Le diable de Dartmoor [The Demon of Dartmoor] (Paul Halter)

  • By Paul Halter
  • First published: France: Le Masque, 1993
  • Translated into English as The Demon of Dartmoor by John Pugmire, Locked Room International, 2012

Le Diable de Dartmoor is one of Paul Halter’s finest accomplishments in the orthodox genre. [1] The author himself only considers it a good average book – not his favourite, but representative. “A curse, an extremely simple crime trick; and Inspector Hurst grumpier than ever.” As such, it would make an ideal place for the reader new to Halter to start.

The scene is Devon, with its sleepy villages and rugged tors – familiar to detective readers as the setting of The Hound of the Baskervilles, if not The Sittaford Mystery. Halter had recently visited there – “My first pilgrimage to England since I started writing… I brought back quite a few books of legends. I was able to see the places that lend themselves perfectly to this kind of inspiration.”

The village of Stapleford seems to be haunted by an invisible fiend. Three girls are pushed to their deaths; shortly before their murders, they were seen laughing and talking to apparently empty air. A village drunk sees a headless horseman ride up into the sky. In Trevice Manor, decades before, another young woman fell downstairs. And now, in 193–, brilliant actor Nigel Manson is flung to his death from a window in the same house – yet nobody could have committed the crime. Is it mere coincidence he was starring in The Invisible Man?

Halter offers one of his neatest puzzles. We should tumble at once to the method, and then to the killer; it is “a murder of a stunning simplicity”. That stunning simplicity places the method in the same class as Chesterton‘s “Hammer of God” or Carr‘s Crooked Hinge or Death in Five Boxes. But the trick is so simple, so obvious, that we never consider it. “To have been stumped by such child’s play is enough to make me blush with shame,” Dr. Twist remarks. “In all my career, I’ve never come across such a mysterious puzzle with such an incredibly simple solution.” On top of that, Halter offers a culprit whose identity is a genuine surprise. Both method and identity are finely clued; certain physical evidence (gur pnzren fznfurq vagb n gubhfnaq cvrprf) and odd behaviour (n eryhpgnapr gb ivfvg Qriba) point straight to the murderer. French critics of the time were impressed; Soupart, Fooz and Bourgeois hailed Halter as the ideal amalgam of Carr and Pierre Véry.

[1] La 7è hypothèse, however, is arguably Halter’s best: a tour de force of plotting, as audacious as Sleuth or Death Trap.

Other reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel; The New Invisible Man; Ahsweetmysteryblog; Past Offences; Tipping My Fedora; Jabberwock; The Green Capsule

13 thoughts on “Le diable de Dartmoor [The Demon of Dartmoor] (Paul Halter)

  1. The impossibility in this is astoundingly good, though I seem to recall the book itself being a little overstuffed. Still one of the most brilliantly shocking revelations of a late-20th century impossible crime novel, though. I read it on a flight and shouted so loudly in surprise when it’s laid bare that about ten people asked me what book it was when we disembarked.

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    1. Fantastic! I read Diable 15 years ago, and remembered the joyous shock I got from that revelation. It is legitimately brilliant.

      Overstuffing? The more impossible murders, supernatural causes, the better!

      Apart from Halter, the modern writer who most provides that same joyous shock is Reginald Hill. (I know you read A Killing Kindness and didn’t like it; it’s one of his weakest books – although the main clue is in the first sentence. Clever!) Two of his mature novels have those delicious clues that turn your brain inside out; they’re out in the open, but you don’t *see* them as clues.

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      1. I’m apparently working outwards from GAD — heading both forwards and backwards in time in my reading into its shoulder seasons — and expect to get the Hill bug at some point. Too many people are too enthusiastic about him for me to be able to ignore him for much longer, even if my Dalziel & Pascoe experience to date — Clubbable Woman, Advancement of Learning, something else, and Killing Kindness (which, yes, contains a magnificently bold piece of hidden-in-plain-sightery) — has been, er, not great.

        All in good time!

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      2. I’d jump forward to Hill’s 1990s novels. None of those three are great. Clubbable Woman is OK; Advancement of Learning put me off Hill for a couple of years until a teacher (a Hill enthusiast) urged me to read On Beulah Height; and Killing Kindness is a bit dull.

        Stay tuned!

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      3. I had a fetish in the early 2000s, when I really started to get into crime fiction, for reading authors in order — indeed, it persists in a slightly amended form to this day. You quickly learn how the Early Ones aren’t often the Good Ones, but then so many books crowded in, and GAD became an increasing feature, and I’ll confess I just forgot all about him for years.

        I’ll amend it in due course, as I say, not least because of the high opinion he’s held in by people who also rate their GAD (though, yes, I appreciate that they’ll be very different books — they’re four times the length for a reason!)

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  2. Thanks for the review. Do you happen to have a link to that interview where Halter says this is not his favorite one? Does he say what his favorites are?

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  3. The main impossibility is so great, it elevates the oeuvre. I wouldn’t call it Halter’s best because of stylistic reasons, but it’s a strong one. It might make my top ten. I feel the horseman bit is unnecessary, though.

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      1. Yes, I’d say Madman’s Room is better. My top ten so far would be something like this.
        1 The Tiger’s Head
        2 Le Tigre Borgne
        3 Seven Wonders of Crime (yes, for real)
        4 Madman’s Room
        5 La Mort Derriere les Rideaux (most underrated novel! )
        6 The Seventh Hypothesis
        7 The Man Who Loved Clouds
        8 The Demon of Dartmoor
        9 La Corde d’Argent
        10 The Fourth Door
        Of course, I still have lots of Halter novels left to read, so I expect the list to change. Also, I think if I were to reread every novel, some positions might shift around.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a favorite of mine and I also rate it as 5 stars. My other favourites among translated works are Madman’s Room, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Phantom Passage and The Fourth Door. Among untranslated works, my favourites are Le Tigre Borgne and La Corde D’Argent.

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