By Paul Halter
First published: France, Masque, 1988
Disappointing. The murder is full of fascinating potential. Harold Vickers, a writer of detective stories (impossible, of course), whose career is on the wane, is found shot through the head in a locked room. His hands and head are badly burnt, and the body is seated at a table covered in food and drink, including newly-cooked chickens. A pair of gloves are at his feet, and a cup of water stands under the window. More mysteriously, the set-up comes straight from the detective story he was writing, La Mort Vous Invite. The detective story was inspired by an unsolved murder that happened twenty years before; and, most striking of all, the victim’s head and hands were burnt 24 hours after death. Add to this the fact that Vickers had a twin brother (living in Australia, of course) who came to the country and cannot be found, and one expects a gleefully clever, knowing take on the detective story.
Wrong. The plot is very easy to solve. I had strong suspicions about the way the locked room was worked, and the murderer is obvious from the very beginning. In fact, I had most of the plot worked out before Dr Twist revealed his solution. Worse, however, is Halter’s violation of one of the principal rules of the detective story (particularly the impossible detective story) regarding red herrings: nothing should be put in to make things look bizarre or more difficult. The murderer’s plan here was simply to make the whole thing look as mysterious as possible, in order to confuse the police (and cast some suspicion on another character). All of those appetising clues – the dinner, the burnt features, the glass of water – were red herrings!