#797: The Tiger’s Head (1991) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2013]

Tiger's Head

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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]

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 [* = 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]*

27 thoughts on “#797: The Tiger’s Head (1991) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2013]

  1. This is a superb story and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it and getting to revisit it. There are a lot of great ideas at play here and I think Halter balances them really well. Definitely up there near the top of my favorite Halter reading experiences!

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    • When he’s good he’s really very, very good indeed, and being able to jump into something knowing that I broadly enjoyed it first time around is a pleasure with Halter in a way I don’t quite experience with other books as I reread them. Maybe it’s because Halter’s structure can be so unpredictable — he does love a sudden change of perspective — or maybe it’s just that reminder of finding out someone was actually writing original impossible crimes in the 1990s.

      Whatever it is, rereading these for the blog is always a pleasure.

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  2. Thanks for the review, JJ. 😊

    I recall enjoying this more than I anticipated I would. Based on some reviews it seemed like ‘Tiger’s Head’ would be a middling work within Halter’s oeuvre – but I found it to be one of his stronger efforts. I can’t remember the answer to the question, ‘Why would a killer abandon a body in a suitcase only a few hundred yards from where they live?!’ – which suggests to me that it might be time for a re-read? 🤔

    In any case, I’ve recently read ‘Penelope’s Web’ in Chinese, and as such can’t look forward to the coming LRI release. If only I had known LRI was working on a translation of ‘Penelope’s Web’… 😒

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    • I had some vague memories of parts of this — that question above among them, which is in part why discovering the answer all over again was so enjoyable.

      As to Penelope’s Web — did you enjoy it? I’m excited for it, and will buy it no matter what, but I’m intrigued as to how it stands up to Halter’s other translated works to date.

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      • Sorry for the delay in replying, JJ. To date I’ve read only 2 Halter novels in Chinese translation, and I recall preferring Penelope’s Web. 🕷 In comparison with all the Halter novels I’ve read, I’d be inclined to rank this among his stronger efforts.

        For me, Halter’s strongest and weakest puzzles fall under the same category of being “baroque”; the distinction, I think, resides in whether the over-the-top plotting manages to still makes some sense. And so “Invisible Circle”, “Picture from the Past” and “Death Invites You”all strain credulity – but I think the strain is greatest in “Invisible Circle”, and as such is, in my opinion, the weakest title of the three.

        And where the plotting veers away from being sensible, then the question for me is whether the violation is sufficiently compensated by ingenuity. The compensation, for me, is greatest in “Seventh Hypothesis” – and as such I regard it to be in a class of its own, superior to “Death Invites You” and “Picture from the Past”.

        Going back to “Penelope’s Web” – it strikes me to be a slightly different sort of Halter mystery. In that it isn’t quite as baroque as his usual work, and therefore automatically scores points for presenting a comparatively streamlined, sensible puzzle.

        But this also means it doesn’t score many points for surprising or transgressive ingenuity. In fact, one aspect of the resolution was somewhat predictable – but there were other aspects that were very clever. (I was going to specify – in spoiler-free terms of who/where/what/why/how – but realised that doing so might still spoil your experience of it. And so won’t invite your wrath! 😅)

        Anyway, it’s I think a solid and good mystery, both more credible than average Halter fare, but also not as creative as his strongest work. A strong entry in Halter’s oeuvre, I think.

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        • No apology needed — thanks for the feedback. I’m looking forward to Penelope’s Web even more now that you’ve broken down Halter’s various strengths so adroitly.

          And, man, The Invisible Cricle just can’t get a break, can it 😄 Goddamn, that book gets so much flak, like it’s not completely wonderful, and that continues to baffle me.

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          • I recall providing a review of ‘Invisible Event’ for one of the Halter celebrations you organised… And I recall not being overly-harsh then… 😆

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    • As much as I recall the strengths of The Tiger’s Head, I’ll admit that I too have forgotten enough about how it all comes together to where it will be worth rereading eventually. In part that’s probably because it’s all so crazy…

      As for Penelope’s Web, I seem to remember someone (Nick Fuller?) having a less than raving review. Like that’s going to stop me from reading it…

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    • For my taste, that fantastical element of it is explained well. Given the history fo the eldritch in impossible crimes can often rely on things like “But it was snowing!”, I reckon Halter’s deployment of, and explanation for believing in, a genie is pretty darn good.

      When you have time — 8,000 books from now, or four week’s reading in your case — it might be worth another look to refresh your memory.

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      • Is there not a section late on in the book where the witness to the genie just goes “now that I think about it, I provably just saw…”? The impression I came away with was that the belief in the genie was merely to service the plot, and given that was the central hook, that unravelled it. Right, going to have to re read this one as a matter of urgency…

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  3. Is t it strange? I couldn’t have read this more than two or three years ago, and yet I can’t remember most of the solution. I remember the following things:

    1. Who stole the objects (but I can’t remember why);
    2. I enjoyed the whole set-up and the characters – one of my favorite in Halter;
    3. I seem to recall having a bit of trouble understanding the concept behind the main impossibility, even with the map!!
    4. You didn’t mention this, but I seem to recall this containing one of those final “twists” that Halter loves on the very last page . . . and that I didn’t love it.

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    • I nearly mentioned the last page because we know some odd things have cropped up there — Alan Twist adopting a duck being one of the more normal occurrences.

      I think the final page, the final line, of this one is harking back to some of the Golden Age’s ‘surpeise!’ moments, when certain codes would be assumed and then thrown over to leave a strong impression. Not everyone will like it, of course, but it’s one of the better endings Halter has pulled out of (not quite) nowhere.

      And, yes, my memoires were similarly a little fragmented: I remembered the thefts, remembered the locked room, I remembered the vanishing murderer in a three-room dwelling…but the shape by which they were all drawn together was lost to me. And in a couple of key regards I was sble to come to this completely new again, which was lovely.

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      • The denouement, ie the bit after Twist talks to the villain, was impressive and rather shocking (and out of character? not sure). The fate of another character as revealed in the epilogue was just depressing…

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  4. I had a good impression of this one overall. I recall feeling quite indifferent while reading the last quarter of the book, since the solution to what I found to be the most compelling mystery – the death of the colonel and manifestation of the genie – had already been resolved by then. But on reflection I realise the structure had to be that way. It’s not his cleverest locked room, The Fourth Door beats it handily in that respect, but in terms of plot this is actually one of his densest, almost Carr-ian in the extent to which the confused events of the story are an amalgamation of devious scheme/s conspiring with fate and coincidence.

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    • Yeah, the combination of the different elements is superbly handled. The Madman’s Room might be more brilliantly audacious, but as a piece of “holy crap, that’s how that figures in”, Tiger’s Head is pretty darn hard to beat 🙂

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    • I think you nailed the way in which this is a somewhat Carr-ian book. It’s easy to make the lazy analogy between Carr and Halter due to the focus on impossible crimes, but really the strength of the connection is how Halter is able to structure layers of misdirection in stories like The Tiger’s Head, The Madman’s Room, and The Seventh Hypothesis. It reminds me most of Carr in the 30s – think Death Watch, The Mad Hatter Mystery, The Arabian Nights Mystery, Hag’s Nook – in which everything plays out in front of the reader’s eyes, but not in a way that they can piece together. Few other authors were capable of that.

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  5. I’ll need to re-read “Madman’s Room” at some point. I mean I enjoyed it – it was my introduction to Halter and I delighted in what a quick, easy and focussed read it was compared to, say, a Carr – but I think it suffered from my expecting a literal locked room mystery, back when that’s all I really wanted from these books, and then to come hot on the heels of one as exceptional as “Whistle up the Devil”, it was always destined to mildly disappoint. Had I read it at this stage of my impossible crime reading, I’d wager it would rate more highly.

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    • Certainly going into it expecting a show-stopping an impossible crime would leaves much to be desired; as a Halter novel, though, it’s a work of art. Given your enthusiasm for the man and his work, I hope you’re able to appreciate TMR more when you have time to come back to it. And what a happy day that will be!

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  6. Your third paragraph – the one about the criticisms of Halter and how The Tiger’s Head stands apart – hits the nail on the head. I’ve enjoyed every Halter story that I’ve read, but there are the occasional bitter moments at the end where some core chunk (or chunks) of the mystery gets waved off as being irrelevant. That’s balanced by the sheer enjoyment that you get from the solution to what Halter seems to have considered the core mystery, and so I always put the book down happy regardless. But yeah, tie off some of those threads in The Picture from the Past (possibly the worst offender), The Demon of Dartmoor, or The Lord of Misrule, and they would be absolute classics. I realize of course that “tie off some of those threads” translates into “come up with a brilliant solution”, so yeah, probably not fair.

    Anyway, The Tiger’s Head (and The Mad Man’s Room) stand apart in just how neatly the solutions come together. You thought there were multiple mysteries, but in a sense you were just seeing different angles of the same one.

    Here’s hoping that we both have some better reading luck in the future (I’ve been enjoying myself with my two reads since The Phantom Passage). If you happen to have finally purchased Four Corners vol 1/2 by Theodore Roscoe, I have to think that you’ll love them.

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    • This might be in part why I suspect I was a little harsh on The Man Who Loved Clouds — the threads are there and come together well, and some of the ideas are very striking. In a few years I’m going to revisit that book and probably enjoy it a heckuva lot more.

      Demon of Dartmoor is a fascinatingly over-stuffed book in my memory. That’s one of only two I read pre-blog not yet reviewed here, and I’m looking forward to getting to it in due course.

      Thanks for the reminder on Roscoe, too. Man, there are a lot of authors to keep track of all of a sudden…

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  7. I’m afraid I don’t remember any of the finer plot details, either, except Halter being difficult for difficulty’s sake without tripping all over himself, which is admirable. But didn’t think at the time it was one of his best. So a reread is probably in order.

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    • The level of rococo detail in Halter’s plotting actually makes him pretty good fodder for rereading, I’ve decided. There are so many little points and ideas, one can never hope to remember all of them, and it means an element of surprise is probably retained so long as you’re not returning to a book less than five years after you read it last — most excellent!

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  8. Pingback: The Tiger’s Head (1991/2013) by Paul Halter – a re-read – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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