The Fourth Door (1987) by Paul Halter (transl. John Pugmire 1999)

Humor me for a moment, while I tell you a riddle that has nothing to do with the coming review.

A man is found, hanged to death, inside of a barn. There are no chairs, tables or any other sorts of furniture for the man to have kicked himself off of. He’s too high off the ground to have hung himself, and yet the barn was locked from the inside, precluding from the possibilities murder of any sort. So, how did the man die?

Well, we’ve all heard the riddle before. The solution is, naturally, that the man stood on top of a sheep, or a goat and jumped off to hang himself and the poor complicit animal simply walked off to another part of the barn, away from the body.

Notice how you practically have all the information you need right there in that paragraph. To figure it out demanded no strenuous detection or investigation — just a creative reconstruction of the information as it’s observed from the first pass. One could even argue there’s any other number of possible solutions besides the intended one… Such is the nature of the lateral thinking problem. Fun, short bursts of creative, semi-misleading problems. One can only wonder how such an exercise would fare if stretched well out over a full novel…


The Fourth Door (originally published in French as La quatrième porte) is the apprentice novel by Paul Halter, who people would have you believe is the second coming of The King of Locked-Room Mysteries John Dickson Carr himself, the Da Vinci of sealed rooms and how to commit murder inside of them. Incidentally, the second post on this blog is a review of Halter’s second novel, Death Invites You, which I felt had a dreadfully uninspired resolution and cheap misdirection, and I’m only motivated to read more Halter on merit of some delightfully clever clues…

The Darnley home has become something of a local legend in this quaint Oxford-adjacent village, ever since the night when Mrs. Darnley apparently took her life in the loft of the house. John Darnley and his father Victor quarrel violently at every opportunity as the latter’s mental health worsens by the day. Out of work, he rents the home out to tenants who stay no more than a few weeks before leaving, complaining of hearing footsteps from the attic and seeing ghosts! When the Latimers, two apparently spirit-loving occultists, move in, it seems like a match made in heaven… and their bond only bolsters, when Alice Latimer, in an apparent fit of hysterics, is able to precognitively read a letter written to the dead woman and wax-sealed in an envelope, and give an answer from beyond the grave…

Three years after the seance, the Latimers are continuing to do professional spirit-speaking services, when they suddenly declare that they’ll attempt to summon the spirit of the dead woman, matrialize her, and give her agency to communicate with her husband. Patrick Latimer will be in the so-called “haunted room”, which will be marked with wax seals pressed with a unique coin to rule-out any sort of foul play, and left there to communicate with the spirit. But when the spectators return to find the seal unbroken but no answer from within, the door is opened to the sight of a dead body — and it’s not Patrick Latimer! An impossible murder in a sealed room… has Mrs. Darnley returned from the grave to exact revenge on her killers?

Scattered throughout the novel are a ton of little “minor” impossibilities, including the same person being spotted in two different places at the same time, impossible footsteps heard inside of an empty room that was decidedly impossible to escape from, a young boy having a clairvoyant dream of his mother’s death, and a final murder committed in an empty house surrounded by unmarked snow. All the while, our skeptical and even-headed narrator, James Sevens is at odds with Scotland Yard Inspector Drew, with mundane but reasonable-sounding solutions being established, discarded and revisited over the course of the narrative…

The plot is over-stuffed in a lot of ways with strange going-ons and decidedly impossible crimes, but I’ll maintain early on that this novel is for a certain mind. For those who revel in simply the presentation of a mystical scenario, seemingly supernatural, and the subsequent setting-in of reality in a rational explanation — those who take the impossibilities as reading material first, and problems to solve second — this is a cornucopia of varied ideas and a plot that feels closer to a feverish horror novel than a story of detection. If you’re absolutely here for the puzzle, and ingenious conceits behind the crimes, you’re going to be disappointed, and I can’t say I wasn’t.

Recalling the beginning of this review, few of the impossible crimes were given special consideration beyond the first pass. You got the information, the information was refined and refined but rarely if ever significantly changed, and the book moved on to its next plot point. The Fourth Door in many ways presents itself as a horror novel with incidentally human agency behind the events, with the horrific events handled like the lateral thinking problem above where it’s a simple matter of being imaginative enough to see what the writer believes is “the sole possible explanation”. You’ll find few clues that either point towards the proper solution, or point away from equally applicable wrong solutions. Absolutely, this novel is not a tale of deduction, detection or ratiocination. Now, there’s something of a meta-textual “turnabout” in the structure of the novel towards the end that, I suppose, in many ways serves as both a framing device and an apology for this plotting style, but I honestly wasn’t impressed — the novel could have been left entirely in-tact without this “turning inside out” the plot, and it wasn’t a necessary point to sacrifice the plotting for in my opinion.

Come the denouement, many of the impossible happenings are explained away with a textual shrugging-off of an earlier piece of information that falsely disproved an inordinately mundane and disappointing theory held by the narrator. I also take umbrage with the book’s insistence that from context these are “the only possible explanations”, another unfortunate result of the book’s plotting not being entirely favored by it’s “turning inside out” of the story. When we finally get to the wax-sealed-room trick, I’m actually delightfully surprised to find a hugely unique and clever resolution to the problem, but by this point I’m so exhausted with the denouement that I couldn’t muster the energy to be excited or invested in it. Immediately following it, we’re treated to a second denouement to the wildly predictable footprints in the sand mystery.

As a puzzle-lover, I am wildly dissatisfied with The Fourth Door. There is a clear energy and flourish for the macabre and unexplainable here that is very admirable for Halter’s freshman effort, but the novel wants to throw near half a dozen impossibilities at you with no special consideration for them outside of the treatment you’d give a lateral thinking puzzle. All of them but one are resolved sloppily and boringly, and even the one that was incredibly well-realized had its effect dulled by being sandwiched between two full denouement chapters that simply weren’t worth it. The pre-resolution twist is a clever enough conceit from a storytelling perspective that does serve to recontextualize the book’s odd nature, but doesn’t begin to make me enjoy what were otherwise dull and loose impossible crimes. The seal-waxed-door is another seed of hope that later Halter’s later endeavors properly showcase the efforts of the reincarnation of Carr, but The Fourth Door is a second fizzle for me…

4 thoughts on “The Fourth Door (1987) by Paul Halter (transl. John Pugmire 1999)

  1. AB June 24, 2021 / 9:23 am

    “When we finally get to the wax-sealed-room trick, I’m actually delightfully surprised to find a hugely unique and clever resolution to the problem”

    I think its on the strength of the principal locked room and its solution that I wilfully overlook some of TFD’s flaws (Halter’s apparent indifference/lack of investment in the lesser impossibilities) and regard it favourably. Normally I can’t stand locked room mysteries where the author labours to create an artificial supernatural atmosphere, of which the seance is my most detested trope, but Halter manages to keep it to a level where it didn’t set my teeth on edge and even had its charm.

    Not sure what factors determine your Halter selections up to now, but both this and Death Invites You are generally considered to be two of his more middling efforts. For that reason, as you haven’t read the likes of The Seventh Hypothesis, The Demon of Dartmoor or The Phantom Passage, titles widely considered to be among his best for various reasons, I would encourage you to not give up on Halter just yet. Dartmoor I especially remember as being very well clued.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ June 24, 2021 / 1:33 pm

    Yeah, this book is overstuffed and a little out of focus, no argument ftrom me. I’m beginning to realise — thanks largely to the translations LRI are puttig out — just how different the French mystery school is to its British counterpart, and I think part of the struggle at the heart of Halter’s work is being raised in the former and yet trying to write in the latter. In something like The Gold Watch (2019, tr. 2019) he fully adopts the French model (and provides a magnificent no footprints murder in the process…) — but a lot of his earlier work seems to want to break free of that and be more British, and he’s not always successful.

    Having recently reread The Tiger’s Head, I can recommend that, though the locked room murder-by-genie doesn’t loom as large in the narrative as you might hope, and The Madman’s Room, while only having a minor impossible element, is a wonderfully constructed piece of plotting. His best impossibility for me remains either the defenestration in Demon of Dartmoor (a very, very overstuffed book), the no footprints murders in Lord of Misrule or Gold Watch, or the prophecy of the short story ‘The Cleaver’.

    The more I think about it, the more I appreciate just how fully Halter has thrown himself into providing as many explanations to baffling events as possible in recent years. He may be inconsistent, but he’s never dull!

    Like

  3. thegreencapsule June 24, 2021 / 3:29 pm

    It seems that quite a few people like The Fourth Door more than I did, but I did see through the core locked room mystery, so there wasn’t that much to astonish come the end. At the same time, I find all of these Halter books to be loads of fun, but that’s probably bolstered by my having read the really good ones.

    As many will tell you, go read The Madman’s Room, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Demon of Dartmoor, and The Tiger’s Head. I’ll add to that list The Seven Wonders of Crime. These books will provide a glimpse into why everyone’s so hot on Halter. I’d stay away from The Crimson Fog for now even though that one gets quite a bit of press (it does have a great first half).

    Liked by 1 person

    • JJ June 25, 2021 / 3:11 am

      I duuno, man; if the casual treatment of the problems herein wasn’t to Isaac’s liking, the concluding chapter(s?) of The Seven Wonders of Crime will probably tip him over the edge. I’d advise keeping that one until he’s already a signed-up Halterphile, otherwise leave it well the hell alone 😄

      Like

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