The murderer known as the “Suitcase Killer,” who has been causing panic by leaving dismembered bodies in London’s railway stations, vanishes into thin air when cornered cutting up his latest victim. The detective team of Dr. Twist and Inspector Hurst receive a tip that he resides in Leadenham, a sleepy village twenty miles from the capital. Another resident, a retired major of the Indian Army, claims he can summon an evil genie by rubbing an artifact known as “The Head of the Tiger.” He and a doubter stay in a room where not only is every door and window locked from the inside, but each is guarded by a witness. Nevertheless, the major is found dead, and the doubter unconscious from wounds which could not have been self-inflicted, and there is nobody else in the room. Could the serial killer be an evil genie? Or is it possible that two murderers, each with the apparent ability to vanish at will, inhabit the same small village?
It has been a surprising amount of time since I last read and wrote about a Paul Halter novel though I have had several up near the top of my TBR list. The Tiger’s Head was my selection mostly because I was tantalized by its premise of a murder committed in a locked room by a genie. As it happens though this is just one of three mysteries within the novel.
Each of those three mysteries is presented as a separate case and yet have considerable overlap as they involve the same community and cast of characters. The first is the murder and dismemberment of several young women, the second is the murder of a retired major in a locked room and the final one is the ongoing series of thefts of seemingly random items of limited value around the small village of Leadenham.
Let’s start with the least of these – the thefts. Though it is introduced almost as a background storyline, Halter does not treat it as such. While it may not be the case that brings Dr. Twist to Leadenham, it has plenty of points of interest (not least that everyone in the village has an alibi for one or more of the crimes) and could easily have made for an entertaining short story in its own right. I certainly enjoyed the resolution and discovering how it played into the other story threads.
The second story thread, the murder of the Major, is the one that the novel is named for and it presents us with our most traditional locked room elements. There is, ostensibly, a supernatural element at play: the Major had told a story about how he had won the Tiger’s Head cane from a fakir while in India and that it contains a genie that can kill. The Major had challenged a friend to stay with him in a room where every door and window is locked from the inside and wait for the genie to appear. When their friends get worried they break into the room to find the Major dead and the doubter lying unconscious from head injuries, claiming that he saw and was attacked by the genie.
Now, I will say that I do not love the conceit of a room with the locked doors under observation by individuals – it is too obvious how this sort of a puzzle can be broken. Happily Halter gets on with it, almost immediately acknowledging that not everyone’s story can be true and getting on with trying to unpick people’s alibis.
This puzzle is, in my opinion, the cleverest of the three mechanically (while it plays fair, I would be astounded if anyone was able to deduce exactly how it was achieved) and if the book has a fault it may be that it chooses to present the solution to this three-quarters of the way through rather than at the close. Structurally there are some good reasons for this because of the ways the three stories connect but it does mean that the most intriguing and complex aspects of the narrative are already done as the book enters its endgame.
Twist and Hurst’s original reason for being in Leadenham is to hunt the ‘Suitcase Killer’, who has dismembered young women and put their limbs into suitcases which have been left at train stations. The premise is usually gruesome for Halter but I think he sets up the situation quite brilliantly, reminding me in some aspects of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries. Unfortunately it is one of those cases where I can’t really reveal which story it is without giving away some of the parallel plot points. I can say though that there are some really satisfying moments, not least one that comes at the end of one of the early chapters that actually had me gasping in surprise.
Readers may feel that this story thread does slide into the background a little too easily at points in the narrative given that we are talking about the actions of a serial killer who we should expect would strike again. I think though that Halter does present a credible reason why Twist and Hurst get distracted from this case and focus in on the other mysterious events taking place in Leadenham.
The explanation given for what happened and why is clever, particularly in how it relates to the other storylines. There is some very clever plotting and narrative sleight of hand at play here and while I think it plays its strongest surprise a little too early (and is mechanically fairly straightforward), I found the solution to be significantly more satisfying than I expected though I share Brad’s dissatisfaction with an aspect of the ending that does leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.
In spite of this however I have little difficulty in pronouncing this a triumph and one of the most satisfying experiences I have had with Halter to date. The quality of the run of books Halter produced between The Madman’s Room and The Demon of Dartmoor is truly impressive and while I think The Seventh Hypothesis is a more satisfying read overall, I think this is a close runner up winning points for its creativity and imagination.
JJ @ The Invisible Event has not written a review of this on his blog but he did discuss it on an episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast. He also includes it on his Five to Try: Starting Paul Halter post. Finally, it places highly on his Top 15 LRI publications list.
The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel also recommended the book, albeit with some reservations. These include feeling that one of the locked room resolutions is ‘utter rubbish’ and thinking a motive is over the top. I do agree with his general sentiment that Halter’s problem is often that he throws too many elements in, not giving them the room to be properly developed.
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog is not always Halter’s biggest fan but he says that he was pleasantly surprised for the first three quarters of the novel and loved one of the explanations for a locked room. Unfortunately his experience was spoiled by a final scene reveal and by Halter not really trying to hide whodunnit.
Ben @ The Green Capsule was responsible for pushing this book higher up my TBR when he reviewed it toward the end of last year. He comments on how no individual solution is brilliant but the way they are brought together is ‘misdirection at its finest’.