La tête du tigre (Paul Halter)

  • By Paul Halter
  • First published: France: Masque, 1991. Translated into English as The Tiger’s Head, Locked Room International, 2013.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A serial killer leaves the dismembered limbs of prostitutes at railway stations. A series of petty thefts trouble the little village of Leadenham. And a retired Indian army officer is clubbed to death in a locked room – apparently by a malevolent genie… (thy evil genius, Brutus)

La tête du tigre is clever but ersatz. Halter (I believe) had not yet visited Britain; his 1930s England is populated by Swedish prostitutes and apparently American vicars (‘the Reverend Duncan’ indeed), and the characters have late 20th century attitudes; couples cohabit before marriage, young men dine out in short sleeves, and there’s little sense of a class system. It wasn’t until Le diable de Dartmoor (1993) that Halter visited England and, as he admitted, knew what he was writing about.

One of Halter’s favourite devices is to weave two or three plots together to make a novel, sometimes (as in L’image trouble or his semi-historical tales) separated by decades. The ‘Suitcase Killer’ thread involves a deception that should take the reader by surprise; it’s a cunning variation on Agatha Christie’s ROT13: uvqqra ebznagvp gevnatyrf, coupled with another of the Queen of Crime’s gambits ROT13: naq n qnfu bs ‘Gur Oybbq-Fgnvarq Cnirzrag’. But the motive for the serial killings seems unconvincing, more likely to draw attention than distract it. Overkill, one might say.

The locked room murder is only a sub-plot, solved three-quarters through. It is not one of Halter’s strongest; the situation recalls John Dickson Carr‘s Judas Window (only possible suspect locked in room with victim), and the solution is mechanical. I understand the murderer ROT13: hfrq gur jrncba to close the windows; I got that much, but I struggle to visualise it. Nor do I find this sort of solution as satisfying as a surprise murder method – of The Plague Court, Red Widow, or Reader is Warned kind – or a clever reversal of expectations (through impersonation, misleading time or place, etc.). That may be why I rank Till Death Do Us Part (and The Dead Man’s Knock!) lower than Carr fans.

Halter’s endings tend to be ugly. Sure, there’s the odd one where Dr. Twist adopts a pet duck, but too often we’ll learn that the detective is the reincarnation of a damned pharaoh, the hero / audience identification figure is a psychopath, or several characters die (including, on occasion, the detective). Here, Dr. Twist’s solution is revolting: he invites two louts to beat the culprit to death. Halter may be ingenious, but his books lack humanity.

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3 thoughts on “La tête du tigre (Paul Halter)

  1. Thanks for the review. Appreciate that you’ve encoded things that might give away the solution

    Since you wrote the ending I assume it’s okay to discuss it openly. Well, for the time period, killers caught by the police are supposed to get hanged by the neck until they’re dead, right? I don’t think what Halter did to the killer is much more inhumane than the fate implicit in a typical GAD mystery. Twist is only doing what Poirot and Fell et al. did implicitly for most of their cases: handing the murderer to a third party to have them killed. So I think what Twist did was unlawful, but not necessarily much worse


  2. I remember liking this one a lot, but have no memory at all of that ending — I was due to revisit this at some point in 2020 anyway, but I’m even more curious to read it again in light of that!


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