The Invisible Circle by Paul Halter

The Invisible Circle“Dear Whoever. Please come to an isolated castle on an island off the coast of Cornwall. I’ve got something important to announce and you probably won’t get murdered like people tend to do in this sort of book. Promise. P.S. I’m not a loony.” Or words to that effect…

Thus begins an adventure for a mixed group of people who, for the most part, haven’t met each other before. But soon the ghost of King Arthur will rise, take the sword from the stone and kill someone who is “safely” locked inside a chamber at the top of a tower. Someone who has already announced that he is going to be murdered and seems to be going happily to his impossible death.

This is the eighth novel from Paul Halter to be translated by John Pugmire, but the recent novels have been a bit hit and miss. How does this one measure up?

You see that pile of salt over there. Take a large pinch of it. No, probably more than that. Just grab a handful. You’re going to need it.

This is silly. Not in a bad way, don’t get me wrong. It’s a really entertaining read that just flies by (and not just because of the low page count). The central impossibility is cleverly (and simply) done and fairly clued and the plot rattles along developing twists and turns as it goes and moves quickly enough that you almost don’t notice the rather fundamental problems with the plot. Namely that every single character is both stupid and blind. And the overall villainous plot is a bit ropey too.

As a Golden Age pastiche, it’s odd that it chooses to use one particular trick, as that trick is the reason that one Poirot novel completely falls apart at the end. But the story is delivered with enough panache to excuse these flaws, for the most part. Not on a par with The Demon of Dartmoor or The Seven Wonders Of Crime but much better than The Tiger’s Head and The Crimson Fog. Recommended, especially for Golden Age locked room fans.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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35 Responses to The Invisible Circle by Paul Halter

  1. richmcd says:

    Wow. The Demon of Dartmoor was a bit too silly for me, so I can’t imagine what happens in this one!

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Yes, since I regard The Demon of Dartmoor as a masterpiece, I am also curious to know why richmcd regards it as silly.
        Also, The Dark One, I wanted to answer your question regarding Murder In A Sealed Loft by Hal White, but I do not fit in any profile required to give comments in your blog.

      • The Dark One says:

        I don’t know if I’d call it a masterpiece, but it was the first Halter where I didn’t have some complaint. The only odd things I can think of would be the killer’s identity (which is an old trick) or maybe that headless horseman deal. That WAS silly.
        As for your answer, don’t be too concerned. It was a minor gripe. If you want I guess you could post it here? I don’t know if you can or not. Thanks for reading, by the way!

      • Not that I’m the one that called it silly, but the headless horseman stuff is a bit daft and distracts from the clever central idea. It’s nowhere near as silly as The Invisible Circle though.

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        The headless horseman stuff is only a minor part and does not detract from the entire story.Personally, I do not regard it as silly considering that the witness was heavily drunk.

      • The Dark One says:

        True. I just think it needed more fleshing out. (Also, am I the only one who finds it funny that richmcd hasn’t commented yet?)
        Also, Puzzle Doctor, does your response mean you don’t have problems with people commenting on old posts?

      • Of course not – in an ideal world there would be a way to link the comment to both reviews, but I see it as a conversation which started on The Invisible Circle and then moved onto The Demon Of Dartmoor. No problems at all.

      • The Dark One says:

        I was actually referring more to older reviews. Sometimes I going through the backlog and have something to say about an older book. Sorry for the confusion. (And sorry for letting this drag on so long!)

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    Talking of silliness, I found the film Non-Stop sillier than this!

  3. There are two aspects to this book which you vaguely allude to in order to avoid giving away spoilers. The first is the “central impossiblility” regarding the locked room murder, and finally the “one particular trick” which I assume is the surprise revealed at the very end. It’s also clear that you don’t have as much problem with the former as you do with the latter.

    For me, it’s the reverse. Paul Halter—to his credit—is very fair when it comes to this solution and the reader can’t say “How did you expect us to imagine THAT to happen?”. But even though the heart of the trick is very simple, it requires the murderer to do things that I literally see as impossible. I believe elsewhere on this blog you have ranted at the solution to the Ellery Queen novel “The American Gun Mystery.” That solution also required the murderer to be able to do several different things, and you balked at believing all of it. At the time I read it, I accepted the solution of TAGM at face value, but my incredulity to the solution to this book made me give the book four stars instead of five at Amazon.

    However, “the particular trick” at the end took me by surprise and blew me away. Granted, I can see why you believe most of the characters in the book (especially ONE character in particular) had to be blind and stupid to fall for it. I was willing to fall for it and I thought it made up for the improbability of the central solution.

    As one final note, I can’t help but note some similarities between this book and the Paul Halter young adult novel Spiral which was published by Rageot Thriller. (My review of the book is up at Amazon.co.uk.) In both books a young woman tells her lover that she has been invited to stay with a creepy uncle whom she had an unpleasant childhood experience. In both books, a person is locked and sealed inside a room at the top of a tower and is the victim of an impossible murder. I think the solution in Spiral is much more clever than The Invisible Circle and it’s a refreshing change of pace to read a Halter novel set in contemporary France. (Cel phones and texts play a major role in the plot.) Unfortunately—even if John Pugmire wanted to do so—the English-language rights to this book belong not to Paul Halter but Rageot, so unless a publisher is willing to pay them enough money the only alternative for the anglophone reader is to do what I did—slowly type the text on-line and gradually translate the book by yourself. I understand if most people don’t want to do this, but I think it is well worth the effort.

    • richmcd says:

      Spiral has interested me for a while. I think Young Adult is a good fit for modern impossible crimes, because there’s a bit more leeway for broad character strokes and coincidence, which are often needed to make all the cogs of a complex mystery mesh together. They also tend to have a livelier pace than more “adult” offerings. But my French is pretty ropey. I’ve read a few French mysteries in the past (e.g. “L’assassin habite au 21″, nothing complicated) but it was a bit of a slog. Is it as short as other Halter books?

      • It’s 234 pages, and 30 chapters—counting the epilogue (where the solution is revealed) as a chapter. Were it not for the language barrier, I think this can easily be finished in a day or two. In contrast, Le Tigre Borgne is 317 pages, 45 chapters (counting prologue and epilogue) and much smaller type so that book will take me MUCH longer to translate.

        Another thing about Spiral is that there are a LOT of twists and turns. It reminds me a bit of The Seventh Hypothesis except the unexpected twists continue throughout the book. So you aren’t just slugging through the book to find out the solution, but to find out what happened next because something new happened.

      • richmcd says:

        Thanks Edward! I forgot that Amazon lets you look at the first chapters of some books. I took a look, and even with my rubbish French I was able to read the first few pages unassisted. It’s written in a pretty accessible style. So I think I’ll give it a go when work calms down.

        Out of interest, did you end up with a “finished” translation, or did you just translate it enough to get a rough understanding? Obviously such a translation wouldn’t be particularly useful, what with the copyright issue, but it feels like it might be an interesting experience to try and make one.

      • @Richmdc

        Let me answer your question with a question. Do you have an e-mail address? I was looking at your blog for a “contact” option and couldn’t find one…

      • richmcd says:

        Oh dear. I should really do a better job of maintaining my blog. But a combination of laziness, illness, travelling and trying to migrate to a new combined site with my editing business means I keep putting it off. Bleugh.

        Lets start as I mean to go on by giving you my email address for everything writing/mystery related: thewanderingeditor [at] gmail [dot] com

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I am at one with the Puzzle Doctor on this issue. I don’t have a problem with the “central impossibility” but I have problems with the “one particular trick” as I have mentioned in my review at Amazon.

    • This isn’t the place to do it, but I’ll explain my problem with the “central impossibility” (with spoiler warning) in a comment to your Amazon review.

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Edward, I have replied to your comments at Amazon. Regarding your suggestion to use Google Translate, a more practical method would be to learn the French language (at least the basics) and then use Google Translate for the difficult words.

      • richmcd says:

        Santosh, I can’t tell if that’s withering sarcasm or not… :) Personally I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone but the most hardcore or masochistic. But if someone is going to try, I think Edward’s method should be fine.

        Google Translate isn’t brilliant…

        (ACADEMIC EDITOR’S ASIDE: Dear clients, stop using it to avoid paying translation fees. It doesn’t work and it makes me cry.)

        …but for this sort of personal project it’s fine. It’s really come on leaps and bounds in recent years. Since you’ve already got have an inkling of the sorts of the thing the text will be about, I think even someone who doesn’t know a word of French would be able to produce a rough translation in a few weeks with sufficient determination.

        On the other hand, even with the lovely Michel Thomas warbling in your ear, learning even basic French will take months to years and is a pain in the arse!

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Some time back, I attempted to learn to speak French, but the weird pronunciations scared me off and I gave up the attempt. However I am now learning Written French without regard to the pronunciation of the words and I find that it is not that difficult. In my mind I pronounce the French words as I would English words, which would be quite hilarious to a French speaker. My only purpose is to be able to understand written French.
        I am making good progress.

      • @Santosh Iyer

        I do not dispute that learning French is the best option. I would say that using Google Translate is like swimming across a river while learning French is walking across a bridge. But since some bridges take years to construct, in the meantime swimming will do. Besides, I find that the in the act of typing French into my computer, getting the translation, and then “translating the translation” I can’t help but notice certain words and phrases that are used again and again. In other words—despite myself—I’m actually learning a bit of French in the process of doing this.

        Now if only I could find an English equivalent for “l’interpellé” which Halter loves to use in conversations, this would be a lot easier…

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        This is regarding “l’interpellé”. Interpellé is a past participle and refers to the person hailed or called out or addressed or questioned. It is generally used in an aggressive sense like somone stopped or taken into custody and questioned by the police or other authorities. I do not think there is an exact English word for this.

      • @Santosh Iyer

        Exactly. This is one of those words and phrases where although you know exactly what it means, you have difficulty translating it because there is no exact equivalent for it in English.

  5. Move house for a couple of days and the comments pile up!

    Edward – I take your point that while I appreciate the central trick with the object, I agree that the remaining efforts necessary to use that trick are pretty unlikely. It’s not The Problem Of The Wire Cage but it shares something with the nonsense of that one. The other aspect of the book, though, is so unfeasible that I’m wondering more and more if this was supposed to be a spoof. It does share a little with the film Sleuth…

    As for Google Translate – it’s not perfect enough for me. I read a few pages of a translation that “someone” did of a certain book but the English was off just enough that it was bothering me too much. I’d much prefer a professional translator to do it, although I’ve read one or two ropey ones of those.

    • Thank you. It’s too bad there probably will never be an “official” translation of Spiral but I’m grateful that imperfect as my efforts were, I was able enough to understand what Halter was doing to appreciate his work.

      The one other Halter book which in the future I’d love to see an official translation to is Le Tigre Borgne. The rights to that are owned by Halter, but it’s a long book. If John Pugmire is focusing on translating two Paul Halter books a year, I can readily understand why he is focusing on smaller books like The Invisible Circle rather than longer works like Tigre. But the locked room in this case takes place in an Indian palace where a maharajah has locked himself in a tower behind three doors. There are ten handpicked guards and a baby elephant in the courtyard, and hungry crocodiles in the lake surrounding the island where the palace is. Naturally, he still gets bumped off.

      Whether you learn French properly or cheat like I do and try to use Google as a shortcut, I think this book is probably worth the effort of reading.

  6. This is off-topic, but I’ve just finished The Arabian Nights Murder by John Dickson Carr. The mystery itself is interesting and the solution is brilliant. The only problem is Carr’s stilted and dated dialogue makes it very difficult to read, and I doubt that many mystery fans who aren’t already die-hard fans of this genre would make it through to the end.

    The estate of John Dickson Carr would never agree to this, but I’d love to see Paul Halter re-write the dialogue. He wouldn’t have to change any of the plot twists—just write it in French that anybody who knows French can understand, and I’d trust his friend John Pugmire to do the rest.

    Last thing—this isn’t an impossible crime, but it’s still pretty good. It reminds me an awful lot of the “Nationality Noun” Mysteries by Ellery Queen in the 30’s.

    • richmcd says:

      Maybe I’m being dozy, but I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at here. I agree that Arabian Nights is a slog (it’s surprisingly popular, though, for reasons I don’t quite understand). Carr’s got a good sense of constructing a mystery and leading the reader by the nose, but as far as the nuts and bolts of writing go he’s AWFUL. Easily the worst of the Golden Age writers in terms of technique.

      But is Halter (by way of Pugmire) that much better? Yes it’s well-paced, but I think that’s a concerted effort to strip out as much as humanly possible and still have a plot, characters and a mystery. Which as an editor I’m 100% in favour of! Carr’s books, even the short ones, are sometimes 40% waffle.

      But I really think it’s just a good attitude towards editing (Carr was incredibly touchy about it, I believe), rather than a matter of style. Most of Halter’s dialogue doesn’t remotely resemble human conversation. Read the first section of The Invisible Circle out loud. Sure, it’s not as bad as the weird “radio play” style Carr adopts in later books (“Look at that man in the corner of the waiting room of this busy suburban railway station, Cecilia, my dearest sister, the one who’s about five foot eight with the close cropped hair and the look of consternation in his narrow eyes.”). But it’s still exposition shoehorned between quotation marks.

      Or take this example from a bit later on: “So, Josiah” said Gail in his stentorian voice, “you’re now the acknowledged expert on all things ‘Arthurian’. Those recent theories about the Holy Grail and the Round Table have now been accepted, even though they were a surprise to many at first.”

      That’s… that’s really bad. Like “comedy example in a writing book about how NOT to do it bad.”

      To be clear: I’m not sure this matters much. These are still eminently readable puzzle mysteries. Dialogue doesn’t need to be realistic to be good and “accepted” wisdom on good and bad technique isn’t always appropriate. But I just don’t see that Halter’s technique is really that different from Carr’s.

      • Maybe in the case of Halter I’m willing to overlook it because it’s not AS big of a chore to read as Carr was in this book, and partly because I wonder if it’s the language barrier. In the back of my mind, I sometimes wonder if what seems slightly odd in Halter’s writing is actually quite natural dialogue for French people and this French style of dialogue gets reflected in Pugmire’s translation.

  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    By the way, Edward, have you read the recently released The Derek Smith Omnibus ? I am interested in it and likely to buy it soon. The first novel of the omnibus Whistle Up The Devil is supposed to be a masterpiece. It is the third novel in history to contain a Locked Room Lecture after The Hollow Man by Carr and Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson.

    • I am going to wait for that. I’m looking forward to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and then the new edition of The Lord of Misrule which is coming out in September. I figure that The Derek Smith Omnibus will stay in print the rest of the year and I can get it later.

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        I was also looking forward to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. But I learn today that it has been deferred indefinitely. A disappointment.

  8. Pingback: The Puzzly – The ISOTCMN Book Of The Month – July 2014 | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have just finished reading Whistle Up The Devil, the first novel in the Derek Smith omnibus. It is really a masterpiece, not to be missed. There are 2 impossible murders and both the solutions are really ingenious (and simple unlike the Invisible Circle). I am now looking forward to the remaining 2 novels.
    The omnibus is now available in kindle edition.

  10. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have finished reading the Derek Smith Omnibus. My review is available at Amazon.

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