La Chambre du fou / The Madman’s Room (Paul Halter)

By Paul Halter

First published: Le Masque, Paris, 1990.  English translation: The Madman’s Room, Locked Room International, 2017, trans. John Pugmire.


5 stars

Halter Chambre du Fou.jpgThis 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.

Halter Madman's room.jpgHarris’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.”

 

 

7 thoughts on “La Chambre du fou / The Madman’s Room (Paul Halter)

  1. I still have trouble with one scene where we are not told what somebody saw, but this one of, if not the very best Halters we’ve seen in English yet! I deeply appreciated that, for once, he wasn’t trying desperately to unveil a surprise killer; as a result, it was one of the few times I was fooled by Halter.

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    1. I’d remembered it as being a good average Halter, so was delighted to find it much better – and to have forgotten nearly all the plot! I’ve reached that point where I can safely reread books. (Most of the writers I read in my childhood and teens, though, are indelibly inscribed in my brain. Bah, I can recite the cast lists of most Agatha Christies.)

      I know the scene you mean, and think it works better in French.

      The other Halter that works brilliantly is La 7è hypothèse, where he drops the surprise solution, and keeps you balancing between two suspects.

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  2. I agree with Brad; this is probably one of, if not the best of, Halter’s translated works. If it weren’t for the lack of a clear impossibility (beyond the room that kills aspect) it would be the book I’d recommend for people trying Halter. It even felt fair play!

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  3. Another point here: I liked the character of Brian. Most fake psychics in mysteries tend to be almost self-awarely fake, so it was an interesting take on a character who everyone, including himself, takes seriously and he has genuine fear and remorse over what he predicts.

    Liked by 1 person

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