The Vampire Tree by Paul Halter

Vampire TreeNewly-wed Patricia Sheridan moves into her new home in the village of Lightwood, she has no idea of the horror that awaits. Outside the house stands an old tree, said to be the burial site of a child-killing witch. In more recent times, however, it was the site of the death of a young man, strangled to death – in the snow with only his own footprints leading to the tree itself.

While Patricia becomes obsessed with the diary of the young man’s fiancée Lavinia, it seems that there are present day horrors as well. Young children are being found with their throats cut – but with a surprising lack of blood in the vicinity. Is there a vampire active in the area? And is it actually a tree? Or something…

Actually, the Vampire Tree bit is a translation issue – the actual French title was L’arbre aux doigts tordus – The Tree With Twisted Branches. But the title isn’t the issue here.

Paul Halter is one of the most inconsistent authors that I review. Some of his books are works of genius – The Demon Of Dartmoor or Death Invites You for example – and some of them have been disappointing. This one, though, is off the scale – but in the wrong direction.

I’m not going to bang on about this for too long, but:

  • The central characters are cardboard cut-outs at best. Patricia has issues – she has occasional blackouts/occasional mood swings/frequent mood swings (it seems to change at different points in the book) with a reason that is later revealed, but the notion that she thinks she might be a vampire never seems to make sense. That idea has been done much better elsewhere.
  • The impossible crimes are weak. The death at the tree has a very disappointing resolution – it’s even worse that the standard death in the snow solution – and I’m not even convinced that the vanishing blood is supposed to be an impossibility.
  • The motive simply doesn’t work. I can see where the author is going with this as a study of insanity, but it just feels so artificial. The killer is obvious from early on, the fake suspects being utterly unconvincing, but the murderer’s scheme is utterly ridiculous. And why does nobody seem particularly worried that someone is slaughtering children, even to extent of letting some of them go to the funfair alone?
  • Alan Twist just feels shoe-horned into this story. It’s a bit like shoving Poirot into something like Endless Night. The story is going for an emotional dark tone which doesn’t feel as if it’s part of a series and it’s not as if Twist really achieves anything here…

So, a massive understatement – I bought this as soon as it came out but I think I’ll wait for the reviews before buying the next one. When Halter’s good, he’s very good, but this one is Not Recommended.

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32 comments

  1. I have read 6 chapters and I have already come across something absurd. The spots where the bodies of the three children are discovered are marked on a map . These points are joined to form a triangle and the medians drawn. The intersection of the medians called the barycentre or centroid is determined. There are three villages close to this barycentre but “Lightwood is slightly closer than the others”. Hence the Police suspect that the culprit is from Lightwood !
    The theory is that “this kind of killer lives at the centre of his crimes.He rarely kills close to home but strikes further away, changing the spot each time and turning in a circle around his home base.” (Even if true, the home of the killer should be the cicumcentre and not the barycentre ! 🙂
    .

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  2. I’m about as far in as Santosh and I agree with you entirely, P.D.! This falls into Invisible Circle territory, and sadly the translation doesn’t help. Expect my periodic Halter rant in the near future.

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  3. I have not yet read the book, but I hope that I like it more than the Puzzle Doctor does. What worries me is the obvious killer, because this can be a problem with me. I don’t if I can guess the killer, or even if the killer seems a LITTLE obvious as in Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As The End. But when the killer is so BLINDLINGLY obvious as in Christie’s They Do It With Mirrors or the first killer in Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills (sorry, JJ!) it doesn’t matter how clever the impossible crime is achieved. (In fact, my dissatisfaction with how obvious the killer was in House is a major reason why I have put off buying Noel Vindry’s second English translated book “The Howling Beast”.)

    I’ll give a fuller review of this after Christmas when I plan to read this.

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    • Don’t let the obvious first killer in THTK (and I don’t deny the obviousness, I really don’t) put you off The Howling Beast — I can’t believe Vindry intended it to be especially baffling given the innovation elsewhere in that first novel, and THB is superior in every regard. See THTK as the apprentive work of someone trying to limitations of what detective fiction could achieve — and therefore a 45% successful endeavour — and THB as the far more confident later go-around.

      But, of god’s sake, if you do opt for THB, just read it without reading about it — go in unspoiled and anticipating another attempt at some conventions being stirred and no more.

      Ahem. I shall sit down now.

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      • Something to do with the estate wanting to know exactly how many have been sold, I think. John replied to someone making this query in the comments somewhere on the LRI blog page, and I seem to remember it being something along these lines…

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      • @Puzzle Doctor

        This is only a guess, but I suspect it costs more to create a paper book than an e-book, and Locked Room International doesn’t want to print a set of books and EVERYBODY buys the e-book instead. Paul Halter may not be as well-known or best selling as Agatha Christie, but he does have a fan base in the English speaking world. Noel Vindry doesn’t. So it’s possible that LRI is waiting for enough paper books actually sell before considering putting out an e-book edition.

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      • @JJ

        I probably will check out The Howling Beast, but I’m not in a hurry to drop $20 on a book anytime soon. I will take your advice and avoid reading about this book to avoid spoilers which right now is very easy to do—there are no reviews at all on Amazon. I may have to remedy that myself later should I read that book.

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      • @Puzzle Doctor Since Santosh has answered my question, could you please delete my other speculative post? My guess was nowhere near the mark and God knows there’s been too much “fake news” on the internet without me adding to it!

        @Santosh Thanks for the information. I really appreciate it!

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    • I finished The Howling Beast today and was much more impressed with it than The House That Kills. JJ does have a good suggestion about going into the book cold because it’s hard to summerize the plot without giving spoilers because it’s only near the end of the book when the actual crime takes place. I still think Paul Halter is a better writer, but this makes me appreciate Noel Vindry more.

      Would I like to eventually read a Puzzle Doctor review of The Howling Beast? Sure, but I can’t blame him for not wanting to spend £14 to get a copy of a book to review. For me, the next LRI release that I’m really looking forward to is more Japanese translations if The Maori Island Puzzle and The Decagon House Murders are signs of how good “shinhonkaku” books really are. (Also “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders”. Although that was not published by LRI, John Pugmire was the original editor and he’s thanked in the recent re-publication.)

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  4. When I first read about this title, I looked at the Paul Halter thread on the old JDCarr forum and it was indeed the book I remembered getting a very unfavorable review back in the days. I wish we would have finally gotten a Halter translation of the one about the time traveller, or the minotaur’s murder in a sealed labyrinth or the one with the Herculean-themed serial killer who commits no less than seven impossible crimes. Ah, well, I still have to look into Death Invites You. So there’s that.

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    • I guess that it’s the ones whose French editions are in the same style as the ones that have already been translated, so Eddie is probably right with what’s coming next. What worries me a bit is why this was picked ahead of the others – which also seem to include Penelope’s Web and The Curse of Barbarossa – surely they are better than this.

      I suppose it’s possible that this is one that Halter himself wanted translated. It has the whiff of a book that the author was proud of due to its difference.

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  5. @TomCat

    From what I understand, Paul Halter himself doesn’t own the rights to all the books he has written. I recently finished (with the help of Google Translate) Halter’s book set in India, Le Tigre Borgne (“The One-Eyed Tiger.”) For that reason, this book won’t be translated into English anytime soon, and I strongly suspect any Halter book published with a yellow cover and a “mask” emblem may fall into this category as well. However, I think that books with pictures on their covers are probably ones that can—and hopefully will—be eventually translated by John Pugmire. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that L’Arbre aux doigts tordus is one of the first books that pops up on Amazon’s French Paul Halter page. I would not be surprised if Le Masque du vampire or La Tombe indienne is next.

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  6. I wrote to John Pugmire whether the Noel Vindry books could be made available in kindle editions, but he said that the Vindry estate is against the issuance of e-books and hence these will be available only as print books.

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  7. I have finished the book.
    I have no problem with the solution of the impossible crime (strangling of Eric). It is perfectly possible, simple and properly clued.
    The motive of the serial killer is utterly bizarre and far-fetched. However, the theme of a character being so engrossed in Greek mythology that they imitate completely the actions of a character from the mythology (no matter how fantastic) is found in other Paul Halter novels also. Examples are Les douze crimes d’Hercules and La nuit du Minotaure (both not yet translated to English).
    My major complaint against the book is that the actions of the culprit to implicate another person will simply not work. Won’t the companion see what the culprit is doing ?
    The barycentre thing is bullshit. Depending on the nature of the triangle, it is possible that the barycentre is close to one vertex and far from another vertex. The circumcentre is more feasible, but even that is doubtful.
    Also, the translation seems to stumble at several places.

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  8. Regarding availability of Vindry books as ebooks, I quote John Pugmire’s exact words: “Alas, the Vindry estate will not agree to license e-books, so there is nothing I can do about that.”

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  9. There’s an old American joke you may have heard of about pizza and sex. The punch line is that with both, even when they are bad, they’re pretty good. This is not one of Paul Halter’s best works—but I still like it. When I later give a review of it on Amazon.com, I plan to give it four stars. That being said, here some caveats.

    1) Don’t go into this book expecting a great impossible crime mystery. The only IC is the death of Eric beneath the “vampire tree” of the title, and the crime itself isn’t emphasized in this book. The focus is on the child murders in the present which may be committed by a modern vampire. I found the solution to the vampire tree hanging simple but improbable. (Improbable is not impossible.) The psychology behind this murder is actually more interesting than the crime itself. But don’t pin your hopes too much on it.

    2) Don’t expect a great chain of reasoning solution where Dr. Twist explains how it could only be one criminal. In fact, he doesn’t solve ANYTHING in this book. Explaining something after the fact is not the same as showing how clues point to only one killer.

    3. Don’t expect a happy ending. ‘Nuff said.

    That being said, I have to add that I have no idea why the Puzzle Doctor and others on this thread think the killer is obvious. Paul Halter had me guessing until the end. I’m wondering if the Puzzle Doctor thinks any mystery where he correctly guesses the murderer’s identity is weak. My criteria for a bad “obvious killer” mystery is where either the solution to the mystery is so obvious that everybody else in the book seems like a moron for not figuring it out, or the killer’s behaviour makes it so obvious that they did it that it’s unbelievable that the police don’t arrest them, even if the “howdunit” is still in doubt.

    Two examples of this: They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie and The House That Kills by Noel Vindry.

    This is NOT the case. That being said, I don’t see anything in the book that points to the killer other than veteran mystery readers guessing, “this guy is too obvious, so it’s probably…her!” Granted, you will get this a lot in modern mysteries where there isn’t a Golden Age puzzle solution, but this is Paul Halter, so we expect better.

    However, I do like the suspense that builds up in the book in both the present day (actually the 50’s or 60’s) and the 1890’s during Lavinia’s story. I think Paul Halter wanted to tell a gothic mystery steeped in vampire lore like some of JD Carr’s works, and added Twist and Hurst because he figured fans would expect them. I think this book might have been improved if they weren’t there.

    But I still enjoyed reading it up until the very end, and I don’t regret buying it. As to the very end? Well, that would reveal spoilers…

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    • Well, I thought it was obvious not because I guessed it, but because it felt inevitable. The shape of the tale just seemed predictable and by the end of the book I was waiting for the character to be revealed as the killer, rather than waiting to find out who the killer was. It wasn’t a guess, per se, but a certainty that I rarely get from top rate crime fiction. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too much crime fiction, but I also expect some element of logic in the criminal’s plan, rather than the explosion of nuttiness herein.

      I think you’re in a minority here, but if everyone agreed with everyone else, life would be boring, wouldn’t it?

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      • Yup. I certainly agree. I hope the fact that I was surprised by the revelation of the killer didn’t come off as an attack on those like you who weren’t.

        As to the killer’s motives, well that person was insane and I think Halter wanted his book to be as close as you can get to a vampire horror novel without bringing in the supernatural.

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