By Paul Halter
First published: France, Masque, 1989
Restons calmes et reprenons. Bien que la couche de neige fraîche ne porte aucune empreinte, l’assassin n’est sûrement pas arrivé au 48 Hoxton Street à bort d’un tapis volant. Pas plus que miss Violet n’a été tuée par un mécanisme lanceur de couteaux actionné à distance. Non, l’assassin se cache ici même, dans la maison, et il a le don d’invisibilité. Brrr…voilà qui fin froid dans le dos. Mais il y a plus défrisant encore. Il semble bien que la pension abrite aussi le scalpeur de square, ce monstre qui, après ses meurtres, découpe le cuir chevelu de ses victimes. Seulement, comment le démasquer parmi des pensionnaires tous maniaques des cheveux, obsédés du capillaire et cinglés de la perruque?
Generally considered to be the weakest of the first five novels – which is odd, because I would place it second after Porte. The setting is a London boarding-house, whose lodgers include an old woman, Miss Violet Garfield, who has told Chief Inspector Hurst that one of the lodgers is planning a murder, several people dotty about hair, including a blind hairdresser and an odious man who cut a woman’s hair off – and a homicidal maniac who scalps his victims. Miss Garfield is stabbed to death in the doorway of the boarding-house – an impossibility, because the end of the passage was watched by two people, while only Miss Garfield’s footprints were in the snow outside the house. More than that, the crime, like so many in Halter’s work, is identical to one committed several decades before.
The book is Halter’s best pure detective story of the first five. Although Porte is more brilliant, Dr Twist hardly appears, and Hurst not at all, making it a tale of mystery and imagination rather than one of investigation. Here, however, the problem and the story are neatly combined. The reader keeps suspecting character after character and trying to work out the method used in both crimes. I suspected the right murderer and the right method, but rejected them a few pages later – which requires skill on the author’s part to pull off. Dr Twist’s solution is fully satisfying, and the epilogue, which reveals an entirely unsuspected crime, is the icing on the cake.