The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter

SeventhHypoIn preparing this review I took a moment to go back and read what I had written about previous Halter novels and was shocked by what I found. Folks – it’s been nearly FOUR MONTHS since I last read a Paul Halter.

That was The Phantom Passage, a novel I found to be a little disappointing in the way it was resolved. In the comments JJ suggested that I may want to take a look at The Seventh Hypothesis and I decided, for once, to actually follow-up on a Halter suggestion. I am glad I did because this novel is, to date, my favorite of his works I have read.

The plot is, as can be quite typical of his work, overstuffed with elements which can make it a challenge to summarize. The best I can offer is that Halter presents us with two crimes that, because of some coincidences, appear to be linked.

The novel opens with a policeman having a strange encounter with a man dressed as a medieval plague doctor. Soon afterwards he encounters a man dressed in the manner of a very old-fashioned doctor who addresses him as a confederate worried about where they have hidden a body. The policeman investigates, searching the three bins in turn without finding anything. The doctor pronounces himself a doctor of crime and, upon leaving, directs the policeman to look in a bin again where he finds a corpse.

Later the private secretary of a playwright comes to see Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst to tell them about his concerns regarding a conversation he overheard between his employer and a visitor. He tells them that the pair have made a murder pact in which one will commit a crime and try to blame it on the other. If that wasn’t confusing enough, at a key moment in their conversation one of the pair picked up a doll that resembled a plague doctor, calling back the first case.

In the past I have complained about feeling Halter incorporates too many ideas into a single story, opting for style and theatrical moments rather than logical plot developments. For instance, I took issue with some of the deaths in The Demon of Dartmoor which I felt stretched credibility. The Seventh Hypothesis follows the same pattern of incorporating a lot of ideas and incident into a very short page count and yet here the mixture works with those elements seeming to support each other.

Part of the reason I think it works so well here is the central conceit of the challenge between the playwright and his rival, a renowned actor, into which all of the other elements are folded. Halter wastes no time trying to convince us that what we are seeing may be coincidences or misunderstandings but he establishes at least some points in the secretary’s story to be true. He does this both by having the investigators discover inconsistencies in stories but also by directly showing us conversations between the two suspects, making us aware of their responses to some developments.

JJ calls the interactions between those two characters as being ‘a sumptuous, insanely dizzying whirligig’ and I heartily concur. I found both the report of their conversation and the meetings between them to be thoroughly intriguing and while this apparent narrowing of our field of suspects should be limiting, the construction of the plot helps ensure that the reader can never entirely trust the evidence they have before them.

What creates that ‘whirligig’ feel he alludes to is Halter’s breathless plotting. It is rare for a chapter to pass without a small revelation or incident taking place which changes our understanding of what is happening or significantly moves the case forwards. For instance, there are several further murders that take place after the discovery of that first body, making an already complicated case even harder to unravel. Even the secretary’s report of the conversation he overhears contains two or three significant reversals and revelations.

Halter’s stylistic flourishes are also very well executed, creating an unsettling oddness that may initially seem a little forced and yet fit perfectly into this very theatrical plot Halter constructs. While I enjoyed those early passages in which the doctors in historical dress talk about plague in the city, I did wonder if these existed just to create a sense of atmosphere but I was pleasantly surprised by the way he incorporates those costumes into the plot and makes them feel necessary rather than an indulgence.

The solution to the story is cleverly constructed and quite audacious. Each of the explanations makes sense as logical and consistent with the evidence and I thought some of the ways clues were utilized were quite novel. Some may question whether Twist proves all of his case and I do take their point – the most questionable revelations occur in the epilogue and while I guessed at them I do not know that he could have proved them – but the logical process he describes in reducing his suspect pool in the run up to the accusation makes perfect sense to me and I do think he proves his case mechanically, if not convincingly when it comes to motivation.

 

Given my fairly glowing sentiments about this book I guess the question I am left with is why isn’t this picked as a highlight of Halter’s oeuvre? My feeling is that it probably comes down to how, unlike much of his translated work, the mystery is neither an impossible crime nor a locked room. Aspects of it are certainly incredible and audacious and may look impossible but it is fairly simple to work out how the disappearing and reappearing body may have taken place. The challenge is in knitting all of these elements together to understand why these things occurred.

I enjoyed that challenge a lot and found the book to be stimulating, imaginative and satisfying right up to the conclusion. After this experience I certainly don’t think it will take four months for me to pick up another Halter – the only challenge will be deciding which one. Fortunately I still have a fair amount of his back catalog to work through…

All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch

ABIA word of warning before you begin – this is easily my longest post on the blog to date and, if you follow the Read More link, it contains story-by-story commentary on each of the fifteen cases contained in this volume. I don’t spoil the solutions but I do describe the premise of each story so if you don’t want to know the problems then I’d stay clear of those comments.

All But Impossible first came onto my radar when I read a very positive review of the collection from Puzzle Doctor who is a fan of these short stories which first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine between 1991 and 1999. I was excited and immediately went ahead and added all four volumes onto my wish list but, being an idiot, I wrote them down in reverse order and only realized my mistake when I was two stories into this collection.

Whoops.

I am happy to report though that I thoroughly enjoyed working my way through these stories. The various premises of the stories are varied and genuinely puzzling, almost all of them being impossible crimes or puzzles with an impossible element. There is no repetition between the stories here and many of the solutions are ingenious in their neatness and simplicity.

What particularly impressed me though are the handful of stories that are not only cleverly plotted but which pack an additional punch with a final paragraph revelation that may stick with you. I particularly recommend The Problem of the Country Mailbox and The Problem of the Enormous Owl in that regard.

As with any short story collection there are some weak points though only The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse and The Problem of the Unfound Door really disappointed me, each feeling less imaginative that the other stories in the collection. I would also add that the Kindle edition I read suffers from some issues with the formatting putting unexpected breaks in the middle of paragraphs which were initially quite distracting. Fortunately the quality of the stories here soon had me absorbed enough to overlook it but some may find this frustrating.

Overall I was very impressed with this first taste of Hoch’s work and I will look forward to exploring more of his work. If anyone has any recommendations beyond the Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories I would be glad to hear them!

Continue reading “All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch”

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown by Harry Stephen Keeler

SkulloftheWaltzingFor want of a better phrase, this stuff is bananas.

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown is a hard book to summarize because its plot takes a while to emerge and to point out its central theme will spoil several moments along the way. In short, the description I am about to offer really only scratches the surface of what this novel is about but it is probably the best I can do.

George Stannard, a shirt salesman, is returning from a business trip to Hawaii via the city of Chicago to answer a summons from his estranged uncle. He had only seen the said uncle once in his life as a five-year old as a falling out between uncle and father resulted in those ties being severed. His father, we learn, died recently and the uncle is looking to get George to do something for him. Precisely what that is will take most of the novel to uncover.

Much of The Skull of the Waltzing Clown unfolds in the form of a lengthy conversation between the two men in the course of a few hours. Once that conversation begins there are no third parties to distract or get in the way and the pair start to trade stories, asides and the occasional barb or pointed comment.

This lends the book something of a rambling and seemingly unfocused aspect that may be off-putting to some. If the reader hasn’t read a summary of the story they are likely to spend much of the novel wondering how these elements will connect and what the point of it all is. Then, in the ending, you should see how these apparent digressions still have a purpose and how there was unity of theme and concept all along.

Now, given that this is a mystery fiction blog, I do have to say that the mystery element here is similarly unfocused. There is no crime to investigate or murder to look into in spite of a strange challenge to the reader issued just before the halfway mark. Instead the reader’s task is to make sense of the conversations and work out what the point of the story is and how these ideas will fit together. I found this to be quite a fascinating process and loved the different elements that Keeler is able to explore such as the collection of old safes that the elder Stannard has bought and keeps in his basement or the strange drug Pau-Ho which knocks people out for over a month before acting as a truth serum for several days.

Those looking for a more conventional mystery may appreciate the short impossible crime story The Verdict which features in the narrative around two third of the way through. This comes about when George is asked to select a story to print in his Uncle’s pulp magazine off the slush pile and while this feels quite random and contrived at the time, I did appreciate the way that Keeler makes it relevant later in the text.

As an impossible crime story it is quite solid and entertaining in its own right. A man is found dead in a locked apartment, the only exit to which is a window with a ten story drop. The weapon, a Chinese knife, only has one set of fingerprints on – those of the person who packed the knife up to be shipped to the victim. The explanation of how it is done is quite wacky and not particularly convincing but I enjoyed reading the story anyway and felt it fit well with the overall tone of the whole novel.

While I did enjoy the way this story was plotted and, in particular, its unorthodox structure there were some elements, there were some aspects of the novel that were less successful or pleasing. The most prominent of these issues for me was the abundance of racist sentiments not only from a character who we are supposed to dislike for holding those views but also from George who is supposed to be a more sympathetic figure. Keeler also has him mimic Chinese dialect patterns for ‘humorous’ effect. These instances jarred with me, particularly in the earliest chapters of the novel where they feature most often.

A lesser frustration for me was the odd way that everyone seems to have in this story of writing letters as though they were being spoken out loud as they were being composed. There are little stumbles and errors that are left in for the reader and while that may make sense with some of the characters, in other cases the informality seems quite out-of-place. It’s a small thing but it did pull me out of things a bit at times.

My final issue with the novel is that there is an encounter which the book seems to trail and set up for the reader to anticipate that never happens. This seems odd because all of the other loose ends are tied up very efficiently and it is admittedly a very minor thing but I was waiting for some sort of payoff that never came.

Though the nature of this novel and some of the issues I had with the novel keep me from writing a broad recommendation, I did find this a fascinating and compelling read and admired how tightly it was constructed. Keeler’s story, characters and themes are powerful and while I had no idea where this was all headed until the last handful of pages, I enjoyed the experience of finding out how it was all connected. I am certainly curious to try some of his other work should any cross my path.

Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin

HouseofRainThe titular House of Rain is a striking three-story building in the shape of the Chinese character for Rain constructed on a mountain in Taiwan. It was designed for a wealthy car dealer who intended to retire there with his wife, daughter and father. The father died soon after they moved in however and some time later the others were murdered in horrific fashion.

Death in the House of Rain takes place around the time of the first anniversary of those tragic events. The house has now passed into the possession of that entrepreneur’s brother, an academic, who lives there with his daughter. The daughter invites her college friends to come and stay for the weekend while the professor asks Ruoping Lin, an assistant professor of philosophy and amateur detective, to help him work out the truth behind his brother’s murder.

Isolated when falling rocks block off the road, the residents of the house soon find that they are being picked off one by one as members of the party turn up dead in locked rooms. Ruoping Lin will not only need to solve that historical crime, he must also figure out how and why people are being murdered to prevent more deaths from occurring.

Death in the House of Rain is a very fast-paced read, managing to pack multiple locked room murders into a relatively brief page count while making each death seem quite striking and distinct. Several of these deaths feature some pretty macabre elements and a sense of doom seems to hang over the house, building anticipation of what is to come and that no one is truly safe.

It is those macabre touches that really stood out to me and give the novel much of its personality. The first death that happens in the present day was particularly effective as Lin does not show us the moment of death but rather the build up to it and then subsequently the bloody aftermath. I found this to be quite chilling and was happy that when an explanation for what happened is finally given that it didn’t diminish those feelings but rather that it lived up to this strange and grotesque scene.

Our primary sleuth, Ruoping Lin, does not make a particularly big impression either positively or negatively for much of the story. He is certainly not a showy figure, nor is he too closely involved with the events that take place. When the moment comes for him to explain what has happened he offers a very credible and ingenious account of what has happened and so I felt he fulfilled his role well. I will add that I loved the way he uses a landmark impossible crime text to support his reasoning.

We are given a pretty wide assortment of characters and it is not clear who are suspects and who are victims. Lin establishes the idea that any one of these characters might die early in the story and develops some interesting back stories for some of them that make them more than a stock set of types.

Perhaps the most striking character however is the house itself. I am growing more accustomed to the idea of peculiar architecture coinciding with impossible crimes but the house here is easily the most curious and foreboding of the ones I have encountered in impossible crime novels so far. Not only is the shape of the house genuinely eccentric, the building feels wonderfully detailed. There are multiple pages of plans (if you are reading the Kindle version be aware that these come before the table of contents so your device may skip over them) and I was struck by just how important the physical space was to establishing the tone and the events of the story.

While I was impressed by the book as a whole, I do have to note that there is an element of coincidence in several of the deaths. Any one of these deaths on their own would be unlikely but some may feel that it stretches credibility to have several such deaths all occurring in a short space of time. I appreciated that the author anticipates this complaint however and builds a rationale for his plot into his story that struck me as cleverly reasoned and sufficiently convincing for me to overlook it.

I was particularly pleased however by the coda to the book in which Lin takes us back to the initial murders from a year earlier and provides an explanation for what took place there. I felt that this made for a particularly satisfying and punchy ending that wrapped things up very tidily and provided a strong sense of closure.

Having read rave reviews of this novel when it first came out, I can only be sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading it for myself. This was my first experience of Szu-Yen Lin’s work and I can only hope that some other novels may eventually make it into English-language translation in the future as I found it to be a very exciting and compelling read.

 

Deadly Hall by John Dickson Carr

DeadlyHallDeadly Hall was one of John Dickson Carr’s historical novels, published towards the very end of his career. I would say that it seems to have a fairly poor reputation but that would imply that it is a topic of conversation. In fact remarkably few blogs I read have reviewed it and when it is mentioned it is usually in passing or as part of a list.

My expectations therefore were fairly low but there were a few parts of the scenario that gave me hope of a good read. Firstly, the New Orleans setting can be a rich source of gothic tension and dread which we all know Carr can do so well. And secondly the mention of a treasure hunt seemed quite promising and offered a different sort of mystery than my previous experiences of the author have provided.

The novel is set in 1927 which, though historical at the time of writing, was well within the author’s own lifetime. Jeff Caldwell, an author who has emigrated to France, receives a letter from a childhood friend asking him to visit the home that friend has inherited in Louisiana. He does so and we learn about a treasure of some gold that is supposedly hidden on the property that no one has been able to find. We also hear that some years earlier a man died in the middle of the night apparently falling to his death while walking up the staircase with a metal tray.

Another death will take place but since it happens exactly at the halfway point in the novel I do not intend to provide any details of that event except that it takes place in a locked room. This is rather a late point for a first death to occur in a novel and I do think it reflects that the novel suffers from some awkward pacing and structural issues. More on that in a moment.

There are two problems that the reader is tasked with solving. Firstly, is there a treasure, what is it and where is it hidden? Second, who or what is responsible for the deaths?

The first question was, for me, the more entertaining of the two though because I had been treating that element of the novel as being something of an afterthought or a bit of narrative color it came as a surprise to me. It is in this aspect of the story that I feel the author pulls off a rather wonderful trick that is simple but imaginative and had this been a short story focused on that part of the plot I would be full of praise.

Unfortunately the second question suffers because of the pacing of the novel. While Carr primes the pump by giving us some background on the historical death, the characters are existing in a rather aimless state. Even with the promise of a treasure hunt, they mill around talking about the fate of the house but there is little movement or action. Until the death happens, this strand of the narrative offers little to excite the reader.

Things improve once the body shows up but even then the investigation feels a little dry and long-winded. Accusations are made and we get some further background on the family but the crime lacks the genius or appeal to the imagination of Carr at his best. This is a shame because when the time comes to explaining how the thing was managed, Carr presents us with a pretty clever solution. Had the setup and execution of the investigation been a little tighter it is easy to see how this story might have had more impact.

Beyond the problems with the scenario itself, I feel the quality of the characterizations is also disappointing at times. While Jeff and Penny shared some amusing interactions and back story, the other characters often seemed a little flat. Being set in the South, the book also features some inelegant and misguided attempts to write African-American dialect for the servant characters that will grate on some readers.

The book works a little better as a historical, though it is far more self-conscious about making its references to events and aspects of the time than my previous experience of a Carr historical novel. There is a tendency for characters to predict historical developments that would take place within a few years and while those comments certainly help to place the action within a timeframe, they also have the unfortunate effect of making everyone seem very prescient. On a more positive note, I thought that the journey down the Mississippi by paddle steamer was very evocative and did a fabulous job of setting the mood, as did the references to prohibition.

Deadly Hall is not a great Carr by any means but I don’t want to suggest that it is without merit. There are some good ideas here which is remarkable given the author had been active for about forty years by this point and I think with a little reorganization and change of emphasis the story could have been tightened and improved.

While it may be a little lacking as a murder mystery, I do think the way Carr resolves the mystery of the hidden treasure very cleverly and for that trick alone I give him props. It shouldn’t be anyone’s first Carr read. I wouldn’t even suggest getting to it as early as I have done in your exploration of his work but it shouldn’t be discounted too quickly either. Even a lesser Carr work is still quite readable!

The Three Taps by Ronald Knox

51V0WAnUlmLBack in March I wrote about the first crime novel by Ronald Knox, The Viaduct Murder, which I found quite entertaining though I felt its final third was quite disappointing. The Three Taps was Knox’s second novel and the first to feature his series sleuth, Miles Bredon.

The novel opens with a length and very amusing description of the Indescribable Company, an insurance agency with considerable resources. We are following one of their clients, Mr. Mottram, who holds an Euthanasia Policy with them.

According to the terms of that policy, if he dies before his sixty-fifth birthday his beneficiaries would receive half a million pounds. Should he survive beyond that age then he is entitled to an annuity. Should he commit suicide however he would not be entitled to a penny.

The reason for his visit to the company is that he is looking to cash out of his policy early, against the terms and company practice. He explains that he has recently received a diagnosis that he will die within the next two years but rather than his heirs receiving a half million pounds upon his death, he is proposing that they terminate the policy and refund half of his premium payments instead so he can enjoy his final few months. This offer is politely refused and, after he has gone, the Company sends Miles to look into matters. Miles and his wife follow him to a hotel in the country where they discover he has died as a result of poisoning by gas in circumstances that are far from clear.

The problem is that there are features of the crime scene that are suggestive of both suicide and murder. For one thing the body is found in a room that has been locked from the inside. However it is noted that the gas taps are actually switched off in the room and the window is open while some of his actions the evening before do not seem to tally with those of a man who expects to kill himself. It’s an intriguing scenario that only becomes more confusing as we learn more about the circumstances of the death.

Knox’s sleuth, Miles Bredon, makes his first appearance here and it is clear that he is cut from a rather different mold than many of his contemporaries. While he is smart and perceptive, his attention will drift and he is described as being somewhat lethargic. This case does catch his interest however, in part because he lays a small (but soon to increase) bet on the outcome with the police officer investigating the death. The two of them will investigate this case together, sharing their findings while Miles’ wife also plays an important role in conducting some of the interviews and making suggestions.

I really enjoyed the interactions between Miles and Angela which are breezy and comedic in tone. Angela plays a significant part in this investigation and shows some strong detective skills of her own, working to extract information from sources, and keeps her husband on task. It’s a fun relationship and I think Knox uses them superbly, balancing the comedic interactions with serious, thoughtful detection.

Returning to the case itself, one of the most striking aspects of the book for me was that the author does not follow the usual template for novels that feature a death which looks like suicide. Typically in such stories the author takes pains to get past any such uncertainty and quickly establish that it is a case of murder before presenting us with a gallery of suspects.

Knox does not follow that game plan here at all, keeping the questions about the nature of the death open until very close to the end. That he manages to do so while keeping his plot fair play is laudable and he manages to do this by focusing less on the question of whodunit than pondering howdunit and whydunit.

The genius of the circumstances Knox outlines are that there is a tension within the evidence that seems impossible to resolve. If you accept that it was a case of suicide then how do you explain the evidence that suggests someone had been in the room after his death. If it is murder then why did someone go to the trouble of making it look like a suicide when that would remove the financial incentive for murder in the first place?

The solution that Knox gives us is really quite clever, both in terms of the mechanical way it was worked but also in its psychological aspects. I didn’t come close to figuring it out myself and while I think the technical explanation does become a little dry in those parts, I thought it presented some novel features that make it quite distinct.

As enjoyable as the book is however, it is not without a few problems. One of these relates to the ending where though I feel that while a piece of information is fairly clued, I am not sure that it was as well conveyed in the setup as it is in the final explanation. I somewhat suspect that this is one of those cases where contemporary audiences may have reacted differently to that piece of information.

The other is harder to explain without getting into spoilery territory which I’d like to avoid as much as possible. What I will say is that I think some aspects of the ending may run contrary to the reader’s expectations of what this sort of book is supposed to do. Those who like to focus on spotting the suspects may feel a little disappointed at how few options Knox gives us. That is not to say that those elements aren’t there, just that they are not as prominent as usual.

Overall I was far more impressed with The Three Taps than I had been with my previous foray into Knox’s work. There are some really solid ideas here and I thought the crime scene was enjoyably devious. Perhaps more importantly, I really liked Miles and Angela and will hope to be able to get back to them again soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In a locked room (Where)

The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko

MansionMurdersIt is the early hours of the morning and Yukie Hachisuka and her sign language teacher are talking when they hear the sound of someone walking and decide to open the curtains to look. When they do they observe Yukie’s father, businessman Kikuichirō Hachisuka, being shot through the heart with a crossbow.

When the two women instinctively leave their room to run down to him they are struck from behind, waking up several hours later. They discover that he is dead but there are signs that the body had been moved. Even more strangely, when the Police investigate they find that the room the murderer used belongs to Yūsaku Yano, the son of the family’s servants, who swears that he was fast asleep and that his door was locked from the inside.

The Police quickly settle on Yano as the only possible suspect they can see and they plan to arrest him but Kyōzō Hayami, an inspector of the Metropolitan Police Department, is persuaded by Yukie to try to find an alternative suspect. The Chief suggests that he might want to take a few days leave to investigate the matter and he and his colleague Kinoshita start to look into events.

The puzzle is a solid one though I was somewhat surprised that I worked out exactly how it was accomplished about two fifths of the way into the book. This is rather baffling to me as it is quite unlike me to have the first clue about solving an impossible crime, let alone getting it done so early in the text. When this sort of thing happens I usually caution that I may just have been lucky but I do think there are several significant details mentioned that may prove suggestive to seasoned readers of the genre.

While I may not have been amazed by the mechanics of how the crime was achieved, I am very happy to say that reaching that solution early did not diminish my enjoyment of the story for several reasons. For one, I could not be entirely certain of the identity of the killer. For another, there are some other aspects of the case that take a little longer to come into clear focus. But perhaps most importantly, I found Takemaru Abiko’s style to be highly entertaining and engaging.

Part of the way Abiko draws the reader in is by presenting us with a very likeable central character in the form of Kyōzō. He is not necessarily the sharpest investigator, nor the most brilliant mind but he possesses a simple charm. One of the things that really sticks out is when we first learn that he is attracted to Yukie and he reflects on how he feels lucky that he would have a successful relationship with her because she is the fiftieth woman he has fallen in love with but there are plenty of other fun details and thoughts within the text.

The other aspect of Abiko’s approach that I think sticks out is the restrained use of humor throughout the story. Combining comedy and crime can be a tricky business and there is always a risk that the jokes will overpower the narrative. Abiko avoids that by picking specific aspects of his story to provide humor while allowing the crime to be taken seriously.

One particularly rich source of humor is Kyōzō’s ability to compel Kinoshita to perform reckless or foolish acts. By the end of the book the reader will be anticipating the punch lines to these interactions but the pleasure comes in seeing just how Kinoshita will find himself injured again. Similarly I appreciated his frustrating interactions with his brother and sister who are both mystery fans and who each take on significant roles in the case, at one point giving their own version of Dr. Fell’s famous locked room lecture.

Though its puzzle may not be quite as ingeniously constructed as either The Moai Island Puzzle or The Decagon House Mystery, other shin honkaku titles published by Locked Room International, I think it is most accessible of the three and it might make a good first step for readers beginning to explore this style of Japanese crime writing. I am excited to see these works being made available in translation and hope that there may be further titles in the offing. Recommended.