Two Paul Halter books remain from my pre-blog my life, meaning I’ve read them but not put my thoughts down anywhere. Let us use this month of phantoms and superstition, then, to return to The Demon of Dartmoor (1993, tr. 2012).
Like most of us who read detective fiction as a play-along-at-home game, the joy of this genre when I first got into it was in having my expectations and suspicions up-ended — or, very occasionally, proved right — come the finale, as the intent and purpose of so many of the details which had passed right before my eyes (or not, grrr) became apparent. I would read blogs where someone talked about reading a book for the eighth time and think, But where’s the joy in that? The surprise is well and truly chewed flavourless by that time, surely a book has very little to offer on even its second read. Then I began rereading books, not least for my occasional Spoiler Warning posts, and started to awaken to the enjoyment that can be mined from seeing a clue brazenly flung down now its meaning is understood, marvelling at the chutzpah of an author being so willing to put everything on the line at key moments and potentially give the whole game away…yet trusting that their readership will fail to notice the significance of a phrase or the purpose of a side table (and it’s even more fun when you’re the one writing it).
I thoroughly looked forward to rereading The Demon of Dartmoor for this precise reason: there are a couple of wonderful moments that deserve to be cherished, like a man impossibly pushed out of a window by an invisible being, and a few elements — like the headless horseman, about whom more later — I knew now I could downplay in my mind and thus get a better appreciation of the design behind Halter’s brilliantly baffling scheme. I’ve told the story before about how, reading this for the first time on a plane, I exclaimed aloud when the working of that defenestration was revealed (ahem: “Fuck me, that’s brilliant!”), and I was very eager to be able to soak in the events and atmosphere around it this time, perhaps finding even more shade and light in Halter’s events.
So I’m a little shamefaced when I admit that I tore through this again at a gallop.
Goddamn, this book is fun. It’s not Halter at his most deviously inspired — that accolade, at least among his works translated into English, surely falls to The Madman’s Room (1990, tr. 2017) — but rarely has a book flown past so easily, and rarely have I enjoyed something more second time around as I did this. It benefits from a tight focus, from rarely over-reaching itself as Halter has a tendency to do, and from a series of simple explanations that dovetail well within each other, but mainly it’s just great fun, and probably the ideal Halter to begin with if you’re yet to encounter the man in any language.
The setup perhaps sounds more complex than it is: in the village of Stapleford on Dartmoor, three girls disappear over the course of three years, each at around the same time, and each having fallen from the top of Wish Tor, the rock formation on the edge of the village. In and of itself this isn’t too vexing, but for the fact that the girls were all seen approaching the tor “laughing and talking to someone” but without any second person present…a situation that gets only more complicated when witnesses claim to have seen the second victim fall from the tor as if shoved in the back when there was again nobody near her at the time.
“I’m quite sure there’s a creature straight out of hell living in the village in the guise of someone completely normal.”
And then things get more complicated still when the actor Nigel Manson moves into the nearby Trerice Manor which has stood empty since its mistress was shoved down the stairs by an invisible being…and is himself shoved from an upstairs window, with witnesses both inside and outside to swear that nobody was anywhere near him when he fell. The focus here, then, is clearly on how it’s possible that someone is rendering themselves invisible to commit these acts, and as such the utilisation of the same mystery over and over in a variety of settings gives the book a clear, tight intent that helps when Dr. Alan Twist accompanies Inspector Archibald Hurst to Stapleford to investigate Manson’s murder.
There’s also the town drunk seeing a headless horseman ride up into the sky, but ignore that. This book would be pretty close to perfect if that thread were taken out, and its resolution adds nothing to the understanding of events. Knowing how disappointing I found that element first time around greatly added to my enjoyment second time around, so I urge you to dismiss it from your mind and never to think about it ever again.
On the whole, this is divested of many of the metatextual references that can be so divisive — c.f. The Fourth Door (1987, tr. 1999), The Madman’s Room, etc. — with the playful stirring of the pot represented by chapter six being about as tongue-in-cheek as the author gets this time around. The rest of the narrative is played with an impressively straight face, and when Twist reaches the end and laments that “to have been stumped by such child’s play is enough to make me blush with shame” you can sort of see his point. And yet it is brilliantly confounding, an inspirational piece of construction that weaves in just enough detail to play along with the reader while hiding the essential simplicity of the trick by the sheer number of situations in which it must be applied.
Halter is also playing along with the genre’s tropes, too, which helps this feel like more of a period piece than it otherwise is. The Eternal Triangle represented by Nigel Manson, his wife Helen, and the young actress Nathalie Marvel is as classic a central setup as anything you’ll find in the Golden Age, with Helen’s “air of a timid deer, arousing the protective instinct of any normal red-blooded male” competing with the more, ahem, obvious charms of Miss Marvel (“all the woman had to offer was her brass neck and her platinum blonde hair,” Helen reflects with perfect savagery at one point). Dartmoor is hallowed ground in the detective story, too, as the setting of perhaps the most famous novel in the genre, and so makes fertile ground for the various superstitions that Halter needs to breathe inside his narrative for the air of unease to take root:
“This is one of those sinister ghost stories so much appreciated in that part of England. There probably isn’t a single square mile of Dartmoor that hasn’t experienced some tragic or mysterious event at some point in its history.”
In short, he gets the ingredients right, and if the mixing is a little off at times he does at least bake something which has plenty to surprise when…tasted? That metaphor got away from me a bit, but hopefully you know what I mean. Plus, something which goes underappreciated alongside Halter’s plotting acumen, translator John Pugmire wrangles some good sinister atmosphere out along the way, adding to the mystery with well-realised descriptions that tell you just enough without dragging the whole thing down in a morass of melodrama:
The last rays of daylight barely reached the ancestral portraits still hanging on the walls of the dark corridor which served as a gallery. In the fading light, only the eyes of the subjects were visible, seeming to stare unwelcomingly at the intruders.
Knowing second time around that the various explanations of the impossibilities were going to vary in depth and quality actually helped, too, since that defenestration is surely one of the best ever put on paper and so anything that share a book with it is going to suffer a little by comparison. And yet, each different phase is worked out expertly and slots minutely into the overall shape of the book — headless horseman aside, alas — retaining the tight focus and sense of simplicity that eventually results. Plus, you have a pair of detectives who bicker their way through (“Keep that kind of stuff for your conferences or your memoirs, old fruit. What I want is facts, nothing but facts.”) and seem to enjoy the process of reaching the answer as much as the reader is intended to, which is just a lovely experience all round.
Who knows? Doubtless when I read it again I’ll find even more to add to this. Provided, of course, I can slow down enough to remember to take more notes next 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 Demon of Dartmoor (1993) [trans. 2012]
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]*