I am reliably informed by the product page on Amazon that I purchased the Kindle edition of The Fourth Door (1987, tr. 1999) — the first Paul Halter novel I ever read — on 19th May 2013. After nearly 6 years, 14 novels, 19 short stories, and 30 blog posts that included a celebration of his 60th birthday I’m going back to the beginning to see where it all began.
As well as being my own introduction to Halter, The Fourth Door was Halter’s introduction to the world as a wrangler of impossibilities. Both undertakings have endured — Halter proving to be amply capable of some staggeringly inventive reasoning when trying to get the impossible to happen, and me hoovering up with joy every word John Pugmire is able to put into a form that my simple brain can process. Since we’re talking about beginnings, the Locked Room International edition was also the beginning of an occasional trend in their covers, namely A Man in a Hat Looks into the Middle Distance:
The plot of The Fourth Door is astonishingly difficult to summarise, not merely for the simple reason of spoilers but because making the series of events that occur in the first half sound like a cohesive, structured narrative is nearly impossible. This is something we’d see again from Halter — c.f. The Madman’s Room (1990, tr. 2017), The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999, tr. 2018) — and this reread has brought back a lot of memories of the uncertainty I felt at precisely what the focus of the impossible crime plot was going to be. I mean, the plot summary on the back cover begins thus…:
Someone has volunteered to spend the night in the haunted room at the Darnley House. The room is sealed by pressing a unique coin, selected moments before, on the wax. But when the door is re-opened, someone else’s body is lying there, the seals are unbroken, and the coin has not left the possession of the witness.
…but we’re about halfway through before that occurs, by which point we’ve already had (deeeeep breath): the locked-room possibly-not-a-suicide of Mrs. Darnley behind the eponymous door to an attic room several years before, lights appearing in a room no-one goes into, a man having a premonitory dream about his mother’s death, a séance in which a message in a sealed envelope is read and responded to, ghostly footprints in an empty room, and the appearance of the same man simultaneously in London and Oxford. The swapped body behind that same door to a room rendered impossible to access then occurs on page 64 of 156 (!) and (I shall preserve the surprise) ten pages later we get another revelation that manages to cast any preconceptions you’ve managed to jump to into new doubt.
First time around, I recall it being a bit ADHD, but with possibly hundreds of hours reading, and thinking and writing about, Halter’s approach to the impossible crime I have to say that on second reading I was almost hooting for joy at times (that second revelation I hint at in the above paragraph, I’d entirely forgotten that and holy hell it’s magnificent). Additionally, many of the earlier events are passingly justified by our narrator James Stevens at the start of the second section of the book, and his speculative explanations strike a certain chord in how common sensical they are: grief plays a part, as does opportunism, as does simple greed. Indeed, I wasn’t entirely sure whether those explanations would end up being overturned by the end, or whether there would be a shrug and a narrative “Yup, that’s pretty much it” on page 152. Indeed, at each new stage of mystification Halter is able to offer up — either via James Stevens or the increasingly exasperated Inspector Drew — explanations or considerations of events that sound reasonably fair, and only seem to be undone by simple trifles that could themselves have been faked. So the revelations could be how something previously considered wrong was in fact right, and the disproof was where the error crept in.
I didn’t know, I’d no experience of Halter to base this on, but I was very much feeling my way without a huge amount of insight on what to expect. Was Halter genuinely adept in the wrangling of the impossible crime — those three words J____ D________ C____ linger so close to the surface whenever a comparison is made, and I was both determined and unwilling to believe it — or was he simply another poseur who had gotten lucky with some adept marketing? A lot of mystery novels are “in the style of Agatha Christie”, after all, and wouldn’t be fit to baffle Arthur Hastings. And for all the whirligig of explanation and counter-explanation, there was one key aspect of events that Halter was very squarely not looking at and clearly hoping we’d forget which simply had to be the solution for the body-swap and, honestly, left me rather underwhelmed. I remember much of my reading being powered by background impatience, a finicky repeated refrain of “Yeah, okay, let’s just get to that obvious answer…”.
Oh. Ye. Of. Little. Faith.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself because on rereading this, with a fair-to-moderate sense of what’s forthcoming (the precise details eluded my memory, including me remembering the false solution for the second murder as the true solution), I now appreciate just how damn tidily this book is put together. The solutions obviously intrigued me first time around, or it’s unlikely I would have read further, but if you’re picking this up as your first Halter, the best advice I can give you is to put your confidence just ahead of your doubts: the man knows what he’s doing in the main, even if some elements do underwhelm. But, yeesh, I was going to attempt to provide a plot summary, so let’s do that. Sorry, this is all pouring out in a breathless rush because I’m so thrilled at having found this such a good fun second time around; my editorial eye is all over the place at the moment.
Broadly, the plot of The Fourth Door centres around James Stevens, nineteen years old when the book begins, and his two set of neighbours the Darnleys and the Whites. It is Victor Darnley’s wife who was found covered in stab wounds and with both wrists slit in the bolted room at the top of their house some 10 years before our narrative opens, and rumours of a haunting presence in the house have persisted ever since: try as Victor Darnley might, he cannot get anyone who rents out the upper two floors of his house to stay for any length of time — unusual noises and lights from the attic inevitably drive them away, and he and his son John are simply resigned to a stream of short-term rents before the next people move in.
At the start of the book, James’ sister Elizabeth beseeches him to go and speak with Henry, the son of their other neighbour, the famous doctor-turned-author Arthur White, since she has ‘set her cap’ at young Hank and is finding his awkwardness around her vexing…to such an extent that she is considering the approaches of young John instead. It is during this evening, after putting away far more hard liquor than two 19 year-olds could reasonably be expected to manage, that Henry apparently dreams of his mother’s death and is phoned minutes later and informed that it has come to pass. Shortly thereafter, Patrick and Alice Latimer move into the Darnley house, a notable event since Alice is a medium of some repute, and at their earliest encounter with Arthur White she is able to perform the message-in-an-envelope routine in almost blissfully atmospheric conditions, and slowly Arthur’s conviction in her ability to contact the dead begins to grow.
Jump forward three years. Henry has disappeared, presumably to America, having first been seen in two places at once following suspicion of a crime falling upon him, and his father, ever under the spell of the Latimers, consents to an experiment that it is hoped will bring him into contact with his dear departed wife:
“One of us is going to stay in the haunted room. Naturally the room will be sealed. Every half-hour I shall go up and knock on the door to see if everything is all right. We shall need a trustworthy witness when the seals are removed so as to avoid the suspicion of trickery if the spirit does indeed materialise in one fashion or another.”
Here, finally, is where the threads begin to knit together, and a scheme emerges that will find apparently the wrong man dead and all manner of complications yet to be resolved. A second murder, in a house surrounded by unmarked snow, will also present itself, and to an extent I can understand my feeling of ADHD from the original experience of reading this since it really does seem a Herculean task not to prescind from certain occurrences within the plot purely to keep an eye on what’s happening in any given brace of chapters. And just to add to the fun, this is where Halter’s fanboy hat comes out and, along with the above arrangements recalling the likes of the room-that-kills problem in the sublime The Red Widow Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson and Arthur White’s own medicine-to-writing-to-spiritualism path matching Conan Doyle’s trajectory through reason and out the other side, we also get a character named John Carter (I’m assuming more a Dickson/Carr reference than an Edgar Rice Burroughs one…) and a treatise on the life and achievements of Harry Houdini before a staggering parallel is drawn that echoes one of Carr’s most controversial books (oh you know the one…).
And then, just as it beings to form some kind of pattern, with various explanations being drawn and then discarded, then Halter changes things dramatically in a way that both explains the seemingly over-stuffed nature of his book and also might come across to some as a bit of a lazy apology for it. There’s again previous here — think Jacques Futrelle — and I can see how the non-traditional nature of what emerges might frustrate some people, but given the higgledy-piggledy nature of what’s come before this is simply one more trick in the box, and if you were hoping for something a little less left-field then I imagine that’s precisely what Halter wanted you to expect. And in many ways this feels to me like the moment Halter really establishes himself — without this particular conceit this could be a notable and fun addition to the impossible crime firmament, but Halter is a game-player of broader talent and wants to make his first swing a little more memorable. While it’s true he would go on to produce more ‘standard’ fair of greater cunning — The Tiger’s Head (1991, tr. 2013), The Lord of Misrule (1994, tr. 2006), The Phantom Passage (2005, tr. 2015), etc — he would also exhibit as fixation with narrative that comes out superbly in some places, like The Picture from the Past (1995, tr. 2014), The Seventh Hypothesis (1991, tr. 2012), and short story ‘The Cleaver’.
The only real shame is that sometimes his answers are, as suspected during my first reading, the ones offered in speculation; the mysterious lights for one certainly could have been utilised in a slightly more compelling way, even if the aspects mentioned above — opportunism, greed, etc — do play perfectly into the picture he paints. Equally, the ghostly footsteps are explained, sure, but not in a way that you’d feel really evinces a gasp of “But, of course!” — rather more a raised eyebrow and a “Hmm, okay, sure”. Some of his answers are brilliant: the body-swap is ingenious, despite that needless distraction of the thing I was (incorrectly) certain laid bare the whole enterprise — it’s on page 69 of this paperback edition, see if you can recognise what I’m referring to — and the arc the Latimers fulfil is exquisitely plotted in both a narrative and meta-narrative sense; equally we don’t see much of Bob Farr, and you feel Henry is a little lucky to’ve found him and rather too touchy on the accusations made against his professional abilities as a result, but the way he plays into the wider scheme is nicely worked, and makes for a couple of superb moments.
Amidst all this fun, though, let’s not deny that some aspects go a little awry: the prophetic dream, and the solution for the no footprints murder (though I love the shenanigans with the _ _ l _ _ h _ _ e) are a little rushed over, as is Mrs. Darnley’s possible suicide. This element of how past events would inform present ones is something Halter would improve significantly in later works, as seen in the ways he would begin to work existing myths and legends into his works rather than relying on creating an entirely new backstory for his setups — c.f. The Invisible Circle (1996, tr. 2014), The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005). And I think this was something he took away and learned very quickly: that your threads need to be tied up, that you try not to put too much in (an aspect of Halter’s writing that persists in his most ambitious novels) unless you can make the pieces fit (a hallmark of his most successful ones).
It’s also true that there’s very little in the way of ratiocination and detection — when Alan Twist eventually appears on the scene he does a little digging and is simply told some stuff, but most of what is unpicked is done so via confession or “Well, I imagine it happened like this” surmise. It’s true that there’s a faint French tradition of this evident in the French-language classics we’ve seen Locked Room International bring us since — both The House That Kills (1932, tr. 2015) and The Howling Beast (1934, tr. 2016) by Noel Vindry are long on confoundment and short on detection, seeing as someone either confesses or simply realises the truth — but I’ll defer to the greater experience of those who have read more widely in the detection roots of that culture whether this is a prevailing trend or simply an illustrative coincidence. This does leave space for a Pierre Bayard-style What Really Happened Behind the Fourth Door reinterpretation, however, so feel free to get your thinking caps on…
The Fourth Door, then, is a wildly creative, flawed work whose promise has been fulfilled in the works of Halter’s we’ve seen cross the language barrier. It was a blast rereading this and remembering the anticipation and relief I felt when the best answers finally arrived, and the little niggles that persist come the end have arguably been addressed in those later works. Indeed, some of those later books I would consider stone cold classics of the genre, and each new translation has simply been further fuel to raise my excitement for the next. After 32 years this stands up as the opening salvo of a career that’s worked hard to sustain originality in the hardest game in the world, and I’m fascinated to see how those three decades of experience contribute to The Golden Watch (2019) due later this year.