The Lord of Misrule (1994) by Paul Halter trans. John Pugmire (2006)

While I’ve been struggling to find the time and energy to dedicate to full novel-length offerings with my new movie theater job, I remembered I had a whole pile of novels I’ve read and hadn’t written reviews for yet. I figured the best place to start would be the works of Paul Halter, a French-language author whose works aren’t unknown to this blog…

John Dickson Carr is the King of Locked-Room Mysteries, the master of impossible situations and how to commit murder in them. His vast output of over 70 Gothic-tinged impossible crime novels has naturally inspired many disciplines in every corner of the Earth to also specialize in the realms of the seemingly supernatural miracle murder, and no name has been more associated with the second coming of John Dickson Carr than French-speaking novelist Paul Halter.

The Lord of Misrule is the third novel by Paul Halter I’ve read. However, despite his acclaim within the locked-room mystery community, I’ve actually thus far defied all attempts to convert me into a follower. I criticized Death Invites You, the second book I’ve ever reviewed on this blog, for a resolution that cheaply wastes its premise. When I later read his debut novel The Fourth Door, I found the principle locked-room particularly inspired, but also thought that it was diluted by all of the extraneous plot elements and weak minor impossibilities. Is it possible then that the third time might be the charm..?

The Lord of Misrule, unlike the other two Halters I’ve reviewed, follow aesthete Owen Burns who is interested in all things artistic. Even, as it happens, murders committed with an artistic mind — especially those most meticulously of realized impossible murders. In this debut for Owen Burns, he investigates the haunting of the Mansfield family by the Lord of Misrule, the spirit of a man who once represented jolly debauchery but now floats over the snow and kills members of the Mansfield family leaving behind him nothing but the jingling of bells and virgin snow with no footprints…

During the course of this investigation, Owen learns of the most recent murder of Edwin Mansfield. A commotion in Edwin’s room summons his sister to the tower door on the outside of the manor. The man proceeds to vanish into mid-air — these events are accounted for by a second witness, the family’s maid. The police are so skeptical of the sister’s claims that they immediately suspect she must be the killer, but they realize that her footprints in the snow stop too far away from the tower to allow her to gain access to the room. Couple this with the fact that the internal door to the room was locked from the inside, and not only must they abandon her as a suspect… they’re left with the only possible explanation being a ghost…

Cut to the modern day, and an obviously hokey spirit medium has been conducting phony seances in the Mansfield manor to learn about the family’s past. However, one day, the manifestation of the “spirit” changes so greatly as to surprise even the medium — mere knocks change to a shaking of the table, and the spirit demands that a soon-to-marry-into-the-family man comes to an isolated location to speak with it about the truth of the murder of Edwin Mansfield. Two men follow him at a distance in order to protect him. However, although they lose sight of their charge for only a slight moment when he goes over a hill, when they catch up to him they find him stabbed and death with an ornamental knife next to a frozen and snowed-over lake… with no footprints but his own to account for the whereabouts of his killer.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly care for no-footprints-in-the-snow/sand/dust mysteries. I’ve read quite a few of them, but they’ve rarely particularly stuck with me. I have read a few very clever ones, but in all it feels to me like the sub-subgenre hit a rut and never managed to generate solutions that meaningfully expand on its few basic concepts. Instead, you get solutions that are variations on these concepts only insofar as they are technically different ways to produce the same trick but still maintain the same effect as if you’d read the same resolution twice. Add on to this that footprints mysteries seem to have less room for illusion and tend to rely on (usually not very interesting) physical artifice, and I find it hard to get excited to read one of these types of impossible crimes.

With my negative experiences with Paul Halter added to my negative experiences with footprints-in-the-snow impossible crimes, I’ll admit that I was dreading the resolution of The Lord of Misrule. For the most part, however, I found myself pleasantly surprised, although I’d say both the modern and past crimes have positive and negative qualities that make them, and the book on the whole, a mixed bag.

The murder of Lord Edwin is ultimately a vaguely complex reworking of the kind of solution we’ve seen a dozen times. What makes this work perhaps a little better than other variations of this kind of solution is the deliberate assistance of a particular character who wouldn’t ordinarily be so helpful. However, I think the solution is a far cry from the “brilliance” other people have praised it as — it’s good, don’t get me wrong, just not impressive, and honestly mostly just a convoluted, but not altogether inspired, turn on a very classic type of locked-room solution. It’s particularly let down by the explanation for the appearance of the figure assaulting the sister, which is cheap and incredible. The explanation for the repeated appearances of The Lord of Misrule is also very poor.

The modern day murder is much better. The solution takes good advantage of the setting to provide a solution that expands on a typically very cheap mechanism for committing murder without leaving footprints, and instead turns into something elegant and satisfying. At some point, this murder does correspond with another sighting of The Lord of Misrule at the crime scene, and while I feel the why of this appearance and the way it’s applied to be greatly contrived, the way the footprints in the snow solution perfectly accounts for this further adds to the elegance of the trick. However, the trick is more pleasant than it is particularly clever. In fact, I’d say it’s a little silly. Silly in a good way, but silly nonetheless — when I talk about locked-room mysteries with the appearances of ghosts and phantoms, my uninitiated friends often accuse them of being Scooby-Doo-ish. Ordinarily, I’d make a defense, but in the case of The Lord of Misrule, I couldn’t help but smile to myself imagining a Scooby-Doo villain performing the exact same trick for the exact same effect and honestly almost for the same reason too.

Outside of the impossible crimes, I particularly disliked the lead characters. While Owen Burns and his Watson Achilles have more character than I’m used to from the people populating the stories of Halter, their characters are appalling. Owen Burns is a charmless caricature of an aesthete and Achilles is a flagrant and repeated womanizer who fawns over practically every single female character who even so much as gives him a passing glance. However, there is one character I adored who added a lot of enjoyment to the story. Daphne’s teen-ish teasing of Achilles and general high-energy juvenility added a lot of charm to The Lord of Misrule, and I found her a particularly pleasant character in a genre that doesn’t often have characters characterized to be so fun and down-to-Earth — Daphne is one of the few suspects in a Golden Age-or-adjacent mystery novel I’d honestly choose to be friends with. A bizarre ray of characterization from an author who is infamous for his total lack of it, but a very welcome one too. I feel that this playful attachment to Daphne was well-utilized in the denouement, where scenes of passing characterization also prove to be centrally relevant to the mystery in a way that delivers an emotional punch in the very last sentence of the story.

So, in all, has The Lord of Misrule turned me onto Halter-mania, or a disciple of the no-footprints-in-the-snow impossible crime? Not quite, but I do like this the most of the three Halters I’ve read so far. Neither of the solutions are quite as inspired as the principle locked-room in The Fourth Door, but the extraneous mysteries are, at the very least, more tightly-wound into the core narrative of the story so to make it a more cohesive tale, and the book works harder to attempt to deliver on its premise than Death Invites You so that, in spite of its many hiccups in explaining away everything, I can appreciate the novel holistically. In love, I am not, but this is a mildly successful homage to John Dickson Carr and I will be returning to Halter soon with The Demon of Dartmoor and The Tiger’s Head.

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…

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.