Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My friend Daedalus

Paul Halter’s Le Crime de Dédale (The Crime of Daedalus) has an idea at its core that has haunted and fascinated me since I first heard of it. Throw everything you know about Greek mythology into the dust bin: Paul Halter tackles the impossible crime with Ancient Greece as a backdrop and mythological characters taking roles in his story. Le Crime de Dédale is a fascinating book with two storylines: one takes place in Ancient Greece, and the other takes place in 1937.

The book opens in 1937 with Professor Lewis Newcomb making an incredible discovery on the island of Crete. Unfortunately, Paul Halter, that perpetual prankster, withholds the discovery from his readers for several chapters. In the meanwhile, you witness a strange series of events: Newcomb’s team of archaeologists opened a tomb a few days before the Incredible Discovery. This tomb came complete with its very own ancient curse, and right on schedule, one of the team members falls to his doom, winding up impaled on a bull’s horn carved out of stone.

Before long, the entire team begins dying mysteriously: an assassin is stalking the streets of London, first stoning his victims to death and afterwards burning them, as though with a hot iron! (All but one of the victims are burned like this— the lone exception is set on fire!) In case you’re rusty with your Greek mythology, Paul Halter reminds readers of Daedalus, the legendary inventor of Greek mythology, who apparently built a bronze giant, christened “Talos”, who patrolled the island of Crete and threw large stones at unwelcome visitors. Talos needed to be powered with hot embers, and this resulted in its metal body getting extremely hot… Has Talos been awakened???

But then we’re plunged into the Ancient Greece storyline, and we find out just what Professor Newcomb discovered: an ancient piece of parchment, which seems to have been written by the mythical King Minos! Minos’ purpose in writing is to chronicle an extraordinary crime that Daedalus committed: he killed the beastly Minotaur in impossible circumstances!

Here is how it worked: Daedalus tells Minos he has discovered the secret to being able to walk through a solid wall, with the help of some blue stones that he rubs against his body. He offers to prove his newfound ability by killing the Minotaur. Daedalus and the monster are shut into two separate rooms, separated by a solid wall. King Minos himself locks the monster in, and leaves three guards to observe the room from a skylight above. He then accompanies Daedalus to his room, locks him in, and stands guard outside the door. Nobody leaves either of the rooms and nobody enters… The Minotaur was alive when the door was shut, and a thorough search of the room had been made. Not only that, moments before the experiment, Minos told Daedalus to cut off the beast’s left ear as proof that it was he who committed the crime! But lo and behold! The doors are unlocked and the Minotaur is dead, its left ear lopped off!!!

Map of the crime scene, which I translated from the original French.

Minos then goes into details about how the corpse was disposed of and how he managed to fool Theseus (remember him?) into claiming the glory for killing the Minotaur, all with the help of Ariadne’s famous thread. The problem is that his mentally unstable wife, Pasiphaë, is not amused: she detects the fine hand of Daedalus behind Ariadne’s thread, and demands that he and his son be put to death. This is when a second impossibility takes place, as Daedalus and his son Icarus ask for permission to transmit one last invention to mankind: the ability to fly! The queen agrees, they fashion their legendary wings… and they fly off!

But Minos happens to know how that last trick was worked— in fact, he describes himself as an accomplice. But he doesn’t tell you the solution to this trick, is ignorant of how Daedalus committed his crime, and leaves extremely cryptic directions that will guide our 1937 heroes to the Minotaur’s maze.

Thus ends the Ancient Greece storyline— we will not return to Minos’ narrative because it is finished. We will spend the rest of our time in 1937. I was somewhat saddened at first, but almost all of Part I was very solid and enjoyable entertainment.

The book starts to suffer problems near the end of Part I, and this is mainly because it switches gears. We begin to focus on Kate Jones, our protagonist, and she will narrate Part II, switching narrative techniques from third-person to first-person. Here’s the problem: Kate Jones could be summed up in one word. It’s a very rude word and I don’t particularly feel like spelling it out, but an alternative definition could be “female dog”. This alone drags down most of Part II, which only gets back to the height of Part I when an excellent plot twist is thrown into the works with about 70 pages left. (For those keeping the score, that means you get nearly 100 pages of tedium in between. You decide whether it’s worth it.)

Kate Jones is just a supremely dislikeable character. She embarks on a quest to find Minos’ labyrinth, enlisting archaeologist-turned-detective Sir Basil Ward to help her. She also asks her new boyfriend/fiancé Richard to join her, but he tells her he can’t leave on such short notice. Well, that’s just too shocking for Kate, who instantly decides it’s over. She’s going to ask her previous boyfriend to come along: he might be dull from her point of view, but at least he obeys orders from Queen Katherine!

I am serious: I really, really hate this character. She genuinely enjoys manipulating people, considers herself the most important person in the world, why doesn’t the world bow before her every whim, etc. etc. Just to add a cherry on top, she also acts in remarkably brainless ways, which not only makes her a CENSORED, but an irritatingly dumb one as well.

And as for her boring boyfriend, he dotes on her and would do anything for her, as well as being supportive of her and giving her a stable life in the future. But Kate doesn’t want him; okay, fair enough… So why is she so cruel to him??? She holds a vague offer of marriage over his head if they find the Minotaur’s labyrinth for instance… But when they do, she immediately starts to think of ways to back out of it, resorting to a cheap trick that exposes her rotten nature quite plainly. But not to fear: when he comes to save her a few pages later from peril, she’s quite glad to sob in his arms and call him her hero…

All right, you’ve heard enough about that out of me. From now on, I will ignore all the problems that arise from Kate’s character. In general, Halter’s writing is rather good this time around, although one or two metaphors stretch things, like “the maze of the soul”. He has been compared to John Dickson Carr, but he has his own unique style. Sometimes it works remarkably well, sometimes it falls flat, but it’s entirely different from Carr’s and should be approached from an entirely different vantage point. He succeeds decently in making Talos a menacing figure, and the finale taking place in the Minotaur’s maze is excellently done, with some genuinely creepy moments and a finale that is rather tense.

But what about the mystery? Well, the 1937 storyline has a solution that is underwhelming. The culprit’s identity is not a mind-blowing surprise, but the motive ascribed to this person is truly excellent. The Ancient Greece storyline is far better: the way Daedalus and Icarus fly is unfortunately underwhelming, but the Minotaur’s murder has an elegant and brilliantly simple solution that leaves me genuinely embarrassed: how could I not see it??? I don’t recall seeing this trick used before in any mystery I’ve read, but I may be wrong and some readers might call it a variation on another trick. Either way, it’s a very good and perfectly fair trick— although if I were reading it in English, I suspect I might have had an easier time solving it!

Overall, Le Crime de Dédale has a fascinating premise at its core: I love the idea of centering a mystery on Greek mythology. Unfortunately, it could have been done much better. The 1937 storyline is genuinely interesting at first, but there is a large chunk of it that is practically indigestible due to the character of Kate Jones. Mainly for this reason, I think that if the story confined itself to the Ancient Greece storyline and made one somewhat-blunt clue a little less obvious, it would make a gem of a short story. As it is, it’s a readable book that I genuinely enjoyed.

4 comments:

  1. Sometimes, even when a character is genuinely unlikeable, it seems to draw this reader in just that much more (maybe hoping for a stone to fall off of a building in construction just in time to conk the unlikeable character over the head and send him/her to an untimely but well-deserved death). I like the twist with Greek mythology being involved in a mystery, so I think this one will go on my tbr list. Thanks for the wonderful review.

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  2. Ah, there was a scene where it seemed like she was going to be drowned, and I started to cheer the water on in my mind...

    Unfortunately, this book is only available in French thus far, and I had the devil of a time finding a reasonably priced copy. Still, I think the madness was worth it for the murder of the Minotaur.

    I too love the idea of writing a mystery involving Greek mythology, and I'd love to read more examples of this kind of work.

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  3. Without having read the book, I would probably award points for the premise alone. I could probably even forgive him for screwing up on certain parts and despite the flaws you mentioned, it comes across as a successful hybrid – which is also worthy of bonus points.

    You know, Patrick, your reviews will probably lead to John Pugmire having to change his identify, because mystery addicts keep hounding him about Paul Halter translations.

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  4. Oh, bonus points unquestionably apply here for the premise. It's inventive and as far as I can find out, unique. I have searched the wonderful world of Google and have been unable to find another locked-room mystery where characters from Greek mythology take up roles in the drama.

    Personally, I sincerely hope that side-effect is produced! I've found myself enlisted in the "Get Paul Halter translated" army, and I hope that these honest reviews from a GAD enthusiast will spur interest in this author's work. Even when he isn't at the top of his game (see my last three reviews, for instance), his work is very entertaining.

    I commented here that this would make a gem of a short story-- which makes me really interested in "La Nuit du Loup" (Night of the Wolf)! Unfortunately, I've had a devil of a time tracking down a reasonably-priced French edition of the book. Twice I've ordered copies-- ditto for "Les 7 Merveilles du Crime" (The 7 Wonders of Crime). And all four times, the seller manages to not have the book anymore... C'est la vie...

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