#469: The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2018]

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The last time anyone tried to use the wind as a threatening murder weapon we got The Happening (2008) from the, er, mind of M. Night Shyamalan.  Nine years prior, however, Paul Halter had written about the small coastal village of Pickering in 1936, and the youthful, ethereal Stella Deverell predicting the deaths of locals ahead of the storms and winds that batter the vicinity.  And what Stella predicts comes to pass: not just deaths, but madness, relationships breaking down, and unforeseeable good fortune for fishermen.  Add in her own talents in making gold from rocks and vanishing without a trace and you’ve got an impossible crime tale on your hands…

It’s tempting to always want the same thing from a beloved author — because only an idiot wouldn’t want John Dickson Carr to’ve written 15 versions of Till Death Do Us Part (1944), or every Anthony Berkeley novel to be as audacious as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) — but seeing them experiment and diversify is probably more rewarding.  Here, Halter retreads a vein not dissimilar to The Vampire Tree (1996) in that it explores the denizens of a small locality who must contend with an obtruding mystery attracting outside attention, and the slow drip-feed of detail to reporter Mark Reeder once he finds himself in Pickering captures the quirks of the community around Stella and her abilities.  For a while it’s difficult to get a sense of any plot per se since there are so many details to fill in, but Halter does this with the same precision he has managed elsewhere.  And it’s superbly written in places, too, though obviously some credit must also go to John Pugmire’s translation on that front:

‘[The winds] begin as light music, albeit a little unconventional, but soon become the mournful screeching of a demented violin scraping on one’s nerves.’

However, my issue with this build-up, and its eventual resolution, is how much it relies on hearsay and innuendo.  Halter is one of the finest proponents of the ‘witnessed’ impossibility — think the body-swap in The Fourth Door (1987), the murder in a snowdrift in The Lord of Misrule (1994), or the rightly-adored fatal defenestration from The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) — and hearing people tell of Stella’s disappearances, or her predictions, doesn’t quite have the same excitement to it.  Personally, I felt a little underwhelmed by the amount of telling since, well, anyone can say anything, the fun’s in seeing it happen.  But, then, in a weird sort of way, that’s arguably the point of the book.

See, this is clearly Halter’s response to fairy tales, and essentially his way of trying to resolve the fantastical elements usually contained therein: it’s a genre full of a men spinning straw into gold, of magical gifts and miraculous events.  It’s a genre ripe, therefore, to be examined by the impossible crime.  And here Halter really does pull off something marvellous: not so much that he makes you believe in the events he presents and the talents Stella lays claim to (we know, after all, that Halter is an arch debunker in these waters), but more that he makes you believe why she believes it, and how she achieves it, and thus gives a rationale for these sort of events and the air of mystification that surrounds the young woman.  It’s…not what I came for, but it works very well indeed.

Inspector Archibald Hurst and genius criminologist Dr. Alan Twist appear in Pickering before the halfway point, and once they establish themselves the second half picks up nicely.  A prediction of death is made, we have a wild and windy night on the cliffs abutting the sea, and of course nothing can be done to prevent some poor wretch from meeting their maker (it’s telling that the two moments I enjoyed most in this were when we are actually present for the impossibilities — a man fighting an invisible assailant before being thrown of a cliff, and another being dragged away by some invisible agency).  If this were the first half of the book I might not have had time to unpick the pattern Halter was weaving, but, while the precise mechanics eluded me, I’d had enough time to think “So, why does…?” and for it all to fall into place.

As for those mechanics, well some are better than others: I don’t find anything associated with the Fairy Wood where Stella vanishes and hears predictions from the wind to be terribly compelling, but the two men fighting invisible enemies and the overarching impetus for the grand scheme (I’m trying to be vague…) are very enjoyable.  I actually had an explanation for the invisible assailants that tied in as fully to the inclement weather as the ones Halter offers, but upon reflection mine obviously needed some refinement.  The history of how and why things have been achieved is delightful, and a real triumph in setting and achieving a challenge to do something new in the genre.  And so this is why it’s so rewarding to watch someone reach for something new: it’s not always a complete success, but seeing such brilliant creativity at play where it could simply run along the same old rails is always a joy, and speaks for the joy of creativity that we often take for granted on account of how inured we are to the fictional written word.  Every so often, it’s nice to be reminded how difficult this is, and to seek encouragement in those who want to try something new.

~

See also

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: I went into the final section of the book convinced that Halter couldn’t possibly make the story make sense. And I was completely wrong. That was damn clever. Really, really clever. Possibly the final act was a little overly-complicated, but that was a really well constructed puzzle.

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: While I would always caution readers not to expect too much in terms of the characterizations in a Halter novel, I do think this is one of his richer and more rewarding works in that respect. Certainly there are a number of characters who exist to impart information or to flesh out the population of the village but the characters at the heart of the narrative are given back stories, clear motivations and time is spent establishing their relationships.

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I got quite heavily into Halter pre-blog and so, despite having read every novel thus far translated, I don’t have reviews of them all on here.  That will be remedied in time — I’m thinking my upcoming post #500 might see me return to Halter’s debut, and my own starting point with his work, The Fourth Door (1987) [trans. 1999] — but for now you can find my thoughts on the following here:

Featuring Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst

Death Invites You (1988) [trans. 2015]
The Madman’s Room (1990) [trans. 2017]
The Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) [trans. 2018]

Featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock

The Lord of Misrule (1994) [trans. 2006]
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) [trans. 2005] [w’ Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime]
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]

Collected short stories

The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004]

Individual short stories, published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016)
‘The Yellow Book’ (2017)

I am also painfully aware that a handful of other stories have appeared in EQMM, but the task of tracking them down has proved a thus-far dissatisfying combination of unfruitful and expensive.  All, as they say, in good time…

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Traces of Brillhart from last week because both begin with mysteries communicated to the protagonist through hearsay rather than direct experience.

21 thoughts on “#469: The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2018]

  1. Yes this is a good story, but I’ll agree it is not among his best.

    By the way the next Halter to be translated is a very special one, because it’ll be an all new Owen Burns story and will be appear first in English and the in French.

      • It is on paul halter’s webpage “Après ” LA TOMBE INDIENNE” et ” LE MASQUE DU VAMPIRE “, un autre roman inédit de Paul Halter sera publié chez Eurydice : ” LA MONTRE EN OR “. Mais il faudra attendre le printemps 2019. Pour des raisons contractuelles, le titre paraîtra d’abord dans une traduction étrangère. Il s’agit d’une nouvelle enquête d’Owen Burns, chargé une fois de plus de résoudre une crime impossible dans la neige, entre autres mystères…

  2. I’ve already read this one and my review is scheduled for next week, but can tell you I rated it higher than you did. Actually, it’s one of my favorite Halter’s to date. Something of a cross between one of Gladys Mitchell’s fairy tale-like mysteries and Carter Dickson’s “The House in Goblin Wood.” Loved it!

    As an aside, there are two other detective novels in which the wind plays an important part: Clifford Orr’s The Wailing Rock Murders and Arthur Upfield’s Winds of Evil.

    • The atmosphere is more to my liking than the content of the first half, but it definitely picks up once Twist and Hurst arrive on the scene and there’s something for us to see. It’s rare for me to be the least enthusiastic voice in the room where a Halter novel is concerned, but this is one I have to take a background role on and let others hog the limelight for a change…!

      • ”It’s rare for me to be the least enthusiastic voice in the room where a Halter is concerned . . .” Never fear, mon ami, I have arrived, like Maleficent at the birth of Sleeping Beauty!

        I noticed you didn’t quote from my review of this – pour quoi pas? I also liked the atmosphere and completely agreed on the “tell not show” aspects of the first half. However, I don’t remember “deducing” the killer’s identity this time – I just knew it. Sacre bleu! Give me The Demon of Dartmoor or The Madman’s Room anytime!

        Did I just say that??

        Oh, and my review of The Seventh Guest comes out in ten days . . .

        • Is being quoted in one of my reviews that high an honour, that people will now demand reparations when they’e not quoted? Good heavens, we’re a long way from that slander trial, aren’t we?

          And, hey, we’re in agreement! I feel like this doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

    • I’ll be looking forward to it!

      Also, is there an issue with your blog TomCat? One of my virus protections is going off when I try to get on, says there’s an issue. Might just be my thing, but still.

    • There is also an Australian mystery novel about a dust storm in which wind and sand are featured as murder means. Gently Dust the Corpse is by S. H. Courtier, a severely neglected and underappreciated crime fiction writer from Down Under. Only three of his books were reprinted about fifteen years ago. I think they’re already out of print again. He’s written over twenty crime novels and I’ve enjoyed all of those I’ve managed to track down.

  3. I liked this more than you did, but in retrospect some of it’s flaws do stick out quite obviously. The ideas behind the impossibilities are much better than the solutions, and the culprit can be easily deduced from a few minutes of thinking. I do however adore the atmosphere and plotting of the book, with it truly mirroring a fairy tale right up to the final page and Stella was a thoroughly fascinating character that shined nearly every time she appeared.

    • The scheme around the villain holds together very well indeed — in fact, it’s because the actions and events surrounding them fulfil every particular that it’s possible to work out who it is. I know people tend to complain that the villains in Halter are often guessable because of fairly simple reasons, but here I’d wager it’s going to be the result of actual deduction that brings anyone to the correct answer ahead of time. That’s a great win, I’d say, even if it meant that I didn’t get to have the full surprise of it dropped on me.

  4. I confess I didn’t read the review very carefully – I intend to come back to it when I get round to reading the novel. Thanks for the review. 🧐

    The exciting news is: the latest LRI release, Gaston Boca’s “Seventh Guest”, has just appeared on Amazon! 🤩

    • The Seventh Guest does sound rather marvelous, eh? It’s a long way down my TBR, but I’m very excited.

      Shall look forward to your thoughts on The Man Who Loved Clouds when you get to it 🙂

  5. A much lower rating than I expected from you, but it sounds like I’ll enjoy it regardless.

    If all of my gift list plans play out, I should have all of Halter’s LRI books by Christmas. I try not to spend more than $10 on vintage books (which is what I primarily read), but with the LRI books I’m happy to pay the full price because I know it is an investment in more of these to come. Well… let me correct that – I’m happy to have a friend or family member pay full price. I haven’t actually bought one of these myself. They’re the perfect gift though! The price point is perfect for a present and the givers are more than happy to have suggestions for what to get instead of picking out some bottle of liquor or something like that.

    I thought it’s interesting that The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) is one of the “newest” Halter novels to be translated. The only newer translation is The Phantom Passage (2005). There’s a whole decade of Halter’s work untranslated, not to mention the mid 90’s through mid-00’s are nearly untouched! I’ve noticed that Halter hasn’t released a novel since 2014 though. Has he stopped writing full length work or is my source (wikipedia) just incomplete?

    • It would appear from Yannis’ comment above that a new Halter novel is indeed on the way — but, like, a new one, as in written this year. I am, of course, already furiously excited.

      From memory, I think only a couple have been published post-Passage, one of which was the YA novel Spiral that I’d of course love to feature in my Minor Felonies series but, alas, I lacked the foresight to keep studying French. Boy, do I regret that now…

      As for remaining translations, I have my fingers crossed that Le tigre borgne is as good as it sounds and crosses the language barrier at some point. Hope springs eternal on both fronts!

      • I read book titles like this and my imagination just cries out trying to think of what Halter would do with them:
        -Death Behind the Curtains
        -139 Steps from Death
        -The Curse of Barbarossa
        -The Siren’s Shriek
        -The Salamander Murders
        -The Silver Thread
        -The Traveler from the Past
        -The Indian Tomb
        -The Will of Silas Lydecker

  6. “Every so often, it’s nice … to seek encouragement in those who want to try something new.”

    *smiles evil smile and patiently awaits Pit-Prop Syndicate review*

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