L’Arbre aux doigts tordus / The Vampire Tree (Paul Halter)

By Paul Halter

First published: Masque, France, 1996.  Translation: Locked Room International, 2016, as The Vampire Tree


3 stars

Halter - doigts tordus.jpgA small English village.  Witches!  Dead children!

Hang on – haven’t I just read this?

Newlywed Patricia Sheridan moves to the Suffolk village of Lightwood.  Ironically, she’s frightened of bright lights, and of trees.  Or one tree in particular…

The one whose twisted branches tap on her bedroom window, and cause her bad dreams.

Buried under the tree is a 16th-century vampiress, hanged after slitting the throats of village children.  Meanwhile, a maniac is brutally murdering the village children.

In the 19th century, Eric Sheridan was found strangled at the foot of the tree – but apparently no human could have done it.  The murderer left no footprints in the snow.  Did the tree strangle him, just as in Lavinia’s premonitory dream? The same dream Patricia dreamt…

Halter - doigts tordus 2.jpgAnd could beautiful, half-Transylvanian Patricia, who recoils from crucifixes, possibly be … a vampire?

I’d expected a disaster.  The Puzzle Doctor pans it.  TomCat very much disliked it.  JJ says it’s for completists only.  And Brad hates it.

Four of the finest mystery bloggers are unanimous.

Translator John Pugmire himself only gave it a single star (out of four) back on the old Yahoo Groups list.

The only people who like it are Soupart, Fooz and Bourgeois (authors of Chambres closes, crimes impossibles, a 487-page analysis of some 750 impossible crimes):

[And cue the sound of puzzle enthusiasts writing frenzied emails to Locked Room International, demanding its translation sur-le-champ.]

****

Non seulement Paul Halter surprend toujours son public, mais encore parvient-il à remporter, haut la main, ce challenge: toujours plus fort dans la surenchère de la mystification!

Dans son quinzième roman, il ne faillit point à la règle.  Si les brillants ouvrages précédents captivaient le lecteur par l’ingéniosité du problème impossible, cet Arbre…ajoute une nouvelle dimension au talent du Dickson Carr français: cette ambiance fantastique et glauque n’est pas sans rappeler un certain…Stephen King!

The reason for the lack of popularity: People judge it as a detective story, when Halter’s using the detective story to tell a dark Gothic Hammer Horror-type story, with vampires, serial killers, sexual obsession, and insanity.  And blood.  Lots and lots of blood.

Taste_the_blood_of_dracula.jpg
One of the Milk Marketing Board’s less successful ventures.

Halter - Vampire Tree.jpgThe solution to the impossible strangulation in the 19th century is disappointing (and generally considered a cheat), but it causes two tragedies, one in the past, one in the present.

Here, for once, what happens to the characters is more important than the mystery.

As a mystery, admittedly, it’s not Halter’s finest hour.  The device for narrowing suspects down to seven doesn’t hold water.  All seven are at a dinner party; no murder is committed that night; therefore one of them must be guilty.  No, it simply means that the murderer didn’t strike that night.

I guessed who the murderer was; few of the other characters were sufficiently developed to make an interesting killer.  Hir scheme for diverting suspicion is an old one.  As for the motive – gore blimey and bloody hell!

It’s certainly not Halter’s best – try La 7è hypothèse, Le diable de Dartmoor, L’image trouble, or La chambre du fou – but it’s not his worst, either. (La malédiction de Barberousse, Les 7 miracles du crime, La lettre qui tue)

Notes

  • Lavinia’s diary describes murder in past in simultaneous narrative – c.f. L’image trouble, Le crime de Dédale, La chambre d’Horus
  • Greek mythology motif: sculptor makes statue of Patricia as Baucis

Blurb

Lightwood est vraiment un charmant village et Roger Sheridan, qui vient d’épouser Patricia, est heureux de lui faire connaître sa maison de famille, vieille de plusieurs siècles, et si peu modifiée au cours des années, où passe encore l’ombre de la belle Lavinia, qui mourut désespérée d’avoir perdu l’homme qu’elle aimait…

Patricia serait parfaitement heureuse à Lightwood s’il n’y avait pas ce cauchemar qu’elle a fait le premier jour, cet arbre si menaçant, ce vieux tremble aux branches tordues qui viennent frôler la fenêtre les jours de grand vent.

L’arbre a une histoire, la maison a ses fantômes…et le village ses sanglants problèmes: voilà qu’on y tue des enfants de la plus horrible façon, en les égorgeant !

Tout le talent de Paul Halter dans ce roman où le mystère voisine avec le fantastique.

11 thoughts on “L’Arbre aux doigts tordus / The Vampire Tree (Paul Halter)

  1. It’s certainly Halter’s most radical book in many ways and one of the least palatable to the average (and even seasoned) reader. You either love it or hate it. I remember closing the book wondering about Halter’s mental health and how such a dark book was accepted by the usually very cautious people at Le Masque – but then I hadn’t yet read Lunes Assassines!

    As an aside, what is your problem with La Malédiction de Barberousse? It was one of precious few Halter I liked without reservation even though it relied once again on Halter’s favourite narrative trick (won’t say more so as not to spoil it but let’s say he’s probably read a certain Agatha Christie novel too much for his own good)

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      1. L’astuce d’Agatha Christie est utilisée dans un autre roman de Paul Halter. Ainsi, deux Christies et deux Halters !

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  2. You’re such a tease, Nick! I was prepared for you to say this was Halter’s best! As it is, I’d rather watch Taste the Blood of Dracula anyway!

    And did you and Xavier just ruin Barbarossa for me??

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    1. No no, not quite. Paul Halter doesn’t write whodunits after all – he isn’t much concerned with who did it and besides once you’re familiar with his work you have no difficulty figuring it out, spoiler or not. What matters with Halter is the “How” and we have left it untouched, and believe me as someone who is far from an unconditional fan, it’s one of his cleverest. Also as an early work it is mercifully short and free from his later mannerisms and obsessions. I liked it so much when I read that it ended up being my Best Read of the year – a feat Halter has never approached ever since.

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  3. There’s undoutbedly a sense of this being very different from Halter’s usual fare, and perhaps people would find more in it knowing that in advance. I like the impossibility, though, which no-one else seems to…

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  4. I’m curious – did you read this in the original French or in translation? My gut feeling is that some of Halter’s imagery would get neutered in the translation process which might make this one more palatable.

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  5. If you take the book as more of a gothic thriller, then it becomes a whole lot better. There are lot’s of good sections and elements here but they don’t really come together in the end and the reasoning behind some of the puzzles is so grotesque that I had to put the book down several times during the denountment. The impossibility is quite nice, not that bad but not that ingenious.

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