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…

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.

 

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.

Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith

Paddington

Come to Paddington Fair is quite a curious novel and, as much as I was enjoying it, I spent a fair portion of the book waiting for something impossible to happen. It was being republished by Locked Room International after all.

The usual pattern of an impossible crime novel is that you are presented with an incredible crime and the detectives break it down to show how it could have been performed. Here the book opens with what seems to be a clear assassination committed by an easily identified suspect but our detectives will not accept that solution and soon find evidence confirming that view.

Before going further though let me step back and explain the circumstances of the murder, at least in a vague way.

Chief Inspector Castle receives two tickets to attend a play from an anonymous benefactor. At a key moment in the play the male lead is supposed to shoot the female lead using a gun filled with blanks. We learn that prior to the performance the male lead has been behaving erratically and routinely arriving on set inebriated and they have had a big fight, though we do not yet know what they are arguing about.

During the play at the moment at which the on-stage shooting should take place, a man in the audience produces a gun and appears to shoot the female lead before failing to make his escape. The man is arrested and recognized before being taken into custody on the suspicion of murder.

There are some fantastic ideas at play in this story and I did admire the careful construction of this plot, particularly in the ending which caught me wonderfully by surprise. The plot the killer has devised is simple which I tend to find makes for some of the most successful mysteries.

I particularly enjoyed the theatrical setting which I feel is well observed and filled with believable types of character. There is plenty of backstage rivalry as well as the usual resentments about others’ success and several characters are quick to acknowledge that someone else’s misfortune might be the start of their own success if they are promoted from understudy for a performance or two.

Another aspect of the book I responded strongly to was the way it provided the reader with a seemingly disconnected story strand in the opening chapters and trusted that we would wait for the linkages to become clear. At first this seems completely disconnected from the rest of the tale yet I felt that it stitched together rather well with the main narrative once the connection was understood.

Once the investigation gets well underway, I did find my interest was waning at moments. This is partly because it takes on a rather technical tone based upon opportunity rather than motivation and there are relatively few big revelations in the middle third of the novel. I also suspect it had something to do with my finding Lawrence and Castle a trifle dull as investigators.

Things change considerably in the final third of the novel however as an impossibility finally comes into focus and some characters’ motivations become clearer. I thought the ending was a cracker and I felt that the killer’s plans made a lot of sense. Finally, there is even a Challenge to the Reader page heading into the final chapters – something that always will make me smile.

So, where does that leave me on Come to Paddington Fair overall? I think that the ending significantly raised my enjoyment of the book yet I have to acknowledge that I found the middle of the investigation to be solid but uninspiring fare. This slower section becomes more understandable once you see the impossibility come into view in that final third and it is quite thrilling to see it dealt with as quickly as it is here – something that is only possible because of the facts established in the middle of the novel.

The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter

PhantomPassageWhat if there was an alleyway that could not be found on any recent maps, that appeared from nowhere and seemed to disappear the moment those who found it have left?

American diplomat Ralph Tierney turns up at Owen Burns’ room, seeking out his old friend with such a tale. He tells Owen and Achilles Stock that he had stumbled upon the passage and witnessed a strange vision in a room on the second floor of a house there. When he fled the passage and tried to find his way back it, and the landmarks that guided him to it, seemed to have vanished completely.

When Owen and Achilles start to look into this they discover previous accounts of similar experiences and that the visions experienced in that room have either happened in the past or will happen in the future. Could this passage really be showing people events from the past or future or is there some sinister design behind it?

The Phantom Passage is, for much of its duration, a truly inventive and bewildering read. Halter skillfully introduces and plays with the concept of a supernatural occurrence. The idea of this passageway into the past and future is so fantastical and its physical presence seems to be so clearly disproved that at times it seems the only possible explanation.

As Owen and Achilles investigate the stories of those who have encountered this passageway before we are introduced to a few striking characters and get to hear of further seemingly bizarre events. By the time we get to the point of revelation I was aching to know how Halter would explain away some of those strange little points of interest in the case and make sense of what seems a truly bizarre set of events.

Unfortunately when that time comes, Halter’s explanation struck me as unconvincing. I did not find it at all credible that anybody who had the motive given in this novel would devise this convoluted method to execute their plans. There seemed to be too much coincidence and too many moments in which those plans might go wrong to make any sense of those choices.

The problem, for me, is that even in that resolution there are individual elements that I think work really well. Ideas that, taken in isolation, make sense and which can be quite effective but that never stitch together to make a convincing whole psychologically, even if they mechanically make sense.

This is particularly frustrating because the book up until the final two chapters is highly enjoyable. While it is quite a short read in terms of its page count, I stretched it out taking regular breaks to consider just how the effects may have been achieved. For all that thought and concentration, I don’t think I ever achieved the full explanation.

I also have to say that I really like Owen Burns and Achilles Stock as a detective pairing and how distinct they feel from his other series pairing of Twist and Hurst. Both characters get some strong moments but I particularly appreciated a lengthy sequence featuring Stock towards the end of the novel and its repercussions. I certainly look forward to trying some other stories with this pairing.

I really enjoyed reading this book up until its final two chapters but because of my frustrations with its explanation I can’t recommend it and would likely place it lowest of the Halter novels that I have read so far. That is in spite of having enjoyed it more than Death Invites You and about as much as The Madman’s Room. I think the enjoyment of the ride probably makes up for its conclusion and so while I ultimately felt frustrated by the novel, I would suggest that you check out one of the more positive reviews out there such as JJ’s and check it out for yourself.

 

The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter

DemonBack when I posted my review of the first Halter I had read, Death Invites You, I received a number of excellent suggestions of what I should try next. I took them to heart, put them all on my wishlist, and promptly picked a book nobody had mentioned. Fortunately I loved it but for my third pick I went back to those suggestions and picked a book most people seemed to love – The Demon of Dartmoor.

Have you ever read a book where there’s a little detail that just seems to bother you based on some personal knowledge you have? Well, naming a house in Devon Trerice Manor is exactly that sort of thing. The word is a Cornish one meaning a farm or estate owned by Rhys. Every time I read it, the detail just seemed wrong to me and pulled me a little out of the book. It isn’t a big enough deal that I think it affects my overall reading of the novel but it’s there somewhere in the background.

The good news is that beyond that detail, I found a lot to like here. Halter crafts an interesting and engaging story that is rich on detail. This is a mystery that seems to be grounded in a sense of the community in which it takes place and I appreciated the idea of the Moor as an almost mythic location, reminding me of the role it has played in other adventures. Parts of this book even draw on real local myths such as the Headless Horseman so kudos to Halter for pulling those elements into his story.

As with The Madman’s Room, there are crimes here that occur in the present and in the past and they may, or may not, be linked in some way. Early in the novel we learn about the deaths of three young women on the moor over the space of a few years, each apparently thrown from the rock by some invisible force. These bodies were carried off downstream and were only discovered days later but the locals seem to believe that a demonic force was responsible and have connected these events to an even earlier death where a young woman is seen to have been thrown down the stairs of Trerice Manor (!) by an invisible person.

When a newly married actor and his wife visit the area, he is inspired to create a comedic play loosely based on the idea that a man can make himself invisible and, several years later, he has bought the Manor house and renovated it. He takes his wife to the house and his producer and his mistress, who co-stars with him in his play, to stay with for the weekend. Ill-feeling seems to grow among the small party over that weekend so when history repeats itself and the actor seems to be flung from the window to his death we might assume that one of his guests or a local was responsible. The problem for the Police is that the scene is viewed by multiple witnesses, each of whom say no one was near the actor when he fell.

I thought this was a truly excellent impossible crime and while I quickly developed a theory for what may have happened, it turned out to be completely incorrect. In fact none of my ideas came close to the actual explanation of the crime so I was delighted that the solution to this murder was relatively simple and, to my mind, fairly credible on a technical level.

I was a little less certain whether this was actually a clever method for the murderer to employ given the number of things that might have gone wrong. Twist, in his explanation, does pay lip service to the possibility that the murderer had considered what would happen if they were not entirely successful but I am not convinced this was the safest way for that person to achieve their goal.  I can’t say more without spoiling.

I was even more impressed with the explanation given for the oldest of the historical crimes. Twist’s reasoning is solid both psychologically and mechanically and I love that Halter is able to tuck a second, well-constructed crime around his main one and make it rich and satisfying in just a handful of pages.

The other three crimes? Well, here I think the novel is at its weakest as while these murders add plenty of atmosphere the methods utilized by the killer or killers are something of a stretch. I did appreciate the way they strengthened the main mystery however and built up that sense of a local myth that has built up around these tragic deaths.

In addition to its rich setting, I also feel that this book features much stronger character development than in either of the other two Halters I have read. John Pugmire’s translation is also particularly strong and helps build on that sense of atmosphere to make this a really engaging story.

While I think that the crime in The Madman’s Room is a more intricate and clever impossible crime, this is the most satisfying Halter I have read to date and I look forward to continuing to work through his sizeable back catalog this year.

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter

MadmansAfter trying and enjoying my first Paul Halter novel, Death Invites You, last year I received some wonderful suggestions for which book I should pick next. I honestly did make note of all of those suggestions and I intended to utilize them. I really did. But then I actually came across a copy of The Madman’s Room and all those plans went out the window… Whoops!

Halter seems to represent something of a literary fault line among the bloggers I read regularly. That was the reason I was initially so hesitant to try him. His plots are constructed with a lot of elements that often seem to be pulling in opposite directions. This not only seems messy, it may lead some readers to wonder if he’s just throwing these crazy, imaginative ideas out there and forcing them into the shape of a novel.

The Madman’s Room is a much more complex narrative than Death Invites You, incorporating significantly more elements and questions for the reader to consider and yet I felt that these hung together exceptionally well to create a much richer, more rewarding story. It still can feel a little messy and unwieldy and at times I wondered just how these elements could be brought together but, when the explanation is given, everything seemed to align perfectly.

A very basic outline of the core points of the story is that the wealthy businessman Harris Thorne moves his wife’s family to live with him in his ancestral home. They learn the story of his great-Uncle Hector who appeared to be able to see the future, predicting the deaths of family members in a fire years after he himself had died. His room was sealed upon his death but Harris decides that he will reopen that room against his brother’s objections to turn it into his study. He dies soon afterwards with some aspects of the case seeming to mirror the circumstances in which Hector had died.

For another writer that alone may be enough material for a novel but Halter weaves a number of smaller mysteries around the bigger question of who killed Harris Thorne. Did Harris really did commit suicide or if he was murdered? What is the significance of a patch of water that appeared in front of the fire both when Hector and Harris died? What do people see in a doorway that terrifies them? Is everyone that we believe to be dead actually dead? Can Harris’ brother Brian really see the future? And just what are the short lecture about possible outcomes of an exhumation (a la Dr. Fell) and the brief romantic scene at the beginning of the novel there for?

It’s a lot to unpack and to do so would violate my intentions to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say is that I think Halter’s explanations of the ways these elements interconnect is really quite masterful and I respected the simplicity and common sense of many of those solutions. Solutions to some puzzles are easier to predict than others but I found all to be quite satisfying and appreciated the variations Halter gives us. Even the issue that Sergio felt stretched credulity struck me as a discrete nod to a similarly stretched moment in a very early Poirot novel.

While the artificiality of a moment like that can be a negative for some readers, I personally find it quite charming. Certainly I think there are very few people who would talk or act like characters in a Paul Halter novel but I think that’s okay as he is clearly playing with classic mystery fiction types and placing all other elements of the novel as secondary to his chief concern of developing the puzzle. His prose is never pretty, nor is it particularly atmospheric yet it conveys precisely the amount of information the author intends to very well and, like JJ, I find it to be very effective.

And though Halter’s characters here may read a little stiffly, I found them to be a much more interesting group than in Death Invites You. This is partly because Halter’s story plays out over a much longer period, allowing those characters time to change in reaction to the events they are experiencing. I found some of those changes in character to be very effective and I appreciated the psychological angles to the solution to this story.

On the subject of the conclusion however, I must take note of Brad’s criticism that the novel is undermined by its confusing and unnecessary final page twist. While I enjoyed the novel enormously, I would agree that this moment detracts from the otherwise clean, refined nature of the ending. Sadly this concludes an otherwise stellar work on a slightly cheap note.

In spite of that misstep, I think The Madman’s Room is a really striking and effective work. At the midpoint of the novel I had no idea how Halter was going to pull all of these elements together so I was really impressed by just how clean and tidy the explanations were. Unlike many seemingly inexplicable crime stories, the explanations given for how and why the strange events occur are very persuasive because of their simplicity while I felt that the supernatural elements in the story were used very effectively not only to build atmosphere but contribute to the key themes and ideas of the novel.

In short, I loved this and am looking forward to reading more Halter. And next time I promise I will actually utilize some of your suggestions!