Right, here we go: the final two Paul Halter stories from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine previously unreviewed on this blog. Oh, hang on a minute, what am I going to do next Tuesday…?
The March/April 2015 edition of EQMM brought us ‘The Wolf of Fenrir’ (2014) in which Owen Burns relates to Achilles Stock a no footprints murder which Stock was not on hand to witness himself because “you were lazing on the Riviera at the time, in the company of a young person whom you were convinced was the love of your life. When you realised, on your return, that it was not to be, you were so crestfallen that I didn’t care to add further to your discomfort by relating this sinister story”. Burns’ intention, it seems is to challenge the picture Stock has painted of him as “a mere thinking machine, nourished on mathematical inferences, and as cold and icy as this weather”. Though, well, it may not be an entirely successful attempt when, yet again, all this does is highlight how Burns’ particular brand of insight applies itself to seemingly baffling problems that confound the reason and emotion in those around him.
Invited by the wealthy Marcellus Blanchard to spend the weekend with a select party at his hunting lodge, Burns ends up in the snowy country retreat standing “in the heart of the countryside, on the edge of a forest of firs—dark sentinels standing out against the immaculate white of the snow”. The weekend party consists of the various high-rollers who comprise Blanchard’s usual set, including the beautiful Frida Prince who, she claims, has tamed the legendary Wolf of Fenrir that terrorises the locality but comes meekly to eat from her hand whenever she is in the vicinity. Indeed, each time Frida visits, she spends one night alone in the nearby cabin so that she might meet with the wolf who comes to her “warm and friendly, just like a pet dog—even though his mere presence terrified everyone else in the neighbourhood”. After spending that night in the cabin, Frida is then found murdered the following morning, with only the footprints of the man who discovered her in evidence in the snow…well, those and the tracks of the wolf.
Gotta be honest, I really like this story but for one element. The way the killer gains entry is a smart take on an old idea, the use of misdirection is canny, and some little flourishes — such as Frida’s snipe at the resident artist-in-training — are sharp and naturalistic at the same time. I’m not entirely sure a scheme relying so fully on Frida’s own compliance would completely work, but there’s a lovely visual aspect to the whole proceeding when you realise how the trick was worked, and it would make a fabulous moment on film or TV seeing how the killer…gets away, shall we say. The only problem I have? The wolf itself. It’s an unusual flourish that adds little to the proceedings, and feels a little too ridiculous for such a nifty little plot. Take that away — and, sure, I can understand the reason for it being included, given that the murder would have to be explained somehow — and with only a little reworking this would be a minor classic.
Finally for my purposes — I’ve read and reviewed the other EQMM Halter translations since then — is ‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’ (2015) from the May 2016 issue. The second-latest Alan Twist story I’m aware of — the in-universe chronology, I mean, with this being set in 1966 and one novel taking place in the early 1970s — we’re in no footprints territory again with a stir of prophetic dreaming. Janine Roussel married Antoine Dupuis a few years previously and, following an increasingly abusive and unpleasant marriage, is relieved to be freed by the death of her husband from entirely natural causes. Waking from a nightmare one night in which Antoine has returned from the grave and, dressed as a scarecrow, the menacing her with a pitchfork, she is calmed down by her father, sent back to bed, and wakes in the morning to find her uncle stabbed in the back by the pitchfork the scarecrow out the front of her father’s house was holding. To top it all off, not only are the only footprints in evidence those of the murdered man, but the scarecrow is also dressed in clothes that belonged to her dead husband. Enter Alan Twist, and a tangled tale begins to emerge.
Some aspects of this work better than others. For instance, that Janine’s marriage only became unbearable after…
Janine fell for a young man in the village as passionately as she had come to detest her husband, whose pathological jealousy she could no longer stand. Things got worse after Antoine beat the daylights out of his rival, who left the village shortly thereafter. Janine obtained a divorce, but Antoine, instead of following his rival’s example, stayed where he was—as the legal arrangements previously made by his father-in-law allowed him to do.
Now, sure, jealousy’s an ugly thing, but given that she appears to have fallen for someone else wouldn’t her husband be, like, a little justified in his feelings? It’s a minor point, but everyone seems keen to paint the man as a blackguard of the highest order when there’s surely a more interesting discussion to be had about culpability and perception. Equally, the action of Janine’s brother Marc that…is responsible for a certain event in the narrative is perhaps a little too convenient. However, the motive for the impossibility is excellent, as is the convenience of the insight that links the dream with the situation as it appears — the reason for the scarecrow’s wardrobe is something I really liked, though I can see others not being convinced by it.
To an extent, this story suffers from the same thing that holds back some of Halter’s more intriguing setups, namely that he tries to fit in so much when a little more simplicity would make it all clearer — though, arguably, the pieces here are stacked with greater neatness than say ‘The Gong of Doom’ even if I probably do prefer that story more. So, wow, make of that what you will. Where I feel the wolf could be removed from ‘The Wolf of Fenrir’ and the whole thing reworked slightly into a superbly simple-yet-complex problem, I can’t deny that removing any aspect of this one would unbalance the whole shebang, and Halter is to be commended for working in this many pieces into such a small space. No, it may not completely work, but such stories are a complex machine and very few are able to tinker with them to this degree.
And, hey, just as I think I catch up on all the translated fiction from Halter’s mind, look what the EQMM website has to disclose:
And, of course, there’s the brand new novel The Golden Watch (2019) sometime later this year. Man, life is good to us sometimes…
Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated: