Who doesn’t love a list? No-one who matters, that’s who. And since I’ve now read all twenty of the translated short stories of Paul Halter it seems inevitable that I should have my own preferences laid out for everyone to disagree with.
First, however, that twentieth story: ‘The Helm of Hades’ (2019), in the new March/April 2019 edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Thematically, we’re in similar waters to ‘The Man with the Face of Clay’ (2011): an archaeologist returned from exotic locales — in this case Conrad Berry “having spent two fruitless years digging in a site near Nafplio, in Peloponnesia, [being] on the point of leaving, when one of his workers had stumbled across traces of Mycenaean civilisation on the Doric site” — with a mixture of superstitious awe and vague promises/threats following him home. For Berry claims to have found the Helm of Hades, a bronze helmet that rendered the lord of the underworld invisible, and stories of unhappy occurrences seem to follow in its wake:
Previously, he had talked about two workers at the site being brutally attacked at twilight on the eve of departure. Not only had they been unable to identify the assailant, they had denied even seeing one. According to them, it was as if the rocks themselves had moved before falling on them… The nature of their injuries—severe bruises and a broken arm—meant that their story could not be taken lightly.
And so, with an appropriately eager crowd gathered at his house for the grand unveiling of the helmet, and what Berry claims will be indisputable proof of its provenance and efficacy, it is perhaps inevitable that Berry is attacked in his study while witnesses sit outside…and all are able to attest to footsteps passing them, doors opening, and items being knocked over as if some invisible being were making its way amongst them. And when those witnesses start to come under attack, it seems as if the wearer of the Helm of Hades has them all in their sights.
Cue Owen Burns, who is told the story some time after these events have transpired, and who is able to dismiss the events with the coldly rational reasoning that makes this sort of story such a joy. If I have one issue with what results, it’s that there’s really no evidence for any of it — sure, Burns posits a solution, but it’s not compelling in the sense that any aspect of it jumps out as inevitable in light of what has gone before. For all Burns’ prestigious reputation, this is a long way from the apotheosis of his reasoning, and in fact the hoopla he eventually strings together seems to invent minions and relationships that we have no other reason to believe. It’s fun, chock-a-block with incident, and one gets the sense of Burns’ own impetus in searching out the answers to these riddles, but it feels like a far longer story crammed into a smaller space for reasons of economy. And after his frank rudeness to Achilles Stock at the end of this, it is to be hoped that The Golden Watch (2019) finds Burns’ narrator feeling somewhat less obsequious towards his detective friend. But, well, the Watson never bites back, do they? Unless it’s Archie Goodwin, and he has no effect.
Having looked over a fair run of Halter’s short fiction in a fairly short space of time, then, it’s interesting to see the similarities in theme that stretch through them. Arguably the impossible crime short tends to veer more into ghosts and goblins and curses because it’s a short-cut to establish intrigue that a novel has more time to foster, and it’s not as if Halter falls back on this in every occasion, but the use of foreign climes or pre-existing mythologies is a rich vein that he has mined very intelligently: even when the story at the forefront of the narrative doesn’t quite work, the background that informs it typically sits very nicely against the idiom of story he’s telling. To pick two examples off the top of my head, the religiosity of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, say, or the mythology that sits in back of ‘The Call of the Lorelei’ — other examples could have been used to enrich these tales, but the choices Halter makes fit in very neatly with the type of misdirection he wishes to employ. There’s probably a study to be made of the myths and legends he’s employed, and were my French less execrable I’d love to pick his brains over these decisions…but, well, that will have to wait at least another ten years.
And so, to the ranking. Links to individual reviews can be found at the bottom of the post, this is just a quick sweep through my overall impressions. No need to draw this out, let’s get to it…
20. ‘Murder in Cognac’
It’s a dying message and an impossible poisoning, and it just does not work for my tastes. I’ve no idea if the vagaries of language meant another, more ambiguous or surprising, phrasing was used in the original French, but this is a brilliant example of why dying messages either work brilliantly or not at all. The method’s good, the principle’s interesting, but the execution holds it back.
19. ‘Nausicaa’s Ball’
One of those stories that would work better if it had stolen more liberally from the classic that probably inspired it — as it is, the setup is intriguing, but the contortions (physical and plot-related) required rest on split-second timing and/or staggeringly unperceptive witnesses, and using either this heavily always marks something down in my eyes. Would have loved it with Miss Marple, though, a sort of bizarro Christie-homage tone is what this really needs.
Non-impossible but not penalised for that — simply a good, fun, easy-to-anticipate story that packs in some nerdery while remaining sharp and affecting. It’s time like these, when Halter doesn’t have to cram in too much in the way of mechanics, that we get a glimpse of what a good plotter he can be. Like Carr, are we elevating his impossible crimes to the detriment of his ‘standard’ fare? I’ll probably never know…
17. ‘The Fires of Hell’
Reliant on coincidence perhaps a little too heavily to really work as effectively as it might, this tale of impossible-to-predicts arson attacks has some good ideas up its sleeve but possibly leans too heavily into goodwill in requiring you to overlook the somewhat brazen events. However, the atmosphere comes through a little more strongly here than in others, and the sense of confusion in well-evoked. Just a shame the reader won’t quite share in it.
16. ‘The Gong of Doom’
Reliant on coincidence perhaps a little too heavily to really work as effectively as it might, this tale of an impossible shooting has some good ideas up its sleeve and is best enjoyed as a “What if?” scenario for Carr’s The Judas Window (1938). Of course the totemic nature of that book means this comes off worse, and there’s one element of the solution that comes out of stark nowhere, but I liked its playfulness.
15. ‘The Helm of Hades’
What I didn’t say above, because I needed something to say here, is that it reminds me of Halter’s earlier novel The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005) — a good series of ideas, and one excellent piece of misdirection, but not enough space to let it breathe. Sometimes I think Halter should write twice as many stories by simply including half the ideas in them, and this is one such time.
14. ‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’
Reliant on coincidence perhaps a little too heavily to really…no, in fairness there’s only one piece of coincidence here, and while you won’t necessarily buy it I think the motive for the impossibility sets this one apart. It’s actually a little bit heartbreaking, and any case that gets Alan Twist out of an armchair and actually — gasp! — investigating the scene can’t be without points of interest.
13. ‘The Robber’s Grave’
Notable for its uncommon problem — simply being unable to get grass to grow on a patch of earth where a man wrongly executed for theft is buried — this plays the increasingly desperate efforts of the landowner with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Far from the most baffling of situations, it’s notable for simply bringing a new idea into the fray. Weirdly, reminds me of the staggering golf shot in Impossible Bliss (2001).
12. ‘The Abominable Snowman’
Wonderfully atmospheric, and told with genuine aplomb, this is only this far down because of one act that I just don’t quite think would be as easy to sell in reality as Halter makes it sound in prose. Rationally Explained Killer Snowman Fiction needs to be a thing, because as a challenge it’s majestic — I can’t think of anyone else who could have made this work, however, so it might be the most purely Halter story on this list.
11. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’
Impossible Falling from a Height stories struggle to explain themselves satisfactorily because, well, there are really only two ways to resolve them. Halter’s take is the second way, and benefits from some very subtle clewing and a good use of environment to account for the staging. Between this and Mac Reynolds’ The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) — resolved the first way, and poorly at that — I’ll take this every time, though.
10. ‘The Man with the Face of Clay’
The essential simplicity of this — existing as it does at the heart of a maelstrom of suspicious events and bizarre happenings — is one of those times the impossible crime story really excels itself. No, not everyone will go for it, but to my eye there’s an element of inverting expectations while also playing up them perfectly. A delicate balance, smartly managed.
9. ‘The Dead Dance at Night’
Moving coffins in a sealed crypt — classic. The famous crypt-based in possibility in Carr’s The Burning Court (1937) convinces me less and less the more I think about it (I’ll get to a post on that at some point…), but Halter’s answer (to, yes, a slightly different problem) is not only clever and workable but also decently clewed and fun to play along with. I solved it, too, which is always a nice feeling.
8. ‘The Wolf of Fenrir’
Perhaps controversially I feel this is better without the Wolf of Fenrir in it, because it’s a playful and visually interesting take on the no footprints murder (man, I wish I could stop making Carr references, but this beings The White Priory Murders (1934) to mind — though, worry not, the solution is distinct). Of all Halter’s work, this is perhaps the one I’d most like to see filmed, because that solution would work brilliantly.
7. ‘The Call of the Lorelei’
This should, no doubt, be contending for a top 3 spot, but, well, the fact that it takes place in a two-storey house just undoes it for me. That may sound odd, but if you’ve read it you might understand why. Could be salvaged with a floorplan that dealt with my particular issue, but until such a thing is inducted into official canon I’m going to rue the brilliance of this being so damn close to perfect and just falling short.
6. ‘The Tunnel of Death’
A shooting with no shooter, this suffers from a lack of suspects, but wins through because of how tidily it leads you astray within such a tight situation. Impressively free of ghostly overtones, too, it’s great to see an impossibility that doesn’t seek cover behind a curse or a vengeful spectre, and has the courage of its convictions to just throw it on your plate and go “There you go, you figure it out”.
5. ‘The Flower Girl’
Teeming with invention, and lacking only in the single instance where it tries to overreach itself, this is a gorgeous and actually quite moving example of the impossible crime used to uncommon ends: namely, proving the existence of Santa Claus. Halter’s rich take in moving away for the standard fare of the genre is perhaps never more evident than in this wonderful short, which deserves to be far better known.
4. ‘The Golden Ghost’
Didn’t know what to make of this when I first read it, which just goes to show how little you can trust your own perspectives sometimes. Upon second (and now third) reading it’s clearly a work of genius, devastating in its conclusions, and full of pent up fury at the injustices it addresses. A wonderful historical tale, with the eponymous ghost a minor part of a far larger and more complex scheme.
3. ‘The Yellow Book’
A séance, a murder foretold, and no footprints in the snow around the house when the crime is confirmed…three of my favourite things, all tied into a perfect little bundle. Yes, this recalls aspects of one of Halter’s novels, but it’s far sleeker here, and works in a good dose of chills that add to the mystical overtones introduced by being told the killer is at the séance at the time of the murder. Perfectly judged, an absolute delight.
2. ‘The Night of the Wolf’
To be honest, there’s nothing between second and first places except that first place has the far harder job of working in a less common arena. This no footprints murder is awesome, and if you get distracted by the closing lines then you’re missing the point entirely. If I ever wanted to commit a crime in a cabin surrounded by snow (sure, it’s unlikely, but it never hurts to dream…) I hope I manage to do it this smartly.
1. ‘The Cleaver’
Prophetic dreams are hard to sell, man. Sure, Agatha Christie had a god swing at it, but there’s far too much scope for anticipation in her take. This is easily one of the finest impossible crime tales ever written, with a dream giving rise to the discovery of a murder that matches it in every detail. Takes the principle of ‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’ and sells it so much more successfully. If you only read one impossible crime short story in your life then, frankly, what’s wrong with you? But also make this one of the twenty you might ever actively seek out.
Let the cacophony of disagreement commence!
Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated
Featuring Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst:
The Fourth Door (1987) [trans. 1999]
Death Invites You (1988) [trans. 2015]
The Madman’s Room (1990) [trans. 2017]
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) [trans. 2012]
The Tiger’s Head (1991) [trans. 2013]
The Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) [trans. 2018]
Penelope’s Web (2001) [trans. 2021]
Featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock:
The Invisible Circle (1996) [trans. 2014]
Collected short stories:
The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004 w’ Adey]
Individual short stories [* = collected in the anthology The Helm of Hades (2019)]:
‘Nausicaa’s Ball’ (2004) [trans. 2008 w’ Adey]*
‘The Robber’s Grave’ (2007) [trans. 2007 w’ Adey]*
‘The Gong of Doom’ (2010) [trans. 2010]*
‘The Man with the Face of Clay’ (2011) [trans. 2012]*
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (2014) [trans. 2014]*
‘The Wolf of Fenrir’ (2014) [trans. 2015]*
‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’ (2015) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) [trans. 2017]*
‘The Helm of Hades’ (2019) [trans. 2019]*