Aaah, Christmas; time to drop into the comforting arms of the ones we know and love. I tried to mix things up a bit this year, starting two Christmas mysteries to review this week…but neither really worked for me, and so I’m following my own advice and adding another pre-blogging Paul Halter title to my archives. I distinctly remembered The Seventh Hypothesis (1991, tr. 2012) to be a doozy, with less of a focus on the impossibilities — though we get two in quick succession — and more attention drawn to a complex switchback of mellifluous plotting…so how’d it stand up to a second look? Rather well, as it turns out.
The question is, where to begin? Halter’s handling of impossible crimes remains one of the most brilliantly fulgent points of a subgenre not exactly lacking in ingenuity, and not just because he’s generally — generally, mind — surrounded these days by far more haggard kin. With the new supplemental edition to Robert Adey’s reference masterstroke Locked Room Murders (1991) about to bring to light the impossible crimes that were contemporary to this upon its original publication, it’s going to be even more obvious how much Halter shouldered the mantle virtually single-handed (er, sorry, mixing my metaphors there…), and the freshness he brought to things like killer rooms, invisible assailants, and sealed door attacks goes a long way to explaining my enthusiasm for his work. The two demonstrations here — the vanishing of a body in one place, and its appearance in another — are good, and both (separately) brilliantly motivated, but they’re really a small part of the wider picture.
Upon first reading this, I was struck with just how much sturm und drang there was in Halter’s plot construction, how much sheer thundering reversal and expectation-upending was thrown in for our delectation: the five chapters entitled ‘Peter Moore’s Story’ set up a challenge between two men — the actor Donald Ransome and playwright Sir Gordon Miller — and contain enough plot twists and shocking discoveries to fill most books. One of them must commit a murder and see the other hang for it…the added frisson being that we don’t know which of them is to be the killer and which the patsy. This second read was interesting because of the various hints and indications Halter works into his prose — and John Pugmire renders in English with equally fiendish cunning — as well as the little dry lightnesses which add a touch of comedy to proceedings:
Whether Archibald Hurst was an inept darts player or a Machiavellian strategist is a moot point…
At times, it’s true that Halter can get a little carried away with dragging his puppets through ever-more-gymnastic routines in order to wring maximum fun from his plots, but here — as in The Tiger’s Head (1991, tr. 2013), as yet unreviewed on this site — the balance of plot vs. mechanics is poised very finely indeed. Having read this before, and so remembering who the guilty person was, helped, but Halter also keeps a firm hand on things for the new reader. Additionally, there is a superb quotient of…if not exactly false solutions, then at least acknowledgement of possibilities: the title, after all, comes from the seven outcomes Twist and Hurst discuss as being possible, each distinct and intelligent in their own right — take that, J.J. Connington — but there’s also the small matter of murder when it does happen confounding expectations brilliantly and needing to be worked through with equal brio.
My only real complaint is that in the final summary by Dr. Alan Twist, where everything is laid bare, there are a few convenient cracks stepped over lightly — but it’s also true that certain indicators, while lacking the certainty Twist applies to them, are there to help nudge the unwilling reader. Sure, Perry Mason would get the killer off on a technicality or two, but given the criticism levelled at Halter’s lack of playing fair — and there is a point we’re not privvy to, which comes up in a dying message of sorts — it’s pleasing to see him attempt to draw in as many elements as possible without suddenly glomming onto an apparently irrelevant detail out of nowhere just to get coverage and so ruin the surprise. Who’d be a detective novelist, eh? Well, as it turns out, bloody thousands of people.
Most pleasing of all is how all the little creative flourishes — plague doctors, Maelzel’s chess-playing automaton (there’s a strong hint here towards a particular John Dickson Carr novel that I’ll not name and ask others to refrain from mentioning), the precise in-universe reasons for the impossible crimes that kick the whole thing off — come together in a near-seamless whole. Halter is no mere poseur in the genre, handling everything with an assurance and intelligence that actually gives us the adversary “as crafty as a barrel of monkeys and probably as perceptive as Holmes, Fell and Poirot combined” we’re promised. Too often, even in my limited reading of modern detective fiction, we’re simply left to make do with such a reference in the hope that invoking the names of the gods constitutes a good plot. Here, thankfully, we’re in far more accomplished hands.
Halter doesn’t need to pretend; what unfurls here cannot be impugned by comparison with those greats, and sits comfortably and easily alongside such names. Wow, the early 1990s may well have found him at the zenith of his career, with this, The Madman’s Room (1990), the aforementioned The Tiger’s Head, that defenestration from The Demon of Dartmoor (1993), The Lord of Misrule (1994), the written-in-one-night-powered-by-a-quart-of-whisky joyful toybox fossick of The Invisible Cirlce (1996), and stories like ‘The Night of the Wolf’ (1990). But then, aha, you’ve got later titles like The Phantom Passage (2005), ‘The Yellow Book’ (2017), and the wonderful no-footprints impossibility from The Gold Watch (2019). Okay, so maybe the early 1990s were one of the zeniths of his career.
Bring on the Paul Halter translation for 2020, I say. Can’t come soon enough!
Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated: