The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Demon
The Demon of Dartmoor
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1993
Dr. Twist #7
Preceded by The Seventh Hypothesis
Followed by À 139 pas de la mort

Back 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, translated by John Pugmire

Madmans
The Madman’s Room
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1990
Dr Twist #4
Preceded by Death Invites You
Followed by The Tiger’s Head

After 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!

The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories by Keikichi Osaka, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The-Ginza-Ghost
The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories
Keikichi Osaka
Originally Published 2017

The Ginza Ghost is a collection of short crime and detective stories by the writer Keikichi Osaka who, we learn in the introduction, died young and worked primarily in the period in which the puzzle mystery had largely fallen out of fashion in Japan.

This collection contains a mix of styles and subject matters including a few locked rooms but most can be characterized as strange and perplexing crimes.

One of the best examples of this is the story The Mourning Locomotive in which we hear about a heavy locomotive train which is killing pigs on a regular basis, always at the same section of the tracks. It is a strange problem but the answer is really quite logical and can be deduced by the reader. Not that I did.

Another strong example is The Hangman of the Department Store which is a seemingly impossible crime as it takes place on the roof of a fully locked store. And then there is the strange question of the timing of the killing which makes the events seem even more bizarre.

The final story I would highlight is The Guardian of the Lighthouse in which the characters attempt to locate a missing son who seemed to vanish during a shift several days earlier. I felt that story combined a logical mystery with a solid emotional component to strong effect.

While most of the stories feature a striking or ingenious solution, I did find a few of them to be quite dry in the way they were told. Stories such as The Phantasm of the Stone Wall and The Phantom Wife held little interest for me and I never managed to engage with them while others featured ideas that seemed too intricate to be communicated in so few pages.

It may just be that I am not really drawn to short form crime stories. With the exception of an occasional individual story I have never found a collection I have loved and been truly satisfied with. Knowing the importance of the short story to crime fiction, I feel it is important for me to keep trying.

The Ginza Ghost does at least feature a few stories that I feel will stick with me for a while and I could appreciate Osaka’s skill at inventing interesting puzzles to challenge his readers. Unfortunately I found the weaker stories to be a bit of a chore to work through and so I cannot recommend the collection.

Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, translated by Bertil Falk

HardCheese
Hard Cheese
Ulf Durling
Originally Published in 1971

A man is found dead with injuries to the back of his head in a locked room in a low-grade hotel. The owner of the hotel is adamant that no one could have entered the building during the night without his knowledge and the other residents seem to have been otherwise occupied yet there were three glasses set out in the man’s bedroom.

The book is broken into three unequal sections, each narrated by a different character. The first, narrated by Johan Lundgren who is a member of a crime fiction reading group is the most joyous. He tells us how the three members of the group go about taking the small amount of information they are given about the crime and start spinning fanciful theories about how it was done, all the while making little judgements and comments about the tropes of mystery fiction that will delight long-term readers of the genre.

I particularly enjoyed getting to know the three characters who made up the detective fiction club and seeing the ways they would interact with each other. These characters felt familiar to me and their excitement at encountering a puzzle like the ones they had read about in their own lives was rather infectious.

The second comes from the perspective of Gunnar, the policeman assigned to the case, and is pitched more in the PI mold. Where Johan span a solution in the Golden Age style, Gunnar seems set on a much simpler explanation and his investigation takes a different tack. Though less intellectual than that of the club members, he does uncover some interesting elements of the case and I enjoyed reading his thoughts about the three members of the club and their interference.

The final, shorter section comes from a third person and draws on elements of the other two investigations to present a solution. It is hard to go into much detail here, firstly because I want to avoid spoiling how the mystery is solved but also because this section is far more straightforward and less characterful than the two which preceded it. I did find it satisfying however and appreciated how well the solution is communicated.

This multiple narrative approach does mean that the book does feel a little disjointed though I enjoyed each part and saw the presentation to be an opportunity to comment on and pastiche two different forms of crime fiction, finding a middle ground with the last narrative. The book builds to a clever resolution of the mystery that struck me as being quite original.

But does it play fair? I have been struck in reading reviews of this how split reviewers are on this question. It is of course hard to answer without spoiling but in my opinion it meets the criteria of being fair because it does provide all of the information needed to successfully identify how the murder was achieved, even though it may require the reader to step away from the novel to piece everything together. I can see why some readers feel frustrated but I appreciated the tidiness and ingenuity of the method.

I think there might be more of a case to say that the novel isn’t playing fair with guessing the identity of the murderer and there I am less decided. All I can say is that I didn’t feel it was unfair when the revelation came although I was surprised by their identity.

I was a little less satisfied with the locked room aspect of the mystery and the relative simplicity of its solution. It did occur to me upon finishing the book that while I have really enjoyed several of the books I have read from Locked Room International, I have yet to actually find a book where the Locked Room aspect was really satisfying. If anyone has any recommendations I would be happy to entertain them!

Where Hard Cheese succeeded most for me was in its characters and its appealing structure. I found it to be frequently very funny and I thought Durling had some creative and interesting ideas. Unfortunately while Durling seems to have written quite a few mysteries following this, Hard Cheese is the only one currently available in English translation. Were more to appear though I would certainly want to give them a try.

Death Invites You by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Death
Death Invites You
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1988
Dr Twist #2
Preceded by The Fourth Door
Followed by La mort derrière les rideaux

Death Invites You is my first encounter with the works of Paul Halter and I have to admit that I came to it with a certain nervousness. Halter seems to engender very strong and often quite divisive opinions in many of the bloggers whose reviews I follow with the some reviews loving some of his work while hating other stories. I just didn’t know what I was going to get.

I recently learned that a certain book subscription service had many of Halter’s novels available and I decided I’d give him a try. It turns out that my selection, Death Invites You, seems to be about as safe a choice for a first Halter as it’s possible to find. In fact, JJ recommends it as a first choice for new Halter readers while Brad entitled his review ‘Eureka! Found a Halter I Like’ which seems to say it all. All I can say is that I didn’t plan to play it safe when I made my selection…

Death Invites You is a locked room mystery in which a famous author is discovered in a locked room, bolted from the inside, sitting in front of a freshly prepared meal with his face and hands down on a hot pan that has badly burned them. There is also a bowl of water under a window. And, if that is not enough, it turns out that the body is not fresh but has been dead for over twenty-four hours while the tableau happens to mimic the setup for the murder in the author’s forthcoming book.

That already would seem like a lot of elements for a single case and do keep in mind that my summary doesn’t include any of the details that are revealed once the investigation really gets underway. This is a complicated crime with a number of developments that cause the detectives to reconsider their theories, keeping the reader guessing in spite of the book’s limited cast of suspects.

The investigation unfolds at a sharp pace with small revelations spread out throughout the novel and I was surprised when I realized that at the end of a sitting I was already two-thirds of the way through. I found that the book possessed a natural momentum that kept me going and that created a very effective sense of atmosphere. When I returned to pick it up the next day a little of the spell had been broken but I remain impressed and certainly think that few would guess that this was a work in translation.

As with many locked room stories the reader is required to accept the artificiality of the crime as well as a number of coincidences and unlikely events yet I felt that the solution was fair and logical. There were a few aspects of the killer’s plan and their actions later in the story that struck me at the time as being convoluted choices yet I felt that they made sense when considered from the murderer’s perspective and once you learn what they were intending to do.

Halter’s strong focus on developing the novel’s puzzles arguably comes at the expense of complex characterization but while it would be impossible to call Death Invites You a character-driven book, I do think that the characters work well within the context of the novel. In particular, I found the character of Henrietta, who is an artist, to be an interesting figure and I was entertained by Halter’s conceit of making the victim a mystery novelist whose work has fallen out of vogue. For the record, I failed to guess the identity of the murderer and was left kicking myself when they were revealed.

Contrary to my fears, I rather enjoyed my first taste of Paul Halter’s work although I am a little concerned that this may just mean that the novel is far from typical of his output. This story may not be the most outlandish or ingeniously plotted story ever written (in spite of beating me) but it was atmospheric and the scenario created is certainly imaginative and intriguing. I will definitely be trying out some more of his work soon.

The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Moai
The Moai Island Puzzle
Alice Arisugawa
Originally Published 1989

Three students from a university mystery club travel to an island where a cache of diamonds had been hidden several years before. Wooden moai statues were placed around the island, seemingly at random, and may be linked in some way to the location of the loot.

Alice intends to set his mind to solving this puzzle but before he and his friends can get to work a terrible storm strikes the island. After the storm passes, two bodies are found in a locked room and the group soon realizes that someone in their number is a killer.

The Moai Island Puzzle is a novel that I have been eagerly anticipating reading since it was published in translation last year by Locked Room International. The Moai statue element of the story appealed to my imagination and I will admit to being a sucker for stories where groups of people are stranded on an island together, slowly being picked off. Throw in a locked room and this really seemed to be my deal.

No doubt the word ‘seemed’ will have tipped you off that the novel did not quite match my sky high hopes for it, although I still had a very good time with it. Before I tackle the meat of the story I will say that I felt that the locked room element really was less of a factor in the story than it is built up to be by the blurb on the back cover. Those expecting Carrian ingenuity are more likely to be struck with incredulity about some aspects of the proposed solution and I certainly would not suggest reading the novel just for the locked room.

Nor was the Moai statue puzzle, or at least the part of it that the reader is capable of solving, so challenging that you could imagine it stumping these characters for as long as it does. It is certainly fun to work through though and I felt the section of the book dealing with solving the puzzle made for an enjoyable interlude from the murder mystery parts of the story.

These murders are in fact the meat of the story and here the book is on much more solid ground. Arisugawa crafts an intriguing adventure in which there does not seem to be anything approaching a solid motive for the killings and where our suspects all lack alibis and all had the capability of acquiring the means.

Towards the end of the story in Ellery Queen style, the author issues a challenge to the reader informing them that they have all of the information they need to deduce the killer. I was stumped and, upon reading the solution, really quite impressed by the meticulous reasoning of the sleuth and how neatly everything fit together. I felt it played fair and although I had to reread a couple of points to make sure I was grasping the reasoning, I thought it made excellent sense.

So, if I was entertained by the Moai puzzle and thought the solution to the murders was quite good, why was I also a little underwhelmed?

I think a large part of the answer to that lies in the question of style and here I will fully acknowledge that what may not have worked for me could be entirely your cup of tea! While I found the mystery itself interesting, the manner in which we go through characters’ movements and try to pin down the details of each crime felt dry and became quite tedious to work through. As the crimes mount up, this process seems to become more and more repetitive.

The other significant issue is that Alice is just not a particularly dynamic protagonist. The part of his story that I was most interested in, his relationship with Maria, is barely broached except to be met by immediate denials.

Though not perfect, I think if you are able to look past its sometimes dull protagonist and investigative procedure, there is some excellent material here. While I was not wowed by this book the way I was when I finally put down the excellent Decagon House Murder, I did find this quite enjoyable in parts.