#611: The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2012]

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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:

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 Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) [trans. 2018]

Featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock

The Lord of Misrule (1994) [trans. 2006]
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) [trans. 2005] [w’ Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime]
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]
The Gold Watch (2019) [trans. 2019]

Standalones

The Invisible Circle (1996) [trans. 2014]

Collected short stories

The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004 w’ Adey]

Individual short stories, now 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]

24 thoughts on “#611: The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2012]

  1. Still one of my favorite Halter novels and one I would be tempted to pick up again off the back of this review were it not for the crushing weight of my TBR pile and the feeling I should probably blog about something soon…

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    • I’ve wanted to go back and revisit this one pretty much since I first read it, because there’s so much going on and I was really intrigued to see how it held up if you know what the answers are ahead of time. Yeah, okay, it gets a little hand wave-y around some of the points in the final chapter — nothing to do with the core plot or impossibilities, in case anyone is reading this comment and hasn’t read the book — but the overall design is wonderful And there’s a very, very clever criminal indeed at the heart of it all.

      I consider myself quite lucky that the Halter books I read pre-blog and so still need to reread to add onto here — The Invisible Circle, The Tiger’s Head, The Crimson Fog, The Demon of Dartmoor — are all such good books, and ones that I have such happy memories of reading. Filling out this library of Paul Halter reviews is going to be a project I’ll very much enjoy.

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  2. Wait, he wrote Invisible Circle in a night?

    Anyhow, I liked the Seventh Hypothesis. I saw through the main tricks almost immediately, but it kept me engaged. Surprisingly so, actually, considering that like a third of the book is a single conversation. I think the overall scheme was a bit over-the-top, but I’ve never really minded that. Especially in impossible crimes.

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    • No, sorry, don’t go away with the impression that he actually wrote The Invisible Circle in a single night, it just has (to me) that crazed, focussed energy of someone just blasting through something in a flood of creative inspiration. I like to image Halter sat as his desk at 3am, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, rattling it out on a typewriter in a single take, laughing to himself as he throws in ever more crazy ingredients. I can understand why people have a problem with the core concept of that book, but, man, I do so love its commitment to being as playful and creative as possible.

      As to The Seventh Hypothesis, I remember solving the appearing body impossibility almast on sight, and being a little disappointed that the explanations were held back right to the end…but, meh, the book is really more about that duel, and the switchback of suspicion — and the brilliant motivation of the impossibilities — was the overriding impression that clung to me. Going back for a second look, it’s definitely more of the focus, and knowing that certainly helped. This is why I try to temper my expectations before reading anything: Halter was at the time of my first reading something of a God of Impossibilities, and so seeing that demoted in importance was a touch deflating.

      But, hey, the book stands up in so many other ways, and the over-the-top nature of this and his other works is what compels him for me.

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      • While I definitely do appreciate the craziness of Invisible Circle, I feel like it definitely works against it when you get to the end — because by that point, you’re more than ever interested in the grand scheme of it all, and when the curtain falls off, you’re kinda left finding out that it doesn’t really… make much sense? I remember there being a point thinking: “you literally did the one thing that actively fucks up the whole objective of this.”

        While the motive of 7th Hypothesis was interesting, I felt like that reveal at the very end didn’t really impact me that much. Probably because a certain character wasn’t really given enough time in the spotlight.

        Overall, though, yeah, it turned out to be a fun read.

        Thinking about it now, I think the only Halter I haven’t read was Lord of Misrule… probably should get around to that at some point…

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        • While the motive of 7th Hypothesis was interesting, I felt like that reveal at the very end didn’t really impact me that much.

          This is what I was alluding to above; for me, there are certain element of the ending which just don’t quite draw on what came before as rigorously as I’d like — a couple of things are thrown in almost with a sort of “Oh, and this is the case” as if Twist knows what Halter wants the answer to be rather than because it works actually in-universe.

          I remember something like The Tiger’s Head being far more rigorous in the conclusions it draws, and that book remains for me pretty much the pinnacle of Halter’s translations to date — I guess I’ll see how much it stands up to that memory when I reread it probably some time next year. And it’s not like those elements ruin The Seventh Hypothesis, I’d just like them to be a little more secure.

          The Lord of Misrule is fun; Ben just posted a good review of it here, and I only disagree with one minor point, as seen in my comment at the end of the review.

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  3. “The early 1990s may well have found him at the zenith of his career…”
    Which makes me all the more interested in The Deadly Letter (1992) and 139 Steps From Death (1994). Who am I joking, I’m curious about them all. There are huge swaths of Halter’s career that we’ve hardly seen a glimpse of, such as the run of fourteen novels published between 2000 and 2010, out of which we only have The Phantom Passage. If we could only get three Halters translated each year…

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    • I temporarily tried improving my French, so that I might at some point read any Halters that don’t get translated — I am especially curious about Le Tigre Borgne — but, man, when working full time and having no-one to practice with, it becomes difficult to maintain. So I’m like you: hoping we get ’em, and wishing we got ’em faster 😁 So many books, so few reliable translators…

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      • JJ I just cannot believe the selfishness you have in prioritising maintaing a full time job, and reading hundreds of books a year to blog about them in superb depth, when you should be improving your french so you can read these Halters for us and tell us about the wonders we are missing! The cheak of some people.

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        • If we could only get three Halters translated each year…

          Or publish the translations as tomes containing two or three novels. Just imagine brand new translations of Penelope’s Web, The Twelve Crimes of Hercules and The One-Eyed Tiger within a single volume!

          I’m still with you when it comes to the brilliance and sheer enjoyment of The Seventh Hypothesis and The Invisible Circle.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, I think The Invisible Circle will be my next halter reread, ahead of whatever translation we’re getting in 2020. I had such fun with that book and, while I can understand why people don’t love it, I think it’s possibly the most fun I’ve ever felt an author to be having (Christie’s claims about Crooked House notwithstanding…). The Invisible Circle needs more love.

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  4. Great review and really interesting to see your thoughts on this on a second read.

    With that in mind, I am just re-reading Death Watch and being marvelled once more at Carr’s genius in hiding the killer and clewing so profoundly. My question about Halter is this. I don’t know if you have re-read many Halters yet and so had this experience a lot but knowing what you knew about this book ahead of time, what kind of clewer (if I can use such a phrase) is Halter? Where are the key points embedded? In the dialogue, setting, atmosphere or all of it? Did the clewing strike you as ingenious? I’m really just interested to hear, as again you mention here that Halter gets flack for lack of fair play, how he uses clews in his works.

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    • I…don’t really know how to answer that. I mean, has any author ever used primarily one form of clue delivery over another? Certain books lean towards an increased reliance on dialogue, say, because of the nature of the clues the author deployz — and, even with this consideration, there’s one book that uses its reliance on dialogue to deliver the most telling clue of the lot not using dialogue — but to boil down an author’s embedding of “the key points” across even three or four books to a particular form of delivery seems a fruitless task.

      And the cynic might point out that there’s a particular reason Carr is able to hide the guilty party do well in Death-Watch. Indeed, particularly with that book, I’m interested to eventually reread it knowing the core piece of misdirection used to see if the hiding of the killer is quite so effective without that…thing. That, at least, might explain why Carr does it…

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      • Good point, I think I created something of a false premise with my question that I hadn’t foreseen.

        In terms of the ‘Thing’ in Death Watch I’ll hopefully be tackling that somewhat (albeit from another angle) in the next post. That is if the ‘thing’ we are talking about is the same ‘thing’. I’ve never typed thing so many times.

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    • For context, I had advertised that I would review Have His Carcase this week before changing that to The Seventh Hypothesis.

      And, yes, I gave up on it. The first chapter is great, the next 86,000 words were a drag, and then I realised I was only on chapter 4 and after discovering a dead body and rushing to find a telephone we’d thankfully taken care of the important things like installing our protagonist in the most comfortable hotel in town, and using her association with Lord Peter Wimsey to get her a nice room with an attached bath, and phoning newspapers to ensure that she gets the first jump on this from a publicity perspective…all doubtless hilarious and trenchantly observed, but the book is 460 pages long, and I honestly can’t take too much of that sort of thing.

      Sayers will doubtless be the whisky I develop a taste for in later life, like Michael Innes, Gladys Mitchell, and obsessively cataloguing the birds that land in my back garden. I look forward to being told how wrong I am about this, and how because I also don’t like Ellery Queen my opinions are suspect, etc., etc. Verily, that is that joy that keeps me blogging.

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        • I think I might have to audiobook it, Ben. I’ve held onto the book, and will try again in a few years, but for now — and since someone gave me The Tragedy of X for Christmas, and so I must started girding my loins for that — I think there’s only so much misery I can subject myself to.

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      • Don’t worry, JJ, I hate Sayers, too, so when they come for you in the dead of night, they’ll drag me away as well. And as we stand together on the GAD – the Gallows At Dawn – and the hangman reaches for his first victim (that would be you, of course, because you dissed Ellery Queen), I’ll hold up a copy of Gaudy Night and recant to great cheers. And the following autumn, when Megs and I go to a Halloween party as Lord Peter and Harriet, we’ll raise a glass of absinthe to our fallen comrade and president of AFFABLE (Al-tair Fans For A Brighter London England)! Thank you, my friend: your sacrifice was not in vain.

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      • Dismissing Ellery Queen certainly makes your opinions very suspect 😉 but for once, you’re not completely wrong! I don’t hate Sayers but her overly romantic and snobbish style is often a problem. Wimsey and Harriet can be very pompous and unlikable at times….

        Having said that, I think some of her books are pretty clever and HHC is one of her strongest ones. I am opening myself to all sorts of ridicule by saying this but I definitely prefer her to Brand…..

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        • It was the prom ise of HHC being such a strong plot that made me want to take the plunge, and the first chapter is a lot of fun…and then, jeepers. So much divergence, surely only to introduce the reddest herring to ever herring, and then the comical shenanigans to find a phone — surely you could do that in a line or two, not eleven pages (“It was two hours later when, after several unsuccessful attempts, Harriet finally found a phone and was able to call the police” — it’s thinking like this that makes me look at the 400+ pages awaiting me and blanch a little).

          That said…I can sort of see where you’re coming from with your preference for Sayers over Brand. I get the impression that, were one to sit down Sayers and take her to task over how and what she wrote, she’d be able to explain the decisions that went into a lot of the redundancy. Brand — lovely and frothy and so, so invested in the wonderful people she brings to us to care about and be devastated for — would, I feel, simply like spending time with them and so write stuff purely because she herself wanted to simply enjoy being around them. If it serviced the plot, great, if not…well, you got The Rose in Darkness and would just have to lump it 😆

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  5. I’d always had a love-hate relationship with Sayers but recently I got Strong Poison from the local library. It is supposed to be one of her best. Well I lasted three chapters! I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. Wimsey as ever is a jerk but we also have to put up with the early stages of a romance with Harriet Vane. These two must be the most self-satisfied, smug, pompous pair in the whole of GAD and there is plenty of competition. Bah! Humbug 😊

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    • A lot of GAD romances are quite smug, though, aren’t they? Alleyn and Troy, Tommy and Tuppence, pretty much every BYT couple ever put on the page — all of them give me shudders to one extent or another (T&T, in fairness, do eventually calm down after two books of being far, far too pleased with themselves). The best romances in this sort of literature has an element of either the unrequited — Perry Mason and Della Street, Doug Selby and Sylvia Martin — or are pre-existing relationships that form some part of normality for the characters, like Jeff and Haila Troy (here are exceptions, of course — Jerry and Pam North would last about eighteen seconds in my house before I threw them out of the window).

      Maybe it’s because we typically get a detective story with love interruptions, and the author feels the need to inject some “spice” into those scenes so they don’t pall against the background of the actual reason most people would have bought the book in the first place. So we get lots of arch, “witty” dialogue and hilarious asides about how independent everyone is…and all anyone reading really wants to to find out who the bloody killer was!

      That said, Harriet without Peter around her neck is actually quite enjoyable…

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