For someone who wishes there was more ambition displayed in the modern impossible crime novel, I prove hard to please when Gallic maestro of the impossible Paul Halter stretches his wings into his more enterprising undertakings. I can’t shake the feeling that I rated The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999, tr. 2018) a little too harshly, and maybe in a couple of years I’ll feel that The Mask of the Vampire (2014, tr. 2022) deserves more than the three stars I’m giving it. Because, see, there is a lot of ambition here, and I want to celebrate the complexity of Halter’s intentions and achievements…but, I dunno, something just holds me back.
The novel finds us in 1901, in the town of Cleverley, where the mysterious Count Radovic — frequently absent from home — has become the object of the townsfolk’s ire. Not only did his two previous wives die in unusual circumstances, but a series of worrying attacks on local children perpetrated by one of the women have left the denizens of this otherwise-peaceful place up in arms and ready to believe anything. Add in rumours of the Count failing to appear in mirrors, and of a bat trying to force its way into someone’s room, and before you can say “Dracula was published four years ago” you have what appear to be some well-founded suspicions of, er, well, a creature of the night on the prowl. And that is only the beginning…
I have had a reasonable amount of time to think about this book, and I still don’t know where to begin in summarising it…and that, in part, is what makes me suspect that I might be selling it a little short. It seems to writhe like an eel every time I try to come to some opinion on it, since there are so many factors at play, and it’s difficult to keep them all straight in my head. At his best, as in The Madman’s Room (1990, tr. 2007) or The Phantom Passage (2005, tr. 2015), Halter’s scheme’s can be condensed to a simple line or two, their essence distilled so that the new reader gets some idea of what they’re taking on. Here, plots seem to bristle at every corner, so that the headline problem of vampirism probably isn’t even the main mystery of the piece…or maybe it is, because could a mysteriously-preserved corpse, plus the experiences of Ann Sheridan as she visits her friend Elena, the Count’s new wife, be the result of said vampirism? And what about the spiritualist church Life Beyond the Stars?
And all that has to fall into place alongside the locked room murder of Violet Starling, in which an overturned spinning wheel features significantly — just as it will in the vanishing of our suspected vampire from another locked room murder — or the murder, if murder it is, of John McCarthy, who had terrible things to confess before he died. Translator John Pugmire has already divulged that he cut about 50 pages from this novel in translating it, and it’s to be wondered whether doing so condensed things into something approaching a manageable shape or if, perhaps, it removed events which, in framing the puzzles which remain, provided a little more structure to the sprawling, fascinating mess that we have before us. Perhaps I’m going to have to learn French after all, just to find out.
Halter, however, is clearly having a blast, and why not? You don’t weave this sort of demented tapestry without throwing your whole heart into it, and I won’t deny that the eventual pattern which emerges is something close to magnificent in its design. The accusation could be levelled at Halter that he sometimes includes flourishes for the sake of flourishing — c.f. The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005) — and as such can under-develop certain ideas, and full credit is deserved here for how each piece actually plays a crucial part in the villainous plan in motion. You’ll struggle to keep it all in your head, though, and so the fact that Halter not only conceived of it but also managed to get it on the page might be more impressive than we realise.
Plus, any time spent with Owen Burns and his long-suffering Watson, Achilles Stock, is always a pleasure. I think I prefer the functional simplicity of his other series sleuth, Dr. Alan Twist, but Burns’ conceit is difficult not to enjoy…
“It’s well known that two heads are better than one, even if there is an enormous difference between the two intellects.”
…and the sections narrated by Stock contain some fabulous imagery (“His good hand was trembling so much that he almost set his moustache on fire as he tried to light yet another cigarette.”) and very neatly-parsed turns of phrase (“Like little Alice going through the looking glass, we had entered a place where the Cartesian logic of the police no longer applied.”). Plus, our author is clearly enjoying leaning once again into a classic novel by his most telling influence, extending his glee to some character names that drop as Easter eggs into the appropriately meta side of the narrative…though points off for a sentence “hissed” that I’m pretty sure contains no sibilants even in its original rendering (“But why did he do it?”).
Is Halter overreaching himself by promising “a locked room crime of the very first order” early on? Well…that depends. I loved the workings of most of these — the vampire turning into smoke and vanishing up a chimney is a beautifully clever piece of thinking, as is the simplicity behind both the scheme and the realisation of our malefactor being unreflected in mirrors — but, honestly, I’m going to need to reread this at least once to get a handle on what really happens, since there’s so much hearsay and contradiction that at times the only option seems, perhaps appropriately, that you give in and let the madness carry you. A wild, delirious time awaits you between these covers, and it’s a novel with oodles of ambition to spare…but once you’re done, it takes on a dreamlike quality that renders its events impossible to relate to another person. Although, since this means that others would have to read it themselves so that they can understand, maybe that’s deliberate.
Bravo, M. Halter; I shall be mulling this one over for a long, long time!
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]*