#479: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 8.2: The Impossible Crimes of Paul Halter

Halter episode header

Last week we gave you an overview of the (translated) works of Paul Halter, this week I’ll be talking you through five novels you could pick up if you’re still not sure where to start.

There’s something on this list to outrage everyone, I’m sure — just be thankful we edited out all the trifle vs. cake controversy — and so it doesn’t require that much introduction.  It’s just worth reminding you that these books are only available in English thanks to the phenomenal work of John Pugmire and his Locked Room International imprint.  Everything mentioned herein is available from LRI, and more information can be found at their website.

Okay, without further ado…

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A rundown of my current online opinions on the individual works of Paul Halter can be found below — more will be added next month, but we’ll get to that next month…

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)

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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

8. The Impossible Crimes of Paul Halter

8.1 Part 1

25 thoughts on “#479: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 8.2: The Impossible Crimes of Paul Halter

  1. Pssst! Dan! Over here! No, no – don’t tell JJ we’re talking. Pretend you’re tying your shoe . . .

    Okay, listen to me. It isn’t that JJ is totally wrong. He is definitely presenting the spectrum of Halter’s work, from fine (The Madman’s Room, one of the few PH novels where I didn’t get the ending) to stupid (,i>The Invisible Circle – sometimes loony is just . . . loony.) But if I were you, I would stick with MR, stick with The Tiger’s Head (fine until that stupid “shock” ending on the final page that Halter loves to do and doesn’t need to do at all) and switch in The Demon of Dartmoor (great atmosphere, nice trick to the main impossibility) for TIC. I’m mezzo mezzo on The Seventh Hypothesis, but I agree Halter is trying to do something different here. I would recommend Death Invites You wholeheartedly . . . except for me the killer’s identity was particularly obvious that time. But it, along with TTH, is very Christie-like.

    I agree with “The Cleaver” being a great story, as well as “The Dead Dance at Night.” I also liked “The Flower Girl.”

    Now slowly rise from your shoe, reassure JJ that you’re alone, head over to the bookshelf, and pick up ANYTHING by another author!

    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad you included The Invisible Circle and agreed with everything you had to say about the story, which really is a toy box for the locked room reader to have fun with. No idea why it’s so disliked. But good to know you’re indoctrinating your students, or a new generation of mystery readers, like a good JDC fanboy!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, hey, I’m even working on the next generation of Japanese-English translators so we can get more honkaku — there have got to be some benefits to this job, after all!

      As for the dislike of TIC…yeah, I don’t get it either. I’m going to try and reread it this year to see how it stands up. Will be bloody hilarious if I end up hating it…

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  3. Really enjoyed this pair of podcasts once again. I loved the overview of Halter’s career and the top 5 list – there were a few there that I haven’t read yet but I am very pleased at the fourth and fifth selections which are my two favorites. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The ordering is in no way indicative of their quality, it’s pure chronology…still think Madman’s Room is going to take some toppling from my own top spot, however. Gleeps, that book is amazing.

      Glad you enjoyed these. I’m hopeful of being able to do something with a little more depth on Halter at some point, but this introductory sweep through seemed like a good place to begin.

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  4. You have me excited about getting to The Fourth Door. I tend to have this odd bias in thinking that an author’s first book can’t be that good, but time and again that is being proven wrong (review forthcoming that further illustrates this).

    I can’t comment too much on your list because it pretty much mirrors the Halter books that I’ve read, with the exception of The Crimson Fog and The Demon of Dartmoor. I would personally swap out The Invisible Circle with The Demon of Dartmoor. DoD wins for a solution to an impossibility that rivals anything else in the genre, plus I do like the additional layers of misdirection. The Invisible Circle obviously wins for bravado and shear fun, but there is one core aspect to the misdirection that I can’t quite get over.

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    • An author’s first book is rarely their best — sure, it happens, see Leo Bruce — so I can understand where that sentiment comes from. At the same time, writing a book is hard, so in order to actually get through that debut effort they’ve gotta be onto something at least slightly worthwhile; hell, even Gladys Mitchell’s debut was predicated on the fabulous development that made it so famous.

      The Fourth Door’s plot seems to be little more than “some weird things happen in this locality…all will be explained!”, but as an opening salvo for a career largely built on impossibilities it’s delightfully creative. Halter would become far clearer in his central ideas and far tighter in his stacking of events, but I enjoyed it hugely and am looking forward to rereading it in February for post #500.

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  5. Thanks for sharing the updated list of recommended Halter novels to start with. 😊 You know my universe cracks when I stumble upon inconsistencies across blog posts, but I enjoyed finding out which titles were removed, in favour of which other titles.

    Admittedly, Halter’s puzzles and solutions will never be plausible by any stretch – and so I’d be inclined to recommend to a new reader those of his narratives that are less “out-there” and easier to read.

    I think “Fourth Door” is a very good starting point, but I recall finding “Invisible Circle” somewhat too uneven and bizarre to recommend as an intial foray into Halter’s writing. I might be more inclined towards “Death Invites You” or “Picture from the Past”.

    I’m looking forward to reading “Tiger’s Eye” for myself…🤓 Best for last!

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  6. So, I finally had the time to listen through your excellent podcast. It’s interesting as always, but the one thing that hit me was your description of “The Invisible Circle”. Because I’ve read it, and I remember absolutely nothing of it. I even went into my library to read on the back of the cover, and I can still hardly remember anything. And from your description of it, bonkers and all, it really sounds as if it should be more memorable…

    Still, there’s three of these five that I have not read yet (all except “The Fourth Door”), but maybe I should just restart the whole thing and read them all…

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    • Well, look, let’s make it official: for my upcoming 500th post I will definitely reread The Fourth Door and then analyse how that jumping off point now compares with my own love of Halter’s work. So, if you wanna start reading Halter there will be a payoff sometime in February (always assuming, of course, that I keep up my current posting schedule once term begins…).

      Thanks for the kind words, too. I want to find a way to get more people involved in the recording of these things, but for the time being it’s lovely to know that people seem to enjoy listening to Dan talking sensibly while I interrupt him to blather on at great length.

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  7. This comment may be a bit late, but I’m really too excited to care.
    I went and checked the Paul Halter forum which is directly linked on his website and saw a thread about “La montre en or” (aka The Golden Watch). I checked it and noticed that someone had commented a email response from Paul Halter where he describes some of the plot of The Golden Watch, which I’ve pasted below.

    “Bonjour. Merci pour vos vœux et votre fidélité de lecteur. C’est avec plaisir que je lève (une petite partie seulement…) du voile du mystère, ou de la 4ème de couverture :
    Une maison sous la pluie, une grille de clôture, une femme terrifiée, un escalier en spirale, une montre en or… autant d’images vives qui hantent l’esprit troublé d’André Levêque, un jeune auteur dramatique. Ce sont là les seuls souvenirs d’un film vu lorsqu’il avait une dizaine d’années. Or, il éprouve aujourd’hui un besoin impérieux de le revoir. Cela stimulerait grandement son inspiration déclinante. Pour tenter de l’identifier, il va revisiter son enfance avec l’aide d’un psychanalyste…
    Mais il n’est jamais bon de remuer les cendres du passé, de vouloir faire parler les étoiles ou perturber le cours du temps. Ne serait-ce qu’en jouant avec une montre cassée. Car lorsque les aiguilles se mettent à tourner à l’envers, il y a danger…
    Bonne année à vous et à vos complices du forum
    Paul”

    It sounds very interesting, having some common Halter features while also reminding me of some more psychological modern novels. It sounds different from his usual work (based on this) so I’m excited to see the end product.

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    • It sounds quite pleasingly obscure in its precise form…and the last time that happened in English we got The Madman’s Room. So, hey, you never know…!

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  8. And now here.

    I don’t get the love for the The Tiger’s Head. I like how Halter ties everything together, but the impossibilities are (to me) his most banal. The Picture from the Past has this same issue, but there the impossibilities aren’t the focus of the narrative.

    Other than that I mostly agree with your picks. I go back and forth on The Invisible Circle. I think that looking at it from the perspective that it’s just Halter going wild without care for plausibility makes it easier to swallow (I now appreciate it more, thank you), but it’s a little too barmy for me. I wouldn’t make it someone’s first Halter, maybe a second or third. the first should be The Madman’s Room. Excellent book. Maybe The Night of the Wolf. I’d be willing to allow The Seventh Hypothesis or The Fourth Door, but the latter is a bit unusual and it’s been too long since I read the former! I must dig it out sometime.

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    • The impossible disappearance in T7H is a little simple, I agree, and I solved the “who” of the murder, if not quite the how on the lockedness of the room (which, I’ll be honest, I do sort of love — that trick has been tried in different forms several times, but Halter is the only one to actually get it past me). I love it for the tightness of the construction, though, which is something Halter can struggle with — much like Carr, aptly enough — and every piece slides into place perfectly. Same with Madman’s Room — grogeous elaboration on a central idea, spun into brilliant patterns.

      The Invisible Circle is pure, unadulterated bonkers, and never pretends to be anything else. I am amazed that people want to read it with a straight face. The impossible crime genre could do with a few more people going that wild that successfully. And The Fourth Door I’m rereading soon in order to make it the subject of post #500 in a couple of weeks, so if you want an excuse to dust it off now’s your chance.

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      • I might! I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I like having my order, and I doubt that I’ll get through my TBR list by then. But perhaps I can squeeze in a re-read, since I can skim it a bit.

        And by “disappearance” do you mean the “Suitcase Killer” murder? Because I can see why someone would like that one, the other was a tad too mundane for me, personally.

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        • Yeah, the killer trapped in the house from which there is no egress, only to not be there when the house was searched. It’s a little ‘Purloined Letter’ for my liking, but maybe I’ll like it more when I reread it…

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