The Man Who Loved Clouds by Paul Halter

CloudsI recently had an excellent time with The Seventh Hypothesis, naming it my Book of the Month for July, so I was excited to learn that Locked Room International would be releasing a translation of another Twist and Hurst mystery.

The novel concerns events in the coastal village of Pickering and the mystery surrounding a young woman who lives there.

The book begins with Twist relating a story he has been told by a young journalist who had visited the village on a whim, following a group of clouds. During that visit he had a brief encounter with that young woman in which she made a big impression on him, leading him to make enquiries about her with some of the locals.

Her name is Stella Deverell and she is reputed to have fairy-like powers including the ability to predict the future and to disappear into thin air. On a number of occasions she had been observed walking into a small wooded area only to disappear and though several people have attempted to catch her and find her secret, including the local police force, none had managed it.

She claims to have been clairvoyant since she was a young child and locals can point to several predictions she made that had come true as proof of her abilities. One of those predictions concerned the death of her father, made several days before he was discovered dead at the foot of a cliff having apparently committed suicide. Shortly after the journalist arrives she makes further predictions of deaths and in each case they come true, the victims appearing to be hurled to their deaths by strong gusts of wind.

Unlike the other Halter novels I have read and reviewed, it is noticeable that this is not structured around an obvious case of murder. We are aware of several strange deaths from the beginning of the book but at the point the investigation begins it is from the perspective of trying to understand a seemingly inexplicable set of events and to prevent further deaths rather than to solve an event already established to be a crime.

Stella is an intriguing character and wisely Halter avoids giving us too much time with her, having her discussed more than she is shown. We hear several accounts of incidents involving her and her powers, each making her powers seem simultaneously more convincing and puzzling. We may think of individual explanations for each of the incidents but it is harder to understand the bigger picture of how and why she is accomplishing these feats.

Some of the explanations can feel a little anticlimactic if viewed in isolation and only in terms of the mechanics of the puzzle but I was impressed by the way they tie together. In the past I have sometimes questioned the psychological consistency of Halter’s stories but here I think each small puzzle contributes to our understanding of the wider dynamics within the village and helps us get closer to identifying a killer and their motive.

While I would always caution readers not to expect too much in terms of the characterizations in a Halter novel, I do think this is one of his richer and more rewarding works in that respect. Certainly there are a number of characters who exist to impart information or to flesh out the population of the village but the characters at the heart of the narrative are given back stories, clear motivations and time is spent establishing their relationships.

In addition to resolving the puzzle elements of the plot, the ending also manages to include a whopping great revelation that I think is executed superbly. There is no trickery involved, nor does it feel like an afterthought but rather that element of the story was clearly planned from the beginning and hinted at throughout the novel. It ties in strongly with the themes Halter develops throughout the book and I think it makes for a surprisingly powerful conclusion.

I was less impressed with the mechanical explanations of how the wind had killed several villagers though I think it would be hard to imagine any explanation that could live up to the strangeness of that idea. I was a little more confused about why Twist does not seem to more actively attempt to disprove that could be the case and I do agree with Nick Fuller that it does seem odd that the sleuths spend more time reacting to events than actively pursuing leads or trying to disprove what a supernatural explanation for those deaths.

Neither of those issues substantially affected my enjoyment of the book and while I need a little time to reflect, I certainly think it is in the conversation to be one of my favorite Halter stories (The Seventh Hypothesis probably still has the edge but it is close). It is intricately plotted and I became even more impressed once I could see how each of the elements fitted together so neatly in the conclusion. Very highly recommended.

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…

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!

Death Invites You by Paul Halter

DeathDeath 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.