A lighthouse keeper is found burned to death inside his locked lighthouse. A man is shot dead from a crossbow bolt, fired apparently from the sky. Each time, the police receive a cryptic warning, unfortunately too cryptic to be understood until after the body is found… Enter Owen Burns, artist and detective, alongside his sidekick, Achilles Stock. Is there a link between the crimes – hint, look at the title and the cover to the book – and will they continue – hint: yes, there are potentially seven of them. And can the author possibly bring a rational explanation to an apparent serial killer theming their crimes on such a bizarre concept?
The serial killer in a classic crime setting is a difficult concept to pull off. In the classic crime novel, you need a motive beyond “it’s a nutter” and such a motive is hard to hide. And hence I was a little daunted by this one – (up to) seven different impossible murders with a rational explanation for each murder and the overall picture? Surely that’s too much to ask…
Paul Halter, who we’ve encountered before with The Fourth Door – excellent – and The Lord of Misrule – good but with reservations – is a French writer of over thirty crime novels, all, I think, impossible mysteries. Thankfully for shameful people like me who don’t speak French, John Pugmire has started translating them into English. There are more on the way, but in the meantime, let’s have a look at this one. It promises much, but does it deliver?
In almost every sense, yes it does.
The style is consciously golden-age, as with the other books in the series that I’ve read, and despite this, the ambitious concept works, while not using the same idea as the only similar book that I can think of, namely The ABC Murders. Despite a small cast of suspects, Halter still had me fooled by the end, despite the solution and the motive making sense – obviously you have to factor in a little insanity into the mix, but only a dash.
On top of that, the impossible crimes (with one exception) are well done and original, with some of them having the potential to be the entire focus of a book. Indeed, the brevity of the narrative is a mild weakness, as some of the crimes really should have been solved earlier by the reader, if a little more information was given. The one exception is the crime involving the carafe of water – I won’t give the problem as that would give the solution, but it really wouldn’t have worked at all. I see where the author’s going with it, but it’s ludicrous.
Despite that, this is a great read and a great homage to the classic era of the locked room mystery. I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, but this is highly recommended. Halter’s best so far.