By Paul Halter
First published: Le Masque, Paris, 1990. English translation: The Madman’s Room, Locked Room International, 2017, trans. John Pugmire.
This is guaranteed to send the detective fiction fan into paroxysms of delight. It’s Halter’s take on the room that kills.
There’s something terrifying and invisible in Hatton Manor that makes people die of fright, or throw themselves out of windows, à la Case of the Constant Suicides.
The room in question is the sealed room of mad old great-uncle Harvey Thorne, a clairvoyant who predicted his father’s and his siblings’ deaths.
He himself died on the sill of his study in atrocious convulsions, after a fit of madness – or extreme fear. And there was a wet patch on the carpet in front of the fireplace…
Is there a connection with the brimming glass of water Harvey kept in his room?
Decades later, industrialist Harris Thorne turns Harvey’s old room into his study. He falls from the window – and there’s a damp patch on the carpet.
His wife Sarah fainted on the sill after looking into the empty room. What did she see that terrified her?
The answer, criminologist Dr. Twist suggests, is nothing at all. Make of that what you will.
Paul Halter throws punch after punch, until the reader feels groggy, and decidedly mazed.
Harris’s brother-in-law is injured in the room – and the carpet is wet. A second murder follows, and again there’s the damp patch on the floor. Another man nearly dies by fire, as Harvey predicted.
Then there’s the strange business of a dead man who won’t stay dead, a clairvoyant’s worryingly accurate predictions, and a disconcerting discovery in a coffin.
It’s a twisty case for the indefatigable Dr. Twist.
And everything comes beautifully together at the end, in a subtle, elaborate design – with no fewer than four explanations for the wet carpet.
It’s the sort of intricate construction one expects from the heir to John Dickson Carr.
Some, though, find the plot coincidence-laden to the point of contrivance.
Halter draws attention to the baroque nature of the plot: “an accumulation of events, each of which can only be explained by coincidence… It’s a succession of mysteries, each weirder than the one before… We explained each one in turn, and the links which connected them. But each time, everything hung by a thread…”
And there, my fatheads, I went and smote myself upon the forehead.
I will now explain the mystery of the fifth glass of water – which isn’t even mentioned in the book. (That’s how subtle this is!)
There is a once-famous French play, which demonstrates how little effects lead to great causes, and how events and coincidences pile together to form a design that is at once logical yet improbably intricate.
I refer to Eugène Scribe’s Verre d’eau – or, to give its English title, A Glass of Water.
And Scribe, master of the well-made play, was famous for his narrative ficelle: the thread.
A coincidence? I wonder.
I read La Chambre du fou back in 2005. After years of reading the English Orthodox School (aka “Humdrums”), I remembered why I actually enjoyed detective stories in the first place.
John Pugmire’s translation is brisk, but there’s the odd bit of Franglais: salon, mousquetaire, Medicis, Marseille; or mistranslation back into English: “Beware of the ides of March.”