In my recent conversation with Nick about Jonathan Creek, I reflected on how a chance encounter with that television programme ended up having a profound effect upon my interests. No less profound an effect was brought about by my purchasing of John Pugmire’s translation of The Fourth Door (1987, tr. 1999) by Paul Halter back in 2013. The annual Halter translations Pugmire publishes through Locked Room International are a highlight of my year, having provided a window on the French mystery in the Golden Age and beyond (thanks almost entirely to Pugmire’s translations of many other classics), and being a riotously fun time along the way.
Penelope’s Web (2001) is the most recent translation to come from Pugmire and Locked Room International, and it continues the carefree, wildly enjoyable repurposing of Golden Age tropes that marks out Halter as a fan of the puzzle plot’s history: an explorer returned from a distant land after being presumed dead for several years, complete with a dodgy-sounding story about how his convenient doppelgänger, whose body was identified as his, could have been so confused (“…sometimes exchanged our personal effects, depending on the tasks we were performing…”). He has also brought with him a MacGuffin that will enable the rest of the plot to happen: the spider Penelope, who spins webs of magnificent intricacy in a fraction of the time of your common-or-garden overseas spider. And so the stage is set…
And, well, that’s pretty much it. The question of identity is dragged out a little bit to add some intrigue, but the overwhelming focus here is on the murder that results — a shooting in a room with a watched door, with the only functional window covered by one of Penelope’s webs. There’s no mysticism, no background of superstition as in The Demon of Dartmoor (1993, tr. 2012) or The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999, tr. 2018), just a nice, simple country house murder with a small cast of suspicious types and Dr. Alan Twist tracking round after Inspector Archibald Hurst and making obscure proclamations before identifying the killer and their method come the end.
It’s a very un-Halter Halter, and apart from one pun and a butler who vouchsafes an opinion while clearing the table after a meal — in the 1930s! Imagine! — could come from the very heart of the genre’s heyday; hell, it even has the era’s slightly dismissive attitude to women down pat (“The small assembly waited: apprehensively, in the case of Ruth and Penelope; with self-control, in the case of Dr. Hughes, the major, and [the butler] Bates…”). Add a precocious child and the fact that the presumed-dead man’s wife has a form of macular degeneration that renders her virtually blind, and we couldn’t be more loaded with possibilities for Golden Age fun. There are even clues of a sort, not always the surest string on Halter’s bow, though more so in the matter of why than how — I’ll be honest, when the motive and all its attendant details came out towards the end, I was pretty impressed by the threads woven through the prose that I’d overlooked.
The impossible crime itself…well, that was less successful for me. When I first heard of the setup here, years before this translation was ever announced, I had idly speculated on some possible methods, and Halter uses the first one I devised (which, hey, leaves me two other ways to resolve this situation, so if I ever decided to write that copyright-baiting ‘parallel interpretation’ I now could), which I had already looked past and so failed to consider as an option here (if you’re interested, I thought more was happening in chapter 14 to clue us into a solution than it turns out really was…). I don’t know whether Halter was trying to misdirect me with one startling piece of behaviour, but it worked if he did and I felt like an idiot when the actual killer was eventually unmasked. Sometimes, it turns out, overthinking things can work in my favour.
The translation is clean and clear as always, though a couple of odd word choices — “annulment” doesn’t really apply in that situation, and the use of “through” in the explanation in chapter 22 is a little confusing — pulled me up. Mostly, though, it was just sort of thrilling to see Halter set out the sort of thing Ngaio Marsh might write and see it through without adding too much in the way of circumlocution or convolution. The urge to complicate might have been strong, but a simple tale simply told, especially in the output of so gifted a convolutionist, shows an adroitness that I might have honestly not previously imagined in Halter’s DNA. Could he have done more with it? Of course! Does it matter that he didn’t? Not in the least.
If you’re new to Halter, and if the more sedate stylings of the Golden Age are to your liking, this might even be the best starting point thus far translated: fans of Agatha Christie will find this not unlike some of her less involved plots. I could well believe that this would be the book to bring Halter to a wider audience, in fact: snaring them unsuspectingly, piquing their interest so that they investigate further until they either manage to shrug him off and escape or find themselves unable to pull away, almost as if caught on a…dammit, now what would be a suitable analogy for something like that?
Xavier @ The (old) Villa Rose: Because he has to deal with only one impossibility, which he solves brilliantly, Halter has more time for the larger plot which is more elegantly and soundly devised than usual with him. For once the reader has his chance to work parts of the truth out of the physical and psychological clues, and the guilty party is not arbitrary nor thrown out of thin air. The writing is tighter, with only occasional slips into clichés…and some characters are reasonably well-sketched, most particularly Major Brough. In the end, the book looks more like Christie than Carr, though neither would’ve condoned the second murder — a reminder that Halter-the-Bleak is always lurking in the backstages and that he takes no prisoners.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: It’s a minor Halter: a straightforward locked room mystery. It reads well; it’s brisk, rather light, but it lacks subplots and complexity. It doesn’t have his flaws (no psychologically improbable explanations, no poorly motivated situations, no likeable young men who are really Jack the Ripper), but it’s not as creative as his best works, either. Halter, unlike the tarantulas in this book, doesn’t weave a complex web of mystery.
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]*