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.

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.”

 

 

L’Homme qui aimait les nuages / The Man Who Loved Clouds (Paul Halter)

First published: Le Masque, Librairie des Champs-Elysées, 1999.  English translation: Locked Room International, 2018, trans. John Pugmire


4 stars

Halter Nuages.jpgLike many of Halter’s later books, L’Homme qui aimait les nuages is part fairy-tale, part myth.

The story involves a miser who lives in a cursed house where the wind always blows (the house of Usher); a wood nymph who can predict the future, create gold from stones (the Midas touch), and make herself disappear in the Fairy Wood.  (As the Puzzle Doctor says in his review, it’s clearly a nod to Carr’s “House in Goblin Wood”.)

It falls into a group with Halter’s other village mysteries, Les larmes de Sibyl (crimes predicted by a soothsayer) and Le cri de la sirène (victims falling off cliff, apparently killed by a banshee).

Halter excels in piling incident upon incident and sustaining an atmosphere, rather than in pure detection.  There are several murders, and the enigmatic Stella, but little in-depth investigation.

Twist and Hurst make few deductions or question witnesses; they seem almost to react to the crimes, until the showdown.  Several characters (Patience Walsh, the vicar, the Fishes) seem underdeveloped, or only tangentially connected to the plot.

Which is as much as to say that Halter emphasises imagination, the mysterious, the insoluble, over characterization or painstaking sleuthing.  The story is all.

And his imagination is undeniable.  While murders apparently committed by the wind lack the chutzpah of, say, La 7ème hypothèse or Les 12 crimes d’Hercule, there’s plenty of creativity.

The killer is surprising, and there’s much more going on under the surface than first appears.  The “how” of the impossibilities, though, is far from Halter at his best.

Halter Clouds.jpgWhat, no references to Aeolus or Nephele?

This is the first Halter novel I’ve read in English.  I’m feeling lazy.  (To assuage my conscience, I’m listening to Rameau.)

John Pugmire’s translation is notably terser than the original; it moves briskly, and it’s clean and idiomatic.  He abridges some of the passages, or skips over adverbs and some descriptions.

Why, though, Dodoni (the modern Greek village) rather than the more traditional Dodon(the oracle and oak grove sacred to Zeus)?

 

La toile de Pénélope (Paul Halter)

By Paul Halter

First published: France, Masque, 2001


For Anglophones…

Penelope’s Web

An entomologist is presumed dead in the Amazon.  His wife is about to marry again – and then he returns.  But his family thinks he’s an impostor.  100 pages pass before he’s killed; at first, it seems a suicide – but it’s really murder.  How, though, could the killer have left the room without breaking the spider’s web over the window?


Blurb

Halter - Toile de Pénélope.jpg“Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage.”  Tel pourrait être le crédo du professeur Foster, de retour d’Amazonie au terme d’un périple de trois ans.

Las!  Son épouse, le croyant mort, s’apprête à convoler une seconde fois, et sa famille l’accuse d’imposture.

De surcroît, “ses souvenirs” de la jungle brésilienne sèment la terreur: difficile de cohabiter avec des mygales, même si l’une d’entre elles, Pénélope, d’une nature forte paisible, tisse inlassablement la même toile.

Alors, quand l’un des habitants de la maisonnée passe de vie à trépas, l’inspecteur Hurst doute fort que la victime se soit donné la mort.  Mais s’il s’agit d’un assassinat, comment le meurtrier a-t-il quitté la pièce?  Il ne peut avoir traversé la toile de Pénélope…

Paul Halter repousse les limites du crime impossible, mais aucun défi n’effraye le célèbre duo Twist et Hurst!

 


My review

3 stars.png

Reviewing this is tricky, because I agree with Xavier Lechard’s write-up of a few years ago.

It’s a minor Halter: a straightforward locked room mystery.  It reads well; it’s brisk, rather light, but it lacks subplots and complexity.  It doesn’t have his flaws (no psychologically improbable explanations, no poorly motivated situations, no likeable young men who are really Jack the Ripper), but it’s not as creative as his best works, either.  Halter, unlike the tarantulas in this book, doesn’t weave a complex web of mystery.

There aren’t any great surprises – X will probably rank high on your list of suspects – but Halter’s clueing is more fair than usual.  (SPOILER The title should get you thinking in the right direction)

The solution to the locked room is sound.  I’d compare it to one of John Rhode’s, rather than J. Dickson Carr’s: it’s not dazzlingly brilliant, but it’s a workmanlike job of mystery carpentry.