JJ, over at The Invisible Event, has organised a set of posts today for Paul Halter Day – namely the 60th birthday of Paul Halter. If you’re not aware of Paul’s work, the most common epithet applied to him is the “heir to John Dickson Carr” or “the French John Dickson Carr”. I thought I’d spend a little time trying to knock that comparison on the head. I’ll explain why…
John Dickson Carr was the undisputed master of the locked room mystery – and to be clear, I’m going to use “locked room mystery” as a phrase that encompasses the impossible crime genre. Because Carr didn’t just use the locked room. Over the course of his career, there are invisible murderers, murderers who float over snow, murderers who float over sand, murderers who float over the edge of cliffs, murderers who float over tennis courts, murderers who kill without a touch and all sorts of associated puzzles. He had other common occurrences as well – there are a number of relationships that go from unbridled hatred to happy marriage in the space of 200 hundred pages – but the locked room is what he is famous for.
This is exactly what Paul Halter is famous for, as well. The impossible crime is the centrepiece of his work as well. But there is a noticeable difference between their work – and that is where the crux of my argument lies.
Let us consider two case studies, as I’ve picked them as examples of the authors’ more complicated tales. In Carr’s The Problem Of The Wire Cage, a man is found strangled in the centre of a clay tennis court, where the only footprints leading to the body belong to the victim. There follow many misunderstandings and complications, in part due to the efforts of some characters to cover up their misdemeanours that may lead the police to suspect them of something worse (i.e. the murder) and in part due to bizarrely complex method of murder. But you can sum up the plot in a simple sentence – a man is strangled on a tennis court, with no footprints leading to the body.
Now try and sum up the basic death in Death Invites You. A man is found dead locked in his room, face down in a hot frying pan, surrounded by a freshly cooked three course meal that hadn’t been prepared in the house kitchen, a scene which directly mirrors the plot of the victim’s latest novel that nobody apparently knew about and there’s a random bowl of water on the floor by the window. Can you spot the difference?
Carr was the master of a simple set-up with a usually complex solution. Take She Died A Lady – a couple walk to the edge of a cliff and jump off – only when their bodies are found at the bottom of the cliff, they have both been shot. It takes some shenanigans to explain what’s going on, but it’s a simple problem.
Compare it with Halter’s The Tiger’s Head. Even without the idea of body parts turning up in suitcases in railway stations, the central idea of a Major who has returned from India with a tiger-headed cane that can summon a genie who is promptly murdered by that genie in a locked room – there is a witness to the genie, by the way – is a much more complex set-up. Admittedly, the solution that Halter comes up with to the appearance of the genie is not his strongest, but the set-up is wonderful.
I was pondering what Carr’s most fantastic set-up was, and the best I could come up with was The Hollow Man – a masked murderer walks into a room, kills its occupant and promptly vanishes – but even then, it’s a fairly straightforward problem with a complex solution. Whereas Halter embraces the fantastic from page one of the book.
This is the reason why Halter shouldn’t be seen as the heir to Carr, as in my opinion, the only traits that their work shares is the impossible crime. Halter’s tales are much more imaginative, even fantastic. Take The Picture From The Past, one of my favourites, that has a clairvoyant predicting their own death, a picture that continues to disturb the lead character and an acid bath murderer. And that doesn’t even come close to hinting at what lies beneath the tale. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an audacious trick of the sort that Carr never even tried to come close to. Or The Seven Wonders Of Crime, where a serial killer plans to commit seven impossible crimes based on the seven wonders of the ancient world – and Halter (mostly) pulls it off, in particular with a stunning motive for the plot.
To be fair, it doesn’t always work. Take The Demon Of Dartmoor, where a beautifully simple impossible crime – one of my favourite that I’ve ever seen – has to fight for attention with a headless horseman. Or The Crimson Fog, where I don’t personally feel that the two parts of the tale particularly gel, although I am in the minority here. But when it works, like in The Invisible Circle, The Phantom Passage and, in particular, The Seventh Hypothesis, which in itself is a very different tale than you might expect from the author, while still being unmistakably Halter.
So let’s celebrate Paul Halter for what he is. Take him out of the shadow of Carr and give him his own title. The modern master of the locked room? The master of the fantastic impossible crime? Who knows? Let’s just hope that there are plenty more translations of his work for us monolinguists to come. So thanks to John Pugmire for those that have come so far from Locked Room International and here’s to many more!