‘Three victims of an invisible creature… mysterious cards found near the crime scenes… and a headless horseman riding up into the sky. if this goes on, I’ll go back to my childhood and start believing in the big, bad wolf.’
A couple of months ago, J.J. at The Invisible Event issued an open invitation to bloggers.
It is two months today until Paul Halter’s 60th birthday… and so I’ll doubtless try to post something to mark this occasion. Can I interest anyone in joining me and posting something Paul Halter-related – a book review, an opinion piece, a collection of his cover art…whatever, go crazy – on your blog on 19th June 2016?
And so, if I have set this up right, that’s what I’m doing.
Halter is a contemporary French author who writes very much in the impossible-crime tradition of John Dickson Carr, so makes a suitable blogman’s holiday for a classic crime reader. I was keen to give him a whirl. Never having read Halter, I sought guidance on where to begin. The Picture from the Past, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Invisible Circle, and Death Invites You were all suggested, but I opted for The Demon of Dartmoor based largely on the blurb.
Demon centres on the small Devon village of Stapleford and begins with the death of a barmaid at the hands of an invisible assailant. She is seen being pushed down the side of local landmark Wish Tor – by nobody at all. She is not the first victim of nobody at all. Fifty years earlier, Madeleine Hall was pushed down the stairs of Trerice Manor, and a year ago, another barmaid fell down the same cliff. A third girl falls in the following year. It seems that Stapleford is haunted by a demonic lover with a penchant for murder.
‘I’m quite sure there’s a creature straight out of hell living in the village in the guise of someone completely normal.’
The police are baffled, obviously.
Ten years pass (we are now in the 1940s), and the village is graced by the presence of famous actor Nigel Manson and his new wife Helen. Manson, fascinated by the story of Madeleine Hall, buys Trerice Manor. To further enliven his domestic life, he also invites his mistress Nathalie Marvell and her former lover to a house party. This bit actually seems the most improbable part of the story.
When Manson is pushed out of his window in front of 4 witnesses, one of whom is actually taking a photograph of him at the time, with no killer in sight, the specialists are called in. Of Halter’s 40 novels, 21 feature the investigators Chief Inspector Hurst and Dr Twist, experts in insoluble crimes, but even they find this situation a bit of a poser.
(I would say I didn’t get much of a feel for Hurst and Twist and ended up joining up the dots to work out who does what in their partnership. Maybe you need to read a few more books to get to know them well.)
Aside from that, what did I think? Well, first of all, I was surprised that the solution wasn’t wildly improbable. From Halter’s reputation I was expecting ice bullets, asthma inhalers filled with rare Amazonian poisons, or some kind of fiendish clockwork device. Instead, the killer has actually been quite straight-forward, once everything has been explained. Would their method actually work? Possibly yes, with a following wind.
Secondly, and also based on Halter’s reputation, I was expecting plot to massively outweigh characterisation, but again I was surprised. Admittedly, Halter doesn’t give us vivid thumbnail sketches of his characters, or insightful moral analyses, but they’re not terrible. Then again, I have been mainly reading Golden Age detection for a few years so maybe I’m desensitised…
So overall, a satisfying mystery with a spooky set-up (‘The horse… the horse and the headless horseman… nobody believed me.’) and a good read for an impossible-crime fans.
By the way, John Pugmire at Locked Room International is largely responsible for Halter’s English readership, having published (and I think translated) twelve of his novels. Good work, sir.
The Demon of Dartmoor
First published in France, 1993
This edition, Locked Room International, 2012
160 pages in print
Beneath the Stains of Time: Nigel Manson’s impossible tumble from one of the top-floor windows was a lot better explained and the solution, risky and no-success guaranteed, may impress some readers as implausible and impractical, but Halter convinced me with its deadly simplicity and even provides the murderer with a backup plan in case anything goes wrong.
At the Scene of the Crime: Overall, Le Diable de Dartmoor is a triumph. If I were to create a list of the 100 greatest locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, it would make its way on that list. Halter does everything right, and it’s just a wonderful read from start to finish.