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.
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.
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:
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…