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.
There’s been no end to the ingenuity of the impossible crime genre. When you see murders committed inside of perfectly sealed rooms, and stabbings in virgin snow where the killers leave no footprints, you’re only taking the daintiest of baby-steps down the iceberg of magic murders. Take a few steps further and you’ll find yourself barreling into the realms of animated murderous snowmen, disappearing hotel rooms, witchery, teleportation, telekinesis, premonitory dreams, apparitions, flying men, transmogrification, impossible golf shots, men dying from falls when there’s no elevated surfaces for miles, time travel, people running through solid brick walls, and even the apparently magical disintegration of a man in front of witnesses. All of which, mind you, must be explained through perfectly human means without reliance on far-fetched science-fiction technology or preternatural agency — or, if sci-fi tech and ghostly happenings are commonplace in your world, their rules must still be adhered (and are usually exploited to establish the impossibility…). A whole world of man-made miraculous murders that would have the skeptics of our world taken aback! When you imagine the impossible crime problem, you imagine a scenario which absolutely cannot be taken at face value, and which the characters in the story have to battle with the reality of, whether it’s through disproving the supernatural or an ostensible suicide. There’s an impossible crime tale for damn near every insane scenario under the sun a person could think of.
The impossible crime tale seems to be a favorite of people looking to create taxonomies. From solutions to situations, the impossible crime sub-genre more than any other seems to invite people to create lists trying to chronicle every little manner of plot, style, and form that exists. You might argue that this is a testament to the sheer formulaicity of the impossible crime story, or a testament to the magnetism of its versatility…
Just like I’ve done before in attempting to produce a list of 50 solutions to the 3 principle impossible crime genres, I will here be attempting to produce a list of all every conceivable manner of impossible crime situation — within reason. I will only be adding to this list if I feel like the entry is all of (a.) something that meaningfully alters the presentation of the impossible crime, (b.) something that meaningfully alters the potential explanations to the crime, and (c.) categorically non-specific so to be applicable to a suitable variety of stories. This is primarily because the minutiae distinguishing two locked-room mystery situations is a lot less significant than the minutiae distinguishing two solution types — this also means I can provide less “theoretical” entries than I could before.
Over at The Invisible Event, Jim Noy has actually covered a lot of our bases on his own post a few years back on the same topic. My intention here is not to contradict him, but rather to supplement his list with a few potential entries I feel worth pointing out. I will be covering a lot of re-tread ground here, so in the interest of keeping Jim’s contributions and my own separated I’ll simply be listing Jim’s entries first in one set and then mine at the end. I’ll be supplementing each category with a paragraph or two explaining the concept too — just so that this is my post, and nobody else’s!
Without further ado…
1.) The Locked-Room Mystery
The grandfather of mystery fiction and the perennial favorite of all impossible crime aficionados, locked-room mysteries scarce warrant an introduction. You have a murder committed within a room locked, sealed, and barred from the inside so that every entry is blocked-off. The only key to the room is inside of the victim’s pocket, so the killer must be still inside of the room… and yet they are not! The implication is that the killer has someone walked through the walls or vanished into thin-air…
This is the most popular form of impossible crime, and examples are a-plenty. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, popularly (and debatably) considered the original detective story, Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, and John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (also known as The Three Coffins) all features killers who seem to vanish into mid-air within a locked room…
1.5.) The Judas Window Locked-Room
Not, perhaps, a separate situation altogether, but a prominent enough sub-sub-subgenre to warrant mention, this is one of those “Doylist Impossibilities” I invoke in On a Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem. The situation is entirely the same as a traditional locked-room mystery, with one caveat: there is a single suspect locked inside of the room with the victim, so that it appears entirely impossible for them to be innocent of the murder! The situation is only impossible if you, as the reader accept the condition that this person is innocent and the murder must’ve been committed by an external agency.
I’ve named this one after the most prominent example, John Dickson Carr’s The Judas Window. This situation is a favorite of many cases of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney video game series in which you defend clients falsely accused of murder — more often than not, this accusation comes as a direct consequence of the defendant being locked in the same room or sealed in the same general location as the victim. Edward D. Hoch, the “Master of Short Stories”, also produced more than a handful of these, such as “A Shower of Daggers”.
2.) Footprints in the Snow
…or sand, or dust. These crimes involve a man found murdered in a vast expanse of snow! The killer definitely murdered the man from close-quarters, and the man was murdered after the snow had finished falling… so how could the killer have committed this murder without leaving his footprints in the snow!? A killer who can somehow float over the snow…
John Dickson Carr dealt with the problem most notably in The White Priory Murders, and his French-speaking disciple Paul Halter also wrote these in, among others, The Lord of Misrule and The Gold Watch. Christianna Brand produced one of these in Suddenly at his Residence using dust, and Arthur Porges’s “No Killer has Wings” and Hal White’s “Murder at an Island Mansion” are two examples of this problem on sandy beaches.
3.) Psychological Impossibility
We’re starting to get into the abstract. A man’s death is caused not by direct murder, but instead by a behavior that is so absurdly unbelievable it defies every known principle of human psychology! The most famous example of this is Father Ronald Knox’s “Solved by Inspection”, which involves a man who starves to death in a room surrounded entirely by safe-to-eat food that he could’ve eaten at any moment.
4.) Impossible Physical Feats
Humans are constantly displaying their infinite capacity for improvement. Records are always being broken, and the human condition forever expanding. But in these stories, these feats of athleticism swerve from the superhuman straight into the supernatural. A man cannot run from California to New York in a matter of hours, neither can a man leap from the top of the Eifel Tower and land with not a single scratch on his body…
The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants features a knife that’s hammered into the wooden boards of a boat so tightly that not even Mike Tyson himself could remove it without causing significant damage and creating noise that would assuredly not go unnoticed — naturally, the knife is removed. Death in the Dark by Stacey Bishop tells of a baffling murder in which a killer is somehow able to make an eagle-eyed shot at his victim in pitch-black darkness! Impossible Bliss by Lee Sheldon involves a nearly-impossible perfect golf shot from a nearly-impossible angle that not even the most seasoned of pros could achieve!
5.) Killer Rooms
Without fail, every single time a man sleeps in the bed in room 405 of the Dickson Inn, he never wakes up… and is found the next morning, having died of heart failure at precisely midnight… The killer room involves spaces that seem to have the uncanny ability to indiscriminately cause death without human intervention. Even more baffling, these situations may have bizarre, hyper-specific conditions under which these deaths occur…
Impossible-crime-oriented BBC drama Jonathan Creek has an episode episode titled “Mother Redcap” involving an inn where bizarre deaths seem to constantly occur within the same room, at the same time… Max Afford’s “The Vanishing Trick” involves a “kinda haunted” room that constantly swallows up servants and sends them to God-knows-where…
6.) Invisible Murderer
A murder who is mysterious able to pass under your nose without detection, strangle a woman in plain view of a crowd of hundreds without being seen, and murder in rooms guarded on all sides. This impossible problem involves the situation of a murderer who is able to defy detection even when the situation dictates that they would be seen.
Such an impossible crime makes up the principle murder of Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, in which a murder is committed in front of a crowd of hundreds of spectators to a medieval pageant at top of a tower, the only viable entrance to which was also in view of the audience. Derek Smith’s Whistle up the Devil features a murder in a jail cell whose sole door was observed by the narrator and a reliable witness at all times the murderer must’ve walked through the door, and yet neither of them saw any such killer…
Whether person or object, the problem of an impossible vanishing involves something disappear when there’s no reasonable way for this to occur. While it can often overlap with locked-room mysteries, footprint mysteries, or invisible criminals, this class of impossible crime also accounts for people vanishing in front of witnesses like a magician, or thefts of objects while in another character’s hands…
Roger Ormerod’s More Dead than Alive features a world-renowned magician who seems to disappear impossibly from his locked-and-sealed laboratory. Edward D. Hoch wrote multiple stories featuring a Great Thief-cum-Detective Nick Velvet, including the impossible caper “The Theft of the White Queen’s Menu” in which three impossible thefts occur: the theft of a roomful of furniture in a matter of just a few minutes, the theft of a roulette wheel from a crowded casino and yet nobody saw it leave, and the theft of rival thief The White Queen’s menu while it is held in her hands! Quite spectacularly, Paul Halter’s story “The Celestial Thief” involves the disappearance of all of the stars in the night sky as an astronomer is watching them from his telescope!
Diametrically opposite the previous category, impossible materializations involve the production of an object or person where it very well could never have been! A man manifesting within a sealed room, a plane appearing in the sky when it had nowhere from which it could’ve come, and poison appearing within a test-tasted dish…
James Yaffe’s “The Case of the Emperor’s Mushrooms” involves the murder of Emperor Claudius of Rome, who dies to a plate of poisoned mushrooms — quite mysteriously however, the royal food-tester had eaten a portion of the food without dying, and so the poison must have appeared while in the emperor’s hands…
9.) Prophecy, Clairvoyance, and Predictions
The fortune-teller tells you that you will die on June 4th, 2022 at 5:25 PM… and, lo and behold, you find yourself dead at the appointed time! People coming into possession of knowledge which they should never have been able to learn makes up this class of impossible problem.
There are, in fact, two real-world examples. “The Greenbrier Ghost” of West Virginia is a story about a woman who divines knowledge of the cause of her daughter’s death when the young women’s death was named natural. “The Horse Room” involves a group of women named the Blondie Gang who were robbing casinos blind in the 1940s, and the way they managed to cheat at horse-race betting in a room where no information could travel in or out… John Dickson Carr’s The Reader is Warned also involves a psychic predicting a murder, down to the very minute it’ll occur.
10.) Ghost, Witches, and Miscellaneous Supernatural Jiggerypokery
This, ultimately, is a “miscellaneous” category for all impossible crimes that appear to be ghosts, magic, or the supernatural at work but don’t fit into the other categories for being too specific. The appearance of a floating ghost in a room, a woman casting a spell that appears to come true, or the commission of a seance all fall into this category.
John Sladek’s Black Aura has a man suspended in mid-air and walking without any support in front of witnesses, and Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit features floating men, ghosts, seances, and nearly every supernatural occurrence you could hope to dream of. “Miracle on Christmas Eve” by Szu-Yen Lin involves the impossible delivery of gifts by a man who could only be Santa Claus himself… Also, suffice it to say, Scooby-Doo anyone?
11.) Impossible Technology
Mind-reading devices, hover-boards, and teleportation machines don’t exist… or do they? The impossible technology problem involves story where a piece of technology is presented as entirely genuine, but there is no scientific way for such a machine to exist. How could this bizarre feat be faked and manufactured?
In The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve of Ryuunosuke Naruhodou‘s third case, Twisted Karma and his Last Bow, defense attorney Ryuunosuke Naruhodou is commissioned to defend a scientist of murder. This scientist constructed a teleportation machine that’s capable of de-materializing a man in one place, and rematerializing him in another spontaneously. He was demonstrating the machine at a science exhibition when the device malfunctioned, causing the man to appear above a glass tower, suspended freely in the middle of the air! The man would then crash through the roof of the tower where it would be impossible to approach him… and yet, when the police arrive, the man was stabbed to death. Because of the location of the body, it’s only possible for your defendant to have stabbed the man before his teleportation! And so, in order to prove his innocence, you also have to prove how the entirely impossible feat of teleportation could’ve been faked in front of a massive audience…
12.) The Inverted Howdunit
One of two Impossible Alibi problems I described, this Doylist impossibility tiptoes the line between the inverted mystery (mysteries in which we know of the killer and their plot ahead of time) and the impossible crime. In the Inverted Howdunit, we are privy to the identity of the killer very early — however, unlike most such stories, in the Inverted Howdunit we only know the killer’s identity, but we do not know how they committed the crime… or how they managed to construct an airtight alibi! This impossibility hinges on knowing the identity of the killer, but it appearing nonetheless impossible for them to be guilty.
Roger Ormerod’s Time to Kill features a murder by an ex-convict — however, the ex-convict never once left the narrator’s sight during the period during which the murder must’ve taken place! In Detective Conan Volume 2, the case “Mysterious Shadow Murder Case” involves a man who committed murder while unmistakably in another country at the time… Agatha Christie’s “A Christmas Tragedy” has Miss Jane Marple describe a murder she once solved in which she knew the killer’s identity… and yet the killer had an impenetrable alibi!
13.) Suspect X
Nine people are trapped together on an island. One person wanders off, leaving the remaining eight people together in the dining room. The ninth person is soon heard screaming, and when the eight people arrive…. they find him dead! And yet, this is impossible… he hadn’t committed suicide, everybody was watching each other at all times..! Is it possible that an Xth suspect was on the island, killing them from the shadows?
Suspect X is the second “impossible alibi” problem I described in my post on the topic. This impossibility essentially dictates that, in a closed-circle mystery, the crime is only possible if you assume the presence of one extra person whose existence in the closed-circle is itself also impossible. The solution could involve explaining the presence of this extra person, or ways for the killer, who is among the original cast, to commit murder despite being under constant surveillance.
Such problems appear in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which the entirety of the cast is dead, and all apparently murdered, while isolated together on an island; NisioisiN’s Zaregoto – The Kubikiri Cycle, in which the narrator’s friend’s computer is destroyed while every living member of the cast is together in the dining room; Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair, in which the victim is shot by a bullet from a prop gun which was at one moment loaded with blanks but later loaded with live ammunition, even though every member of the cast is incapable (by alibi and testimony) of tampering with the gun.
14.) Biological Impossibilities and Illogical Causes of Death
Biological impossibilities are any mysteries in which the victim faces a death which utterly defies human physiology and logic. Initially, I was going to have a separate category for “impossible falls”, those stories in which the victim falls to their death despite the lack of an elevated surface within any reasonable distance, but I decided to consolidate those two categories hear under the blanket of “Illogical Death” since I felt like they were conceptually similar enough.
Robert Randisi’s (awful) “The Hook” involves the serial killings of women who have had all their organs removed quite impossibly, despite the presence of only a very small incision through which removing the organs so cleanly would be impossible. Both Paul Halter’s “Jacob’s Ladder” and Mack Reynolds’s The Case of the Little Green Men involve a man falling to his death despite there being no elevated surfaces nearby. John Dickson Carr’s Gur Erq Jvqbj Zheqref and the first case of The Great Ace Attorney both involve a death by curare when ingested — curare can only cause death when it enters the bloodstream, and is harmless when imbibed. Paul Halter also wrote “The Robber’s Grave” in which a patch of grass is unusually unable to grow no matter what… Soji Shimada’s “The Executive Who Lost His Mind” involves someone who was murdered only minutes ago, but their corpse suggests that they’ve been dead for years…
15.) The Lonely Boat
A boat floats in the middle of a lake with a lone fisherman in it. The fisherman suddenly keels over and dies, and when the boat is recovered he’s found stabbed to death! Such a death is impossible — it would’ve been impossible for anyone to approach the boat without attracting attention or getting wet, so how much a man wind up murdered while isolated in the middle of a body of water?
I was initially unsure about whether or not to include this one, as most variations on this problem strongly overlap with the “invisible murderer”. However, I believe this problem meets all three of my criteria in theoretically creating a significant distinction in how the crime is presented and resolved…
Such a problem occurs in Joseph Commings’s “The Spectre of the Lake”, in which two men are shot from close-range in the middle of a lake, and both of John Dickson Carr’s “The Wrong Problem” and W. Shepard Pleasants’s The Stingaree Murders, in which a man is stabbed in an isolated boat.
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…
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.