemes as my inspiration…


        • “Host’s kinks; obit gives scrambled opinion of malodorous volume?” surely?

          I’d say some form of anagrind is essential; the second adjective less necessary, but recommended.

          Yrs in the spirit of fifteen squared . . .


          • I take your point. I was trying to maintain the potential for a dual meaning of the word “volume” by being terse … but I do think “gives” is enough of an anagrind for the experienced cruciverbalist, don’t you? My most local source of cryptics, the Toronto Globe and Mail, tends to brevity where possible and I’ve probably picked up the habit. (For the uninitiated; we both clearly love cryptic crosswords and are merely joshing about the fine points. If you rearrange the letters in “host’s kinks obit” you’ll get a phrase of four, four, and six letters that might describe a reviewer’s opinion.)


            • The Guardian Cryptic and Prize are my own tipple of choice; it’s possible I’ve tackled a Toronto Globe and Mail while on one of my occasional visits to that fair city, but I don’t recall doing so. I’ll have to check to see if it’s online.

              I take your point re “volume.” Howsabout

              “Host’s kinks; obit gives cockamamie opinion of volume”?


            • The Guardian’s crosswords are to the Globe & Mail’s as St-Emilion is to Dr. Pepper, in terms of sophistication, so I’ll take your word for it. ;-). I was trying to think of a way to use “review” as both the anagrind (re-view) and the clue but came up empty.


            • Oh, a much better approach than mine. You could make the “review” do double service, viz:

              “Host’s kinks — obit and review?”

              Glad to hear the Grauniad‘s x-words are held in high esteem! I used to do the Observer‘s Azed when my brain was younger and nimbler and I had more hours to spare; sometimes the Independent‘s Beelzebub, for which I once (swank swank) won a copy of Chambers English Dictionary.

              I do hope all this is helping JJ in his preparation for “Shirt? Tile? Mail? He says he’s planning it. (4, 4)”


        • I may be some way off this standard, but I now desperately want to be able to do a post in this manner. Watch this space….


  6. Courtesy of Santosh (who must move from commenting to reviewing, says that hypocrite who still needs to update his own), I’ve read this story and it’s…poor. It’s more or less (I think) the first solution that most looking at the set-up would think of. A little to simplistic for me, personally (but I did think of what I think is a decent solution that I was sure that Halter would go with). I still want another volume of his stories though. 😛


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