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…).