Sunday, October 02, 2011

Abracadaver!

— Non. À l’heure actuelle, vous êtes sans conteste le meilleur. Le seul qui, au mépris de notre époque où hélas le mystère et le merveilleux cèdent le pas à la violence et au sexe, le seul qui persiste à écrire des énigmes digne de ce nom. Je dirai même que vous êtes le dernier défenseur de l’authentique roman policier.
***
“No. At the present time, you are undoubtedly the best, indeed the only one who continues to write crime mysteries worthy of the name. Your contemporaries have allowed sex and violence to take the place of mystery and suspense. I would even go so far as to call you the last defender of the authentic crime novel."

— Dr. Alan Twist, La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door)

Just over two weeks ago, I rejoiced when John Pugmire announced that Paul Halter’s award-winning first novel, La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door) was now available in English on Amazon.com, in e-book form as well as in print. I’ve gotten extremely fond of Halter’s work since discovering it earlier this year, and this recent bit of news gave me an excuse to return to the world of his fascinating imagination. So I ordered La Quatrième Porte and eagerly picked it up as soon as it arrived.

The story is a good one, taking place in a small, unnamed English village. The narrator, James Stevens, is a young man who has just started university. His sister Elizabeth is in love with his best friend, Harry White, a nice, but extremely shy, young man. The Whites and Stevenses both live by the Darnley house, which has its very own haunted room, where Mrs. Darnley apparently committed suicide years ago, with the door and windows locked. None of the tenants in the Darnley house stayed very long… until, that is, Patrick and Alice Latimer move in. Mrs. Latimer claims to be a medium, and she impressively demonstrates her powers, answering a question that a man wrote to his dead wife and sealed inside an envelope with two signatures on the flaps, which never left anyone’s sight.

But this is all just part of the lead-up to the main event, a stunning locked-room murder that occurs about halfway through the novel. Patrick Latimer decides to contact the ghost of Mrs. Darnley by spending the night in the haunted room, which is locked and sealed with wax and an imprint of a rare coin, chosen moments before from a collection of over 600 coins. After the impression was made, this coin never left a witness’ hand, and this witness was always with someone. However, when the door is opened, a stranger lies in the room, stabbed in the back! Later, a second impossible murder occurs, when a man is discovered murdered in a house surrounded by virgin snow…

The book moves along rapidly, involving all sorts plot strands: reincarnation, bilocation, a room that kills, resurrection, and of course how the mediums worked their trick… if it was a trick? The solution to the main locked room mystery is dazzling: it is fairly clued and a fresh, inventive twist on a trick I’m usually not fond of! The other impossibilities are resolved to equal satisfaction. Not only that, Halter offers you multiple false solutions, and whenever you shake your head and say “Gotcha, Paul! You’re not fooling me with that old trick!”, he violently pulls the rug out from under your feet and laughs.

As the book began to draw to a close, I started to look for Dr. Twist… where was he? After all, this is a Dr. Alan Twist novel… But although Twist is largely absent, Halter comes up with an interesting way to introduce him into the proceedings when Part III comes along. Inspector Hurst, his partner in crime, is only mentioned by name in this novel, which was Halter’s first published effort.

Although you’d expect a first novel to have some weaknesses in it, The Fourth Door is surprisingly strong. Although Halter spends little time developing characters, you feel you get to know them by the end. It’s fascinating, for instance, to watch the young narrator grow into a man and observe the world around him changing, as this novel covers a period of several years.

Halter also does an excellent job of handling atmosphere, with a general feeling of “something is not quite right” permeating the novel. And not only that, he has a wicked sense of humour that I really love. For instance, in the opening chapter, James taunts his sister Elizabeth about her crush on Henry:

Je me levai, gagnai ma bibliothèque, pris le premier tome d’une volumineuse encyclopédie et le lui posai sur les genoux en déclarant avec un rien d’ironie :
   Comme tu m’en parles si souvent et que le cas est si intéressant, j’ai écrit une petite monographie de huit cent pages à son sujet, mais ce n’est que le premier volume et…
***
I got up, strode to the bookcase, took down the first volume of an encyclopaedia, which I proceeded to balance on my knee, and said mockingly,
“Since you raise the subject so often, and since it is of such major interest, I’ve written a modest eight hundred page monograph on the subject, but this is only the first volume…”

As someone who grew up with two older sisters (and since then, a younger brother and sister have been added), this not only made me laugh, but also gave me a pang of nostalgia as it reminded me of how we used to mock each other about our crushes, whether real or fictional (in which case the accused would protest vehemently, to no avail).

In short, Paul Halter has done everything right while producing a diabolically clever plot worthy of John Dickson Carr. Halter effortlessly bamboozles readers at every turn; his plot twists, turns, and contorts into shapes that would confound a professor of geometry. It boils down to this: The Fourth Door is an absolute masterpiece, with a freshness and liveliness to it reminiscent of John Dickson Carr’s glory days. Now that a translation of the book has been published, courtesy of relentless warrior John Pugmire, you don't have to know French to read this book and marvel at Halter’s masterly skill. I highly recommend this book to all mystery enthusiasts, and you can order it by visiting Amazon.com here or by typing in search keywords such as “Paul Halter The Fourth Door”. It’s a purchase you won’t regret.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the heads up on this one being available in English. Have just ordered it and looking forward to it immensely.

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  2. Great review. One minor correction: La Quatrième Porte is not Halter's first novel, but his second. La Malédiction de Barberousse, his actual first book, had won a regional prize in 1986 and was reprinted by Le Masque in 1996.

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  3. Good review, Patrick. When the book arrived here two weeks earlier than the estimated delivery date promised, I was hoping to beat you but you still hit that post button a few hours before me.

    Anyway, a great locked room mystery in spite of its stylistic flaws.

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  4. @Puzzle Doctor
    My mission has been accomplished. :)

    @Xavier
    You're absolutely right, of course, and I find it interesting that "Barberousse" was written in an attempt to revive Dr. Fell's career.

    @TomCat
    Thanks for the kind words, and I have to admit, I think Halter's stylistic flaws are actually a plus here due to the nature of the story!

    ReplyDelete

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