Death Invites You (1988) by Paul Halter (transl. John Pugmire 2016)

Death Invites You: Halter, Paul, Pugmire, John: 9781518668753:  Books

Anyone who has read an impossible crime novel in the last ten years (or in the last 40 years, if you speak French!) probably needs no introduction to Paul Halter. With an impressive workload of over forty novels, nearly all locked room mysteries, his name has become something of a byword for modern specialists in the impossible crime, particularly those who carry the torch of semi-Gothic, semi-horror, entirely macabre tales of murders in locked rooms initially carried by the American king himself, John Dickson Carr. Some have even ambitiously called the man “The French King of Impossible Crimes”!

Admittedly, I was put off for quite some time because a close acquaintance of mine whose opinion I hold in high regard is not one of those who think of Halter as Carr’s second coming, and when I finally did sit down to read Halter it was through his short stories, which I found particularly unimpressive. With such a towering reputation behind him, however, it was hard for me to continue not reading his novels, and just another three months later I finally sat down with Death Invites You, originally published in 1988 as La Mort Vous Invite.

Death Invites You is the second novel featuring one of Halter’s two series detectives, Dr. Twist. In it, Sergeant Simon Cunningham is summoned in secret to a dinner hosted by his father-in-law-to-be, Harold Vickers, a famous specialist in the impossible crime novel (whose much-lauded works suspiciously parallel quite a few of Halter’s subsequent novels…). Upon arriving, he finds that Harold Vickers, who had a habit of shutting himself away for extended periods of time, was locked in his study and refusing to answer the call of his wife. After breaking in, they find that Harold Vickers has been murdered many hours ago, with a full many-course meal of still-steaming foods laid out for guests. Upon further investigation, a lone glove is found with the body, a tub half-filled with water is sat under the window, and all possible entrances to the study were perfectly locked, making this death perfectly mirror an unpublished locked room written that the victim was in the process of writing!

Needless to say, I was immediately hooked. Mysteries where a mystery writer is killed in a way that mimics their writing are ripe with interest, and the presence of an “impossible meal” on top of the locked room murder was an incredibly novel premise from a writer well-known for inventing new types of impossible crime. I instantly felt all of my doubts I had about Halter as a writer fall away, and I read the book through to its conclusion in no time!

The investigation and plot move along at a brisk pace. Rarely did I feel like the book meandered on one point for too long, but I also never once felt like Halter was trying to rush through to the end either. Admittedly in the second half the book gets a little messy, with a decent number of only vaguely relevant interpersonal scenes with the victim’s family. The greatest sin of the book’s narration is the largely unnecessary back-and-forth regarding the question of the victim’s identity, which majorly exists to poke fun at a well-known trope in the genre and to establish one clue in the single most overlong way the book could have managed. Nonetheless, though, even when the book gets somewhat messy in plotting, it’s still enjoyable to read and definitely encourages you to keep a steady pace.

Halter’s greatest and most well-recorded weakness is his lack of deep characterization. That’s true in Death Invites You, without any shadow of a doubt. Even writing this review, I struggle to remember any of the characters’ names, because so many of them just made no impression. The chief focus is the investigation and clues, and that’s naturally divisive. While I personally am beyond ecstatic to read an entirely puzzle-oriented locked room mystery, that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and some may find the shallow characters off-putting. I found it welcoming, and exactly what I was looking for.

Unfortunately, despite its clear place in the forefront of Death Invites You and its narrative, the locked room puzzle is incredibly disappointing. The solution to this problem is obvious the second it makes itself known for those seasoned literary detectives who know what to look for, and ironically is easier to figure out BEFORE the novel introduces you to the central clues. It’s admittedly an old and recognizable trick, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “cliche”, it still failed to leave me gobstopped and actually left me deeply upset when the suspicion that lingered in the back of my head — the solution I hoped it WOULDN’T be — turned out to be true.

I think a huge part of the reason why the solution wasn’t very satisfying, even if it isn’t too worn, is that the premise promises more. The whole affair with the murder mimicking the novel is just stage-dressing — red herrings the killer left to muddy the waters of investigation. And that’s sad! The tricks that Halter could’ve played with involving the tub of water had so much potential to be massively more satisfying than those the true solution offered. While the best red herrings have engaging and relevant alternative explanations, those in this sort of story are wasted, meaning simply nothing.

Had I been Halter, the way I would’ve handled this would be to have an actual solution to the problem as it’s presented in the “inner-book” so the clues could actually resolve themselves in the story-within-the-story. Offering a real solution to the “faked clues” would highlight Halter’s creativity, and not leave us feeling like he just made up whatever he wanted to because it would prove to be fictional. And, on top of that, it would allow the solution to the inner-book’s locked room problem to act as a false solution for the locked room we’re dealing with in the actual novel, drawing surprise from seeing how the killer deviated from the fictional story — perhaps, even, by having the solution in the inner-novel be scientifically or logically dubious as a way to clue at the fact the killer didn’t really replicate his fictional counterpart’s methods, because he couldn’t! Halter could’ve had his cake and eaten it too, but instead he chose to offer us a slice of frosted cardboard cylinder tubes.

If it isn’t apparent, I’m not entirely pleased with my first feature-length offering by Paul Halter. The book has an engaging premise and a competent investigation that builds your hopes up, but the solution is a big fat disappointment that’s only half of what you expect, with little depth to justify the lacking puzzle. I can’t in good conscience recommend Death Invites You to any locked room enthusiast.

Will I return to Halter’s works in the future, though? Undoubtedly. There are two clues in the novel that are incredibly clever and, even with the disappointing solution surrounding them, highlight Halter’s deep love for the genre. One of these is a particular scene involving the painting perfectionist, and the other involves “The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Arthur Conan Doyle”. These two little points are enough to convince me to give Halter more chances, if only to see where he goes from here.

6 thoughts on “Death Invites You (1988) by Paul Halter (transl. John Pugmire 2016)

  1. JJ November 2, 2020 / 2:01 pm

    I understand where you’re coming from with this, but put in context — Halter’s third novel, I believe, written at the end of the 1980s when the puzzle tradition had been scorned for many decades and so the sort of game-playing you talk about wouldn’t have been met with any enthusiasm — I think deserves a littl more credit.

    It’s great at what it does, essentially setting and and clearly resolving an apparently impossible crime when a lot of the audience likely to read this might not have known what such a thing was, and the little solutions you wanted more from (the tub of water) I loved for the banality which undercut the sense of import built around them: as you say, it rockets past, because there’s so much fun to have with the setup and the games he might play.

    I think there’s a tendency to be disappointed when we don’t get a dazzling solution, but I’m coming down more in favour of a baffling problem intelligently used rather than everything needing to also be brilliant or original in its explanation, too. That’s…simply not possible. I hope you enjoy whatever Halter you read next more 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Isaac Stump November 2, 2020 / 2:21 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, J. J.!

      In my own defense, my problem wasn’t with the trick itself but the trick in relation to the set-up. Admittedly, I’ve seen this sort of “killer fakes a crime scene to muddy the waters” bit a few times before, and I’ve always had the same thought as I expressed in the review here. That is, the mundane solution where the clues are banal and meaningless would’ve been amazing and much more satisfying and surprising if they were brought to their inner-fictional resolutions. Had Halter given us the solution to the book Harold Vickers was writing, and then it later turned out that Vickers’s killer had done exactly as he or she had already done in the book, I would’ve been a bit more invested! We would’ve gotten some payoff from the clues in a brilliant solution-idea. And, by establishing that there IS a solution to be reached with them, you only give them more relevance and importance as the investigators try to overlay this fictional solution to the real murder. The fictional solution can now act as a false solution for the mystery, and honestly I think that would’ve muddied the waters even more! Beyond that, it also leads us to believe that the killer is someone who knew the methods their fictional counterpart used to commit the murder, and thus replicated them — the fact the killer didn’t actually know, the fact the killer didn’t actually replicate the novel’s solution would’ve been so much more misdirected, in my opinion. And on top of making what the book already did much more satisfying, it still gives us some payoff and explanation for the tub of water while undercutting that with the banality of the real solution.

      I land in the camp that… I’d rather a banal problem explained spectacularly. But the trick is only part of the deal, and I think what really steals the show is the clues and reasoning that brings you to the solution. The actual locked room trick is only a portion of the solution, and the misdirection is its better half. How the killer continues to point you away from the trick, and how the audience and the detective can see through that misdirection, is as much if not more a part of the solution than the trick itself, and I feel like in that regard this set-up and trick could’ve done a lot better.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thegreencapsule November 9, 2020 / 4:24 pm

    I read this a few months ago and had a similar reaction to you. The setup is extremely impressive, but the rest of the story doesn’t match pretty much anything else I’ve read by Halter (which is odd, as this seems to be regarded as one of his better books). I encourage you to keep going though; Halter has some amazing reads: The Madman’s Room, The Demon of Dartmoor, The Seven Wonders of Crime, The Seventh Hypothesis, and The Tiger’s Head are all must read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isaac Stump November 9, 2020 / 7:43 pm

      The Demon of Dartmoor, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Tiger’s Head (and also The Fourth Door and The Invisible Circle) are my planned to-read Halter’s! I’ve heard very mixed things about Seven Wonders, but I plan to get to it eventually. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • thegreencapsule November 9, 2020 / 7:57 pm

        Yeah, I had only recalled hearing negative things about The Seven Wonders, but I read it a week or so ago and it was a blast.

        Liked by 1 person

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