I had intended to reread The Tiger’s Head (1991) by Paul Halter for my 800th post next Thursday, as it is a permanent toss-up between this and The Madman’s Room (1990) for my favourite of the French maestro’s work thus far translated by John Pugmire. But then everything — everything — I tried to read this week struck me as turgid, tedious, and unbearable, and Ben at The Green Capsule had a wonderful time reading Halter’s The Phantom Passage (2005), and I thought “Why not bring it forward a week and actually enjoy myself for a change?”. So here we are, and I don’t regret it, not even for a moment.
Leadenham is “the happiest and most peaceful village to be found within thirty miles of London”, and yet will find itself the site of a variety of disturbing and unusual crimes. First, a variety of odd thefts occur — some hats, a lamppost, a candle from the church — and then an unclaimed suitcase at the local railway station will be discovered to contain the severed arms and legs of an unidentified young woman. And finally Major John MacGregor will lock himself and young Clive Farjeon in a room with five observed exits and apparently summon a genie from the eponymous bronze artifact that batters MacGregor to death and leaves Farjeon fighting for his life. Cue Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst…
One of the fairest criticisms levelled at Halter’s writing is that his books are often very busy, with subplots and side-streets thrown in to provide a frisson of intrigue or atmosphere — the paintings used to communicate with the police in The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005), for example — and then passed over or abandoned after a meager contribution to the overall story. One of my favourite memories of The Tiger’s Head, borne out in this reread, was how tightly the various threads wind when it comes to enabling the twists and revelations dished out at a fairly steady stream in the second half. The book is successful because it sets up a lot of questions and answers them in a way that builds the overall picture. As a piece of plotting — told over fractured, intersecting timelines to great effect — it is simply divine.
His characters work here, too. The opening stages left me a little uncertain about my positive memories, with all the principle players encountered in their distinct settings and the links between them often tenuous at best, but once everyone converges on Leadenham they fall into clear roles and interesting relationships: Carol Fortesque’s growing discomfiture at her husband Percival’s supposedly work-related absences is allowed to simmer alongside the revelation of what Percival carries around in his pocket; Mary Duncan, the vicar’s wife, conducts her own investigations into the unusual thefts; and Clive Farjeon alone is unconvinced by the increasingly gory and bizarre Stories of the East that Major MacGregor insists on telling night after night. When things begin to fall apart, these relationships matter — it’s not Proust, but it’s far better than the synopsis ‘a man is battered to death by a genie in a locked room’ might lead you to expect.
There’s also a lot more subtlety here than Halter’s nay-sayers will have you believe he can achieve. I’ll confess to forgetting the precise direction the revelations take, and one word really jumped out at me without me realising its significance. Pugmire also finds in Halter’s writing some superb descriptions, like the elderly doctor whose “frank, unblinking stare suggested he had nothing further to learn from humanity”, or the coquettish Jenny Olsen having about her “what it took to make some dream and others gossip”, and I love this exchange at Major MacGregor’s one evening:
“I remember the event I described so vividly because it occurred one week before a macabre discovery.”
The vicar cleared his throat:
“Don’t you feel the last story was enough?”
“It was market day,” continued the major, imperturbably. “The streets were swarming with people…”
Halter is far from perfect — he has a tendency to hide information by only showing you the start of a letter that breaks off just as we get to the relevant bit, or to write things like “He proceeded to talk for a long time in a quiet voice, without interruption” so that you know plans have been made without being told what they are — but these infelicities strike me as products both of the French mystery-writing school and of the impatience the era in which he was writing had for the classically-styled mystery. However, where it really matters, in the appearance and disappearance of that murderous genie, he is at pains to assure you that none of the lazy tropes of fourth-rate impossible crime stories shall be deployed: ruling out hidden passages, or turning keys with pliers, or picking locks, etc., and providing a piece of (on the part of one character) accidental misdirection that’s rather brazenly magnificent.
Some seven or eight years after first reading this, I’m quite giddy to discover that my positive impression of The Tiger’s Head is warranted. In a genre that thrives on the small details (Why would a killer abandon a body in a suitcase only a few hundred yards from where they live?!), this shows the brilliant work Halter did in keeping the puzzle tradition alive and advancing the impossible crime when both were thoroughly out of vogue. If he has written a better book that has not yet been translated — and, wow, wouldn’t that be something to get excited about — I sincerely hope we see it before too long.
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]*