With Paul Halter’s debut novel The Fourth Door (1987) being the subject of my 500th post this coming weekend, it’s time to dive into two more of his short stories from the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
A young couple in love, intending to marry; the besotted gentleman comes to meet with his intended’s guardian; the two men lock themselves in the latter’s study — with its weapons mounted on the walls — to discuss the matter and, inexplicably, the older man ends up dead from an impossible arrow wound. Yup, ‘The Gong of Doom’ (2010) from EQMM’s June 2010 issue is undoubtedly Halter riffing on Carter Dickson’s highly-regarded novel The Judas Window (1938), which starts with pretty much this exact setup. Halter must introduce new wrinkles, of course — the window to the room is open this time, rather than shuttered as in Dickson’s take — sand so the shot is rendered impossible by the absence of any footprints having been made in the snow outside for the last few hours (a visitor had left some time previously, and those prints are partially-filled). If the young man is innocent — and Alan Twist, telling the story from deep in an armchair in the comfortable confines of The Hades Club, that “meeting-place of a select circle of prosperous Londoners devoted to the discussion of puzzling mysteries, criminal and otherwise”, assures us that he was — then howdunnit?
I’ve never sought to make a secret of my love of a no-footprints puzzle, and this one shares aspects of some of my favourite mystery tropes: the deserted cul-de-sac which houses Colonel Henry Strange and his niece and charge Rose recalls the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Haunted Policeman’ (1939) recently collected in the British Library’s Miraculous Mysteries (2017) anthology as well as Halter’s own ‘The Abominable Snowman’ (2000), an impression reinforced by a snowman standing guard at the end of the cul-de-sac here as there, though this time with nothing more deadly than “an old broom; the traditional carrot for its nose; a battered old hat on its head; and an orange on top of the hat”. Mysteries in Cul-de-Sacs have been a favourite of mine ever since reading Dickson’s own ‘The Silver Curtain’ (1939), and I frankly don’t think I’ll ever tire of people being killed just outside (or just inside) a house where the only means of access appears impossible. A curious sub-sub-sub-genre to have as a favourite, but there you go.
I’ve also never sought to hide that the solution to The Judas Window is not really to my taste. And in spite of Twist’s assertion that he has told his friend Charles Cullen everything to reach the solution, the answer to this comes similarly out of nowhere. It makes a canny use of the “gong that rings without ever being struck” mythos of the eponymous instrument, and as a concept it’s lovely…but this is one of those tales where the success of the endeavour (if you can call it “success”…) is a one-on-several-billion chance, and that lessens the effectiveness for me. Though, frankly, the most unbelievable part of the whole story is that in the early 1920s anyone would be so cavalier with a fresh orange as to leave it out on top of a snowman.
July 2012 saw EQMM bring us ‘The Man with the Face of Clay’ (2011), featuring Halter’s other series partnership Owen Burns and his Watson, Achilles Stock. On “the afternoon of a singularly depressing winter day in 1912”, Stock, tiring of Burns’ self-aggrandising and arrogance, has arranged for the delectable Miss White to call on the detective with a most vexing problem. Just once, Stock tells us, “my fervent wish was that he would fail to solve” a baffling crime, resulting in the great detective climbing down from his high horse once in a while…though, naturally, we know how likely that is in the firmament of Genius Amateurs and their faintly disbelieving chroniclers (which raises for me yet again the question of why so little attention is paid to the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ (1893) — surely a lesson far more salutary than the one involving ‘the’ woman, and yet it is to Adler everyone runs when they want to cite Holmes’ misfires). Anyway, the case of Sir Jeremy Cavendish at least starts of confounding enough, with a hint of the supernatural following him back from a troubled excavation in Iraq, a la Howard Carter’s ‘doomed’ discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun…
‘Nimroud, Masul, Baghdad…all those exotic names. Chloe spoke to me about them each time she got a letter. Then, as I said, in the autumn Sir Jeremy came back. He had changed a lot. Not physically: he was still an attractive man. But he had become cautious and wary, and constantly on the look-out, as if he were being hunted. I didn’t know the results of his research, because he’d been very guarded about it. All I knew was that William Cavendish, his brother, had had an accident. Then, during the month of October, Sir Jeremy fell victim to a whole series of accidents.’
A mysterious fire, accusations of theft, and a curse put on him to the effect that “he would suffer for his blasphemous acts and would be cursed by Ishtar, one of the goddesses of ancient Mesopotamia” dogged Cavendish while away, and his return proves to be bearing this out: a mysterious visitor and a succession of unfortunate events will eventually be capped with murder most inexplicable: a shooting behind a locked door, which when broken down reveals an open window with no footprints outside and a gun in the victim’s hand with nary a fingerprint to be found upon its surface.
The solution here is one of those delightful inside-out affairs that play with the trappings of this type of story while also operating as a perfectly valid in-universe piece of reasoning. This doesn’t have quite the success of, say, Edward D. Hoch’s ‘The Problem of the Leather Man’ (1992) in fashioning a string of incidents into a fully surprising solution, but the simplicity Burns promises, including being able to resolve the conundrum with a single word, plays perfectly into Halter’s talents for resolving something seemingly without explanation into a delightfully possible set of events that account neatly for the problems posed. Not everyone will love it, especially given the talents for complexity Halter has evinced in his shorter works, but it’s a fun story with a good dose of atmosphere, and Stock’s eventual comeuppance is thankfully not played too heavily for the surprise it turns out not to be. All told, a good show.
Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated: