PAUL HALTER, A MASTER OF LOCKED ROOMS, by John Pugmire
The two figures stand at the top of the hill and survey the desolate winter landscape, still and silent under the full moon. In front of them is a smaller hill. The man they are trailing has just begun his descent towards the frozen lake less than a hundred yards beyond.
Nothing else is moving in this lonely place. The snow has just stopped, leaving a thin, pristine blanket as far as the eye can see; the wind is creating small flurries in the baleful light. Now the two men walk slowly down into the small depression between the hills, temporarily losing sight of their quarry. They become aware of a strange intermittent whistling sound which can be heard above the wind, interrupted by a sudden, hideous scream. As they crest the brow of the new hill, they are stunned to see the inert form of the man they have been following lying at the edge of the snow-covered lake. Their eyes scour the landscape, from the slope of the hill down to the distant clumps of lakeside trees dimly visible in both directions. The only footprints that can be seen on land or lake are those forming a lone trail leading to the sprawling figure, evidently made by the victim himself; everywhere else there is powdery snow. They hasten down towards the lake, creating fresh tracks of their own. Reaching the body, they turn it over: the man has been stabbed through the heart. But there is no weapon to be seen, either on the surrounding ground or on the surface of the adjacent lake, where the flurries of snow are still dancing in the wind…
For those who yearn for the Golden Age of detective fiction and in particular for the classic “locked rooms” of John Dickson Carr, take heart: only the lack of a publisher stands between you and new-found happiness! Paul Halter, a forty-something Frenchman, has donned the mantle of the great JDC and has to date produced twenty-nine novels and a collection of short stories, all replete with cunning clues, brain-twisting puzzles and always “fair play” solutions. All in the grand manner … and all in French.
Paul Halter first came to prominence in 1987 when he won the Prix de Cognac, given for detective literature, with his first published novel La Quatrieme Porte (The Fourth Door). The following year he received one of the highest accolades in French mystery literature, the Prix du Roman d’Aventures, for Le Brouillard Rouge (The Red Fog). The first novel introduced M. Halter’s principal series detective, Dr. Alan Twist, a tall, thin, pipe-smoking Englishman in his late fifties, aided and abetted by the rambunctious Chief Inspector Archibald Hurst of Scotland Yard in whose lap seem to fall every impossible crime in the country, the country in question being England.
For, although Paul Halter hails from France, the vast majority of his novels are situated in England – because he feels it has a unique atmosphere, and because his beloved Carr and Christie both set the majority of their stories there. M. Halter, who was born in 1956 in Haguenau, Alsace (a region which for most of its history was a pawn in the Franco-German wars), dreamed initially of becoming a poet. That all changed when, as a teenager, he discovered Carr’s He Who Whispers and became immediately captivated by the locked-room genre, quickly devouring everything by Carr then available in French. Already writing stories for his own gratification, he nevertheless recognized that it was not a paying career and decided to train as an electronics engineer. Despite being, by continental standards, a best-selling author, it is still to this day necessary for him to augment his income as a writer by working part-time at communications giant France Telecom. Crime – at least Golden Age crime – doesn’t pay.
His first published novel, The Fourth Door, takes place in the late1940’s in a small English village, on the outskirts of which looms the sinister and forbidding Darnley House where, twenty years before, the lady of the mansion was found hideously slashed in a locked attic room. Since that time, mysterious noises emanating from the attic have driven every tenant away, until the arrival of a spiritualist couple who claim to be able to reach the deceased in the afterworld.
One of them decides to encounter the lost spirit by spending the night in the infamous room, which is sealed with wax bearing the imprint of a rare coin selected only minutes beforehand by one of the observers. When the seals are broken, the dead body of a stranger lies in the barren room, a dagger in its back. The window, of course, had been locked from within. Later, a second victim is found shot point-blank in an otherwise empty house, surrounded by virgin snow. Once again, the elusive murderer has found a way to vanish without trace….
One of the protagonists is a prodigal son obsessed with Houdini and his escape routines; he is seen at the same instant by two witnesses one hundred miles apart. And that’s just the first half of the book. Needless to say, Dr. Twist finds a perfectly rational explanation for everything.
The Red Fog is a more complex tale with undercurrents of Edgar Allan Poe, set in Victorian times and hence with a different detective. It starts with a typical Halter brain-twister: a magician has claimed to a group of young girls that he can conjure up a ghost. A makeshift theater has been created by curtaining off one end of a large room in the top floor of the rambling country house. The girls sit in chairs and sofas in one part of the room while the magician opens or lifts up each of the articles of furniture on stage to show that nobody else is there. The curtains close; there is a cry and a thud; and when the curtains are drawn back moments later, the magician is lying there stabbed to death.
The puzzle is actually solved halfway through the novel, but by that time the perpetrator has fled, and it is at that point that the Jack-the-Ripper murders start in London, the dark shadows form, and the story becomes decidedly more gruesome….
Just as Carr had two principal detectives, so too does Paul Halter. Owen Burns is a moneyed dilettante who lives in the London of the early 1900’s (and who seems to be based on none other than Oscar Wilde). He, too, specializes in impossible crimes, the more the merrier, solved inevitably with verve, grace, and good humor. In one of my personal favorites, Les Sept Merveilles du Crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime), Burns tracks down a disarmingly demented killer who perpetrates no less than seven “impossible crimes” before being caught; in Les Douze Crimes de Hercules (The Twelve Crimes of Hercules) he unmasks the perpetrator of a dozen crimes, about half of which are seemingly impossible – even the prolific M. Halter can’t string a dozen together in one book.
The extract at the beginning of this article is liberally adapted from another Burns book: Le Roi du Desordre (The Lord of Misrule). Halter has also set several of his books in ancient times, explaining among other things, how the Minotaur was slain!
I make no claims that Paul Halter is a master stylist in the manner of a Ruth Rendell or a Reginald Hill: the development of in-depth characterizations is not crucial to his stories. What Halter does do is to deliver cracking yarns loaded with dark menace, whole shoals of red herring, and, above all, diabolical puzzles worthy of The Master in his prime. Indeed, what is striking to those of us who felt that Carr had just about mined every possible locked-room seam – and whose later books seemed frankly bereft of new ideas – is the freshness and originality of Halter’s riddles.
It is no mean feat to create thirty or more puzzles worthy of Carr that the maestro himself never imagined. Furthermore, Halter, while every bit Carr’s rival in the creation of eerie atmosphere, is closer to today’s writers in his willingness to incorporate gore and horror more explicitly in his stories.
As for M. Halter himself, he stands as one of the very few authors prepared to defend the Golden Age banner, for which he offers no apology, cost him what it may. As Dr. Twist says in A 139 Pas de la Mort (139 Steps from Death):
“The mystery novel has become the vehicle for a social message and for exploring humanitarian and philosophical issues. It is almost indispensable these days to portray the police as corrupt and the murderer as the innocent victim of fate… There’s never any doubt about the identity of the villain: it’s always ‘society’. And all that, of course, while wallowing in the most stupefying utopianism.”
Is this defiance of the modern trend the reason why Paul Halter’s works, which have been translated into German, Italian, and Japanese, haven’t yet been published in English? Possibly. There has been no revival of interest in Carr’s work in the U.S. as there was in France in the 1980s, from which M. Halter undoubtedly benefited. And, despite the success of the JONATHAN CREEK impossible-crime series on British television, none of Carr’s work has been reprinted in the U.K. for many years.
Nevertheless, two of Halter’s short stories have made it into print here: one, “The Call of the Lorelei,” appeared in the July 2004 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and a second, “The Tunnel of Death,” is due to appear in the March/April 2005 double issue. Both are part of a collection of eight stories entitled The Night of the Wolf, seven of which are “locked room.” Bob Adey, the undisputed guru of the genre – who gave generously of his time to work closely with me on the translations via the Internet and transatlantic phone – calls the stories “little gems,” and says of Halter: “Not only does he come up with ingenious solutions, but he has a marvelous talent for inventing completely new impossible crime situations.”
Ed Hoch, the astonishingly prolific master of the impossible-crime short story, says: “As Paul Halter’s stories begin reaching American readers in EQMM and elsewhere, I think they’ll discover a combination of baffling mystery and eerie atmosphere not encountered since the glory days of John Dickson Carr. One of my great pleasures this year was reading English translations of eight Halter stories in a collection which I hope will find an American publisher soon.” Is it too much to hope that some enterprising independent publisher will take the risk of swimming against the tide?
As for the novels, The Fourth Door [La Quarta Porta in Italian] has already been translated into English, but it has not yet found a publisher “because the characters lack depth” according to one. Undeterred by this, work has nonetheless commenced on two more, all with M. Halter’s active and enthusiastic encouragement. Anglophile that he is, he dreams of the day he can see his works appear in English the world over.
PAUL HALTER: A Locked-Room / Impossible Crime Bibliography
Dr. Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst novels:
La Quatrieme Porte (The Fourth Door) 1988 [Prix du Roman Policier, Festival de Cognac, 1987]
La Mort Vous Invite (Death Invites You) 1989
La Mort Derriere le Rideau (Death Behind the Curtain) 1989
La Chambre du Fou (The Madman’s Room) 1990
La Septieme Hypothese (The Seventh Hypothesis) 1991
La Tete du Tigre (The Tiger’s Head) 1991
Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Devil of Dartmoor) 1993
A 139 Pas de la Mort (139 Steps from Death) 1994
L’Image Trouble (The Blurred Image) 1995
La Malediction de Barberousse (Redbeard’s Curse) 1995
L’Arbre aux Doigts Tordus (The Tree with the Twisted Fingers) 1996
Le Cri de la Sirene (The Siren’s Song) 1998
Meurtre dans un Manoir Anglais (Murder in an English Manor) 1999
[First appeared as a promotion with the French version of the game “Cluedo.”]
L’Homme Qui Aimait les Nuages (The Man who Loved Clouds) 1999
L’Allumette Sanglante (The Bloody Match) 2001
Le Toile de Penelope (Penelope’s Web) 2001
Owen Burns and Achilles Stock novels:
Le Roi du Desordre (The Lord of Misrule) 1994
Les Sept Merveilles du Crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime) 1997
Les Douze Crimes de Hercules (The Twelve Crimes of Hercules) 2001
Novels set in ancient Greece or Crete:
Le Crime de Dedale (The Crime of Daedalus) 1997
Le Geant de Pierre (The Stone Giant) 1998
Le Chemin de la Lumiere (The Path of Light) 2000
Le Brouillard Rouge (The Red Fog) 1988 [Prix du Roman d’Aventures, 1988]
Le Cercle Invisible (The Invisible Circle) 1996
Les Fleurs de Satan (Satan’s Flowers) 2002
Le Tigre Borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger) 2004
Short story collections:
La Nuit du Loup (The Night of the Wolf) [Nine stories, seven of which are impossible crimes]
Other mysteries (not “locked room”):
La Lettre Qui Tue (The Letter that Kills) 1997
Le Mystere de l’Allee des Anges (The Mystery of Angel Lane) 1999
This article and bibliography first appeared in Mystery*File 47, February 2005.
PAUL HALTER: FOUR REVIEWS, by John Pugmire
For those of you interested in learning more about Paul Halter, I offer four reviews, each of which represents a different aspect of his recent work:
Le Crime de Dedale: Daedalus’ crime was killing the Minotaur. (You thought it was Theseus whodunit? According to Halter, Daedalus – the da Vinci of ancient Crete – got there first!) He declares he will slay the creature while he himself is locked in another room of Minos’ palace. The Minotaur is kept in a room in a sunken chamber, down steps at the bottom of which is a door to which Minos himself has the only key. The chamber has an open roof around which are
stationed four soldiers under orders to survey the proceedings whenever Minos is down there. Minos leads Daedalus down to check the Minotaur is alive and returns him to his room. When Minos again leads Daedalus down, he finds the Minotaur’s throat has been cut.
The solution is completely without precedent, to my knowledge, and is brilliantly simple: as in Maskelyne’s celebrated walking-through-the-wall illusion, what appears to be the biggest impediment is in fact the key to the whole effect. (Footnote). This book is probably the best of Halter’s several excursions into the Ancient World, the others being Le Geant de Pierre (The Stone Giant) and Le Chemin de la Lumiere (The Path of Light), in each of which a present-day group of adventurers attempts to solve a mystery of the past from archaeological clues and the sections of the story alternate between past and present.
Les Sept Merveilles du Crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime) – which I am halfway through translating – is set in 1905 London and features Owen Burns with Inspector Wedekind as the police foil. A seemingly demented killer is sending paintings with warning notices containing clues concerning impending murders, each of which is linked in some way to a Wonder of the Ancient World, and each of which, when it occurs, turns out to have been impossible to commit: a lighthouse keeper is set aflame in the middle of a raging storm which prevents all access, an archer is felled by a shot from such a distance that proper aiming was out of the question, a man dies in a pergola surrounded by a sea of mud, etc., etc.
It is an astonishing feat to concoct seven entirely distinct and original impossible crimes – at least four of which are top drawer – within the covers of one book (the nearest competitor being Pierre Boileau with Six Crimes Sans Assassin which did have some repetition in the murders.) This may be my favorite Halter: the rapidly-moving plot, while containing the usual high content of twists and turns, is not quite as frenetic as The Fourth Door (with an impossible crime every third chapter, it doesn’t need to be) and the character development is better. The effete Burns – a more fully-developed character than Twist – is torn between his instincts as an investigator and his admiration for the ‘artistic’ (i.e murderous) abilities of the perpetrator. The identity of the latter comes as a true surprise, and the conclusion, every bit as extraordinary as the sequence of crimes, wraps everything up very satisfyingly.
Le Tigre Borgne (The One-Eyed Tiger). As Bob Adey has observed, Paul Halter’s genius lies not only in finding ingenious solutions, but in first dreaming up the impossible situations to be solved. Nowhere is this more evident than in Le Tigre Borgne, set in the British Raj of the 1870’s. A prince’s life has been threatened and he is due to die at midnight. He has taken refuge in a room at the top of his palace set in a crocodile-infested lake. There is no window in the room except for a viewing aperture three feet wide and one foot high. His only companion is a pet rat. The room is accessed from a courtyard guarded by a baby elephant, but to reach it one must pass through three doors, the first of which is a massive external door whose bolts are so stiff the strongest man can neither knock it down, nor move the bolts by reaching through the tiny side window. At the top of the stairs is an ante-chamber, also with a locked door. Finally, the internal bronze door to the prince’s room has a lock for which only one copy of the key exists, which is always on the royal person.
A squad of hand-picked royal guards patrols the perimeter of the palace at a frequency which makes it impossible to climb the sheer walls of the palace without detection. A larger squad patrols the banks of the lake. And, just in case all the foregoing is too easy, there’s another tower thirty feet away in the lake, from the top of which a limited view into the prince’s room is possible. A witness perched there sees a scuffle between two figures, one of which then vanishes, and the prince’s body is found with a knife in its back shortly thereafter. Every door is, of course, locked on the inside.
The story starts very slowly, but once the impossibilities are gradually unveiled the pace picks up and, hard as it may be to envisage, there really is a ‘fair-play’ solution. Oh, and Halter also throws in a solution to the Indian rope trick as a bonus…
Les Larmes de Sibyl (Sibyl's Tears), doesn’t contain any ‘locked-room’ puzzles per se, but the events therein do nevertheless appear to be almost impossible, and to solve the mystery requires all the skills Dr. Twist – accompanied by the irascible Hurst – can bring to bear. A gifted psychic suddenly appears in a Cornish village in search of Sibyl’s Tears, the name given by the locals to a hidden spring in the forest caused, legend has it, by tears from the legendary soothsaying sprite Sibyl. When challenged to use his powers to solve a crime committed several years beforehand, he describes clues which he himself doesn’t understand, but which nonetheless lead to discovery of the body. After that amazing success, he is asked to help with two other unsolved mysteries, with the same results. Before he has the chance to apply his psychic prowess to a fourth, he is murdered.
The pacing and character development are deftly handled and the reader is constantly wrong-footed by Halter, who juggles the several suspects in a masterly fashion before producing a stunning denouement. With this book, he
demonstrates he can not only write excellent stories in the Carr tradition, but is capable of work reminiscent of some of the best of Christie.
Footnote: I can explain the Maskelyne trick for anyone who doesn’t know it. It’s one of the all-time greats and diabolically clever.
PostScript: I understand that La Ruelle Fantome will be published next month (November 2005), and that henceforth the Burns stories will be published by Labor and the Twist stories by Le Masque. Tout se complique.
UPDATE [11-30-07]. Since this article first appeared there have been a number of novels published in French and a collection
of ten short stories, The Night of the Wolf, has appeared in English (Wildside Press, 2006). See below. For the latest information, please visit www.paulhalter.com.
Short stories in English: add “The Night of the Wolf” EQMM, May 2006
and “The Robber’s Grave” EQMM, June 2007
and another story in EQMM, sometime in 2008.
The Night of the Wolf, the 2006 collection of 10 short stories, received the following critical acclaim: a Publisher’s Weekly starred review, a EQMM four-star review, and was nominated for a Barry Award.
Dr Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst novels: add Les Larmes de Sibyl (Sibyl’s Tears) 2005 (Le Masque de l’Annee 2005)
Owen Burns and Achille Stock novels: add La Ruelle Fantome (The Phantom Passage) 2005
and La Chambre d’Horus (The Chamber of Horus) 2007
Other Novels: add Les Lunes Assassines (Killer Moons) 2006
Novels set in Ancient Greece or Crete: add La Nuit du Minotaure (The Night of the Minotaur). Set for publication 2008
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