#476: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 8.1: The Impossible Crimes of Paul Halter

Halter episode header

After a four month hiatus rather than the usual (and intended) two, Dan of The Reader is Warned and I are back with some impossible crime podcasting…and to my utter delight it’s the turn of M. Paul Halter to find himself in the spotlight.

This week and next we shall be discussing the work — those works currently available in translation, at least — of the French impossible crime maestro who has been brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by the tireless efforts of John Pugmire and his Locked Room International imprint.

In the manner of the grizzled old veteran just one week away from retirement guiding the wide-eyed ingenue through their initial stages of the job, I — having read virtually every Halter translation (a handful of short stories have thus far eluded me…but not for long) this week guide n00b Dan, who has yet to sample the joys of Halter’s fiction, through an overview of Halter, his placement in the impossible crime firmament, and a general sweep through the ideas present in his writing.

It’s all spoiler-free, and so as open to the debutante as to the expert, and it is to be hoped that you’ll find something in the following that intrigues or infuriates you so that we can continue the discussion in the comments below. As ever, thanks for listening and we hope you enjoy.

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Next week we’ll get into specific titles: I’ll be picking five novels to recommend to the Halter Newbie — it’ll be interesting to see how they compare to my recommendations of a couple of years ago — and talking through their merits.  So come back then to agree/disagree just as volubly.

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Previous The Men Who Explain Miracles episodes:

1. Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot — A spoiler-heavy discussion

2. An interview with YA author Robin Stevens

3. On republishing Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

4. The Ed Hoch ’15 Best Impossible Crime Novels’ list of 1981

4.1 Books 15 to 11

4.2 Books 10 to 6

4.3 Books 5 to 1

5. Choosing our own 15 favourite impossible crime novels

5.1 JJ’s list

5.2 Dan’s list

6. An interview with Martin Edwards

7. The Ages of John Dickson Carr [w’ Ben @ The Green Capsule]

7.1 Part 1

7.2 Part 2

42 thoughts on “#476: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 8.1: The Impossible Crimes of Paul Halter

  1. After Boca, I have nothing but love for Halter – unless you name The Invisible Circle as one of the “five to try” next week! There’s bonkers, and then there’s “What the huh?!?”

    The best thing about this is that it’s almost like sitting in a room with both of you, waxing rapturously on the books we love . . . which is EXACTLY WHAT WE’RE GOING TO DO THIS SUMMER!!!!! I want a two-parter, maybe three. When we’re done, some people are actually gonna want to read this Christie woman!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christie’s been done to death; I thought we’d agreed to talk about The New Agatha Christies: Why These Ten Modern Suspense Author Debuts Deserve the ‘Better Than Christie’ Accolades Burnished Across Their Covers for the Next Fifty-Eight Years.

      As for those five books, full disclosure: we recorded this yesterday and I’ve already forgotten which five I picked. Partly because the five Halters I’d recommend change on an almost hourly basis, and partly becuse it was the final day of term and I’m so tired I wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing until Dan emailed me this edited episode.

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  2. This may sound sacrilegious, but in some ways I prefer Halter to JDC. JDC is the superior author overall, but Halter has a way with impossibilities that in a way, supersede Carr’s. Halter focuses on the truly bizarre and sensational, creating impossible crimes that you could have never imagined because of their plain ridiculousness or unbelievability. Nearly all of them are incredibly original, and he also creates solutions that are either gorgeous to an extreme ( DoD still has my favorite impossibility ever) or solutions that perfectly fit their situations. Look at the situation in The Tiger’s Head, a genie coming out of a magical artifact and attacking two men in a constantly observed room, there’s hardly any equal in detective fiction.

    Halter can also nearly always create a beautiful atmosphere on the side, making the crimes committed within the pages of his books start to suffocate and strangle you in the growing tension and horror arising from the situation(s). The impossible truly begins to seem possible in every sense of the word, and you can’t help but wonder is Halter will ever be able to explain away all of the puzzles and dissipate the atmosphere.

    Halter can stumble when it comes to prose, characters, and setting, but the impossibilities he creates and the atmosphere he can develop come out on top over those flaws.

    The Golden Watch does sound fascinating. Impossible crimes in the snow, the return of Owen Burns, those things get a man excited. It does seem like Halter has decided to use Burns in his novels more now, seeing as his last two have featured him.

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    • I wonder if the resurgence of Burns comes from the wider scope of the Edwardian setting — it’s a more credulous age, and the impossibilities from that era of his writing (and I include the shorts ‘The Golden Ghost’ and ‘The Flower Girl’ in that) play a superb game with superstition as well as incredulity.

      As for Halter vs. Carr…I think Halter’s job is harder, because he has so much more history to overcome and Carr to always be compared to (seriously — imagine everything you do immediately being compared to one of the accepted masters of your line of work…that would get boring after a while). But Carr worked in an era of untold fecundity for the classic detective, and was at the peak of what came out of that, with so much of his writing and plotting still miles above what anyone else is able to conjure up.

      Carr had the advantage of being able to make his setups more prosaic, but also had the integrity to make them blisteringly good fun. Halter does wonderful work in embellishing the surroundings of his crimes. Both offer something different, both equally great in their chosen specialism, and a new book from either would just about make my life. So I couldn’t pick a favourite myself, but Halter’s new novel is probably the most exciting piece of news I’ve heard in a long time.

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      • Halter seems to have the benefit of looking back on GAD and all that would be written in the impossible genre of that era, and then being able to be more postmodern and mad with his setups therefore. Though as you have heard I haven’t read any yet so what do I know!

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  3. How could you record this episode without Brad?!?!

    If all of my wish list plans play out as… er… planned, I should own all of Halter’s books this Christmas. Of course, I still have to the herculean task of not reading them all in one manic binge. It’s honestly tough to abstain. As interested as I am in all of the books in my TBR pile, there’s a gulf between the temptation to pick up, say, Death Invites You, or to choose to instead read a Crofts, McCloy, Quentin, or Crispin.

    Although the comparison to John Dickson Carr is heavily flawed in my mind, I think it is appropriate in that it alludes to the level of panache you’re going to get when it comes to the puzzle. Christianna Brand is the only other author that comes to mind who performed on the same level, but she only wrote a dozen or so of this type of book. Carr and Halter have true quantity. Ignoring the final decade of Carr’s life (and the last few Merrivale titles), you can pretty much guarantee that if you pick up one of his books, you’re going to enjoy it. It may not always come together flawlessly in the end, but it’s going to be a fun ride. From what I can tell so far, it seems like Halter’s library is like that.

    The comparison to Carr is flawed though because Halter is very much doing his own thing. The best analogy I can come up with is packing the mystery of three Carr novels into one and then lopping off forty pages. It’s like Carr on steroids (and acid) and the results are unparalleled.

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    • Well, Brad wants to do a six-part examination of Agatha Christie, so we’ll probably get around to Halter in that (somehow) eventually. Never say never…

      For the Carr comparison I was keen to keep away from relative merits of style (made all the more complicated here by the fact that Halter is in translation), because I don’t think anyone is too worried if someone who trades so fully in impossibilities is also doing so in a similar voice…the main thing was the creativity. If Halter recycled old solutions all the time, he wouldn’t be in the Carr class. In having 80+ years for the game to get harder and still wokring in a formidable bunch of original solutions, he more than deserves to be there.

      I’m fascinated to see what you make of Halter’s works as you get through them. We share a lot of characteristics in what we like about the books you’ve read, so I wonder how much of an apologies you’ll be in a year from now. And then you’ll start to see the joy of Crofts, and then….well, then my work will be done and I can retire.

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      • Now that you have finally committed to the six-parter, we can discuss Halter in episode five. I know from reading the Halter interview with Lacourbe that Christie got PH started on the road to writing, and I think he can see her influence throughout, particularly in the novels with larger casts. Except for the impossibility, Death Invites You is pure Christie, and although I guessed the killer right off (I usually do with PH), it’s a better approximation of Agatha than anything Sophie Hannah has done.) I’d give anything to read some of Halter’s non-locked room stories for that reason, but it’s something we can’t get from Pugmire, and I see no one else stepping up to the plate.

        Halter wanted his work to be literally a continuation of Carr: Alan Twist’s original name was . . . Gideon Fell! When that didn’t work out, his writing became pure homage. So there’s no escaping the comparison. Halter is easier to read because he’s simpler and almost never lags, but Carr is genuinely funnier and usually better. Certainly Halter is not limiting his plots to Carrian inventions, and his audacity is admirable – even if it gets him into trouble with insanities like The Invisible Circle (I love you, TomCat.), but my favorite tricks of his are the simplest, like the main murder in The Demon of Dartmoor, or the trick with the disappearing body in The Fourth Door.

        Finally, I think Burns is better than Twist simply because Halter captures the Victorian period more distinctly than whatever era in which Twist dwells (30’s? 50’s? It’s confusing.) But the premises of the Twist mysteries tend to hold my interest more.

        Halter vs. Christie: Hour Five.

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  4. Firstly, I agree that a premonition or predictive dream is difficult to do, as an impossible crime, without getting hoary and this is why there are so few of them. Jonathan Creek episode The Eyes of Tiresias horrendously handled this impossibility, but Christie got it right in “The Dream.” However, Halter’s used it the best in “The Cleaver.” Secondly, you should have The Invisible Circle on your list. Not just as an honorable mention or list-opener, but as the uncontested number one. I’m with you on that one!

    As far as Halter vs. Carr is concerned, Halter showed more imagination when it came to the premises of his impossible crimes and locked room novels, but is not always capable of delivering on the promise. Halter’s The Man Who Loved Clouds has been compared to Carr’s “The House in Goblin Wood” and Halter showed more imagination when handling the impossible, fairy tale-like aspect of the plot, but, purely as an impossible crime story, “Goblin Wood” shoots past Clouds with a solution as original as it classic – showing the difference between master and apprentice. Still looking forward to The Gold Watch.

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    • Awww, maaaaaan, now I’m going to have either you or Brad mad at me, and I can’t even remember which one it’s going to be…

      As for Halter vs. Carr, I don’t know if there’s a way to establish a clear, meaningful “versus” format. I mean, they’re not contemporaries, they’re not operating independently (Halter is a fan of Carr, clearly…), and they’re not writing the same types of story under the same conditions. They both happen to be in the same subgenre and that’s it. That’s part of whay I didn’t want to get anwhere closer to trying to pick a “best” in any way — and I’m not saying that’s what others are trying to do — so maybe it’s just a bigger conversation about their relative merits and flaws that needs to be had.

      But we’ll need many more translations before we can do that with any authority…

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      • When we do our Jonathan Creek episode(s) I am going to convince the world that The Eyes of Tiresias has something to it! Though I very much look forward to The Cleaver. And and as you say TomCat, The Dream is a masterpiece, and thanks to your list that I read it!

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        • I went back to my review of NotW and discovered that “The Cleaver” was my favorite story! I can’t remember it at all now, but I can tell you you’re in for a treat!!

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  5. To focus on the most important bit: Does Paul Halter really pronounce his last name in that English way? 🙂

    Otherwise, interesting as usual, and I’m looking forward to next week’s episode.

    My main complaint about Halter is the prose in his novels, which is a bit heavy and tough to navigate through. I don’t know whether it is his own style or if it’s the translation that makes it so. Or a combination of the two, of course. His problem setting and cluing is generally good or better, and as you say he finds fresh takes on impossible situations without being completely out there all the time.

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    • That’s how John Pugmire pronounces it, so that’s good enough for me 🙂

      As to the prose, I suppose you have the added consideration of being clever enough to speak more than one language fluently, and so the way you’ll process and already-translated work will doubtless be different to those of use who can just take what’s written on the page.

      Man, I wish I’d had the sense to keep up my laguage studies. Learn from my mistakes, kids: become at least bilingual — ideally French and Japanese, so that you can continue the current generation’s good work in translating these amazing books we’re just staring to learn about for the benefit of ignoramuses like myself.

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      • That’s just like you in the generation one level younger than mine – handing off all the work on the next generation…

        Interesting that Pugmire pronounces it so. I’d have guessed Halter would be pronounced like “Altair”.

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        • My understanding — limited, I mustclarify — is that to be pronounced that way it would need an e-acute (é) rather than just a plain e. I started pronouncing it in the way you suggest, and then when I first met up with John he didn’t say it that way and I figured he’d be the one to know. And while I don’t think the H would be as hard as I make it, calling him “Paul Alter” makes it sound like I’ve gone all H.M. and am droppin’ cussed letters an’ things all over the place. Hence…compromise.

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          • No, an acute accent over the e (i.e. an é) would make it a vowel that English simply doesn’t have, a long e. The same vowel that’s in the German “See” or indeed the Swedish “be”. See how I managed to find words that would be pronounced differently in English, just because I’m a bastard? 🙂

            What you’re thinking of is the grave accent over e (i.e. è), which indeed would make it a dead cert that it should be pronounced the way I assumed it was anyway.

            Thing is, as I’ve understood it, Paul Halter hails from Alsace and has a name that seems to have German roots, which is why I’ve assumed that pronunciation – as close to German that the French can possibly come. Still, John Pugmire should know what he’s talking about, so I’ll defer to him on the vowel sound. That the H is silent I’d be willing to risk my life on, though.

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  6. I side with Christian Henriksson about what is likely the correct way to pronounce the French name Paul Halter.
    Here is a video clip about Baron Paul Halter, a French speaking Belgian. His name is pronounced as Christian suggested.

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  7. Now that I’ve listened….

    First off I am more tempted than ever to join this fabled Facebook group! Imagine all the hours I could waste reading discussions! It’s a mystery-loving procrastinators wet-dream. But I want to hold out on selling my soul to Zuckerberg for as long as I can.

    Interesting point about Halter’s inventiveness. I think he overreaches himself sometimes, the headless horseman thing in The Demon of Dartmoor simply isn’t carried through well at all, for example. He does keep his stories moving, although you can argue it’s more through tossing in twists, but I haven’t noticed much of that.

    I admit I don’t fully get the love for Death Invites You. It’s fun, and shows some of that early Christie “I know this is a cliche so let me play with it,” but it’s an example of the premise being faaaaaar more interesting that the resolution.

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    • Yeah, I agree. The Seven Wonders of Crime is a book of pure overreaching — so much going on, enough to fill a book three times as long, and so little of it actually works. It’s fun, but illustrates the difficulty of balancing ideas with plots, and shows the creativity Halter has not quite tamed by experience. Madman’s Room has easily as much going on, but it’s honed into a finer narrative, I’d argue…but, well, it seems churlish to hold Halter’s joyful creativity against him, even if it does slightly undercut the effect he was going for.

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      • The thing is that The Madman’s Room was written first! I thought it was a much later book, since it seemed to show a Halter that had a better grasp on cluing and plotting, on having focused ideas instead of just doing whatever came to mind. The Madman’s Room really felt like a more experienced Halter was writing it.

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        • I know exactly what you mean — I try to keep a close eye on the original publication order mainly because of how much he varies in his approaches. Trying to put them in order based purely on the contents would be quite a task!

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