Wednesday, October 05, 2011

You are cordially invited to dine with death

Killed in a locked room—what a way to go! And that’s precisely what happens to Harold Vickers, master of the impossible crime mystery, in Paul Halter’s La Mort Vous Invite (Death Invites You). What a bizarre crime! First, someone purporting to be Vickers sends two invitations. One is to a police officer, Simon Cunningham. The other is to a newspaper reporter, Fred Springer. They arrive, but Mrs. Dane Vickers insists there must be some sort of mistake: her eccentric husband locked himself in his study yesterday and hasn’t left since! However, when Vickers doesn’t answer to knocks at the door and something smelling like chicken is detected in the air, the door is forced open…

Vickers is sitting at a table prepared for three, face down in his food, his face and hands severely burned in bubbling-hot oil. The food is an exquisitely prepared meal… but where did it come from? It was still steaming when the door was opened, but nobody could’ve prepared anything in the kitchen without being noticed! Still more bizarre: the door to Vickers’ study was locked and his windows were shut and locked, with the shutters closed! To add to the crime’s strangeness, a pair of gloves is discovered at the crime scene as well as a goblet half-filled with water underneath the window. Don’t forget to point out that this case strongly resembles an unsolved murder from 1907, and that the dead man was planning to use the exact same scenario for his new book… And, heck, just for good measure, throw in a long-lost, similar-looking brother from Australia.

At the Scene of the Crime
(Image from a TV adaptation of La Mort vous invite)

What you get is a bizarre, maddening mystery, as Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst are called in to investigate. Inspector Hurst makes his first appearance in the series, having been entirely omitted from La Malédiction de Barberousse (Barbarossa’s Curse) and only mentioned by name in La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door). His presence is most welcome, as the two unlikely partners play well off of each other. Dr. Twist shows a fondness for ducks, and in fact, a duck helps him solve the crime, which results in him adopting the animal and naming it Gédéon. (It's an homage to a French cartoon, but I think it serves a double purpose as homage to Dr. Gideon Fell as well.) The scene where this occurs closes off the book, and I think it's a nice conclusion. I've translated it (with one or two small liberties) below:

“Hurry, Hurst, take me home quickly! Somebody is waiting impatiently for me in the bathroom and is probably making one hell of a racket!"
“In the bathroom!” the offended inspector exclaimed. “But… at your age, I… I…”
“Love knows no age limit,” the detective replied with dignity.
“But… uh… since when?”
“I got acquainted this afternoon at St. James’ Park Lake. It was love at first sight and… that charming creature hasn’t let me go since.”
“Does this creature have a name?”
“Certainly. It’s Gideon.”
“Gi… Gideon?” Hurst mumbled with consternation. “But…”
“I fear, my friend, that you have made a small mistake. Gideon is an adorable little duck.”

How can a duck help solve a crime? Well, you’d have to read this book to find out. However, this isn’t Grade A Halter… This is more of a B, or a B+ if you’re lenient. The book is short and doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it has fundamental flaws as a detective story. Halter omits a detail in his explanation of the case, which is clever and simple, but his alternative explanations and false solutions are all rather unexciting. Also disappointing are the significance of the gloves and the goblet of water—truly a missed opportunity. The identity of the culprit is not particularly surprising, and like I said, a detail is omitted in the explanation of the case. Halter's clueing this time over whodunnit is surprisingly blunt, giving you such a whopper of an obvious clue at an unnecessary time...

There’s also a plotline suddenly introduced out of the blue, involving Harold Vickers’ father, who had a heart attack at the dinner table and died three weeks later as a result. Halter suddenly tells you about this and decides to introduce a “supernatural” plotline where the grandfather’s ghost is out for revenge. It really doesn’t work, and when the ghost strikes again, removing a supremely unlikeable character, you feel like applauding instead of being scared.

The characters are a mixed bunch. Some of them are nice enough, like Simon Cunningham, a police officer who solved the “Lonely Hearts Killer” murder case two years ago, and since then earned the approval of the Vickers family to court one of their daughters, Valerie. Roger Sharpe, the mischievous conjurer and shady brother-in-law for the evening, is another fun character. But characters you need to be likable for all this to work emerge as rather colourless: I don’t recall anything about Mrs. Dane Vickers or her daughter Valerie. On the other hand, I most certainly remember the highly unpleasant “other” daughter, Henrietta: a supremely unlikeable, self-centered, “artistic” sort. Halter takes fun cracks at her “art” and the talent she insists her father didn’t appreciate, but at the end of the day, it’s just not enough to make her character interesting. It’s possible to have nasty characters that are genuinely interesting—look at Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, where the victim, Dr. John Christow, is a fascinating character despite his various love affairs and disdainful attitude towards his sympathetic wife. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case here.

But let’s give Halter credit where it’s due: the investigation process is of such a bizarre nature that Inspector Hurst almost dies of apoplexy several times, and this results in some nice moments of comedy, like when Dr. Twist elaborates on just how marvellous the dinner at the crime scene is (the point being that the killer had to take much pains to commit the crime). Also, he is brief. The book is genuinely interesting and passes by quickly, so despite some reservations here and there, you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time. Overall, this is a major step up from La Malédiction de Barberousse (Barbarossa’s Curse), but it also doesn’t hold a candle to La Quatrième porte (The Fourth Door). This work has flaws, but it makes for a fun read. It’s good, but Halter has done better.

5 comments:

  1. The scene of the crime you describe sounds very similar to one in an episode of DAQ, and the solution there for serving a corpse with a four course meal was simply a masterstroke. I have to rewatch that series, one of these days, but skip the dull, introductory episodes this time.

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  2. The impossibility here is not just the meal, but also the fact that the victim was dead for 24 hours and the burns had just recently been inflicted-- proving that the killer had just been in the room before it was broken into.

    Maybe I should watch that "Detective Academy Q" episode.... Do you know which one it is?

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  3. It's the twenty-second episode, entitled "Dinner of the Dead." I can't believe several years have passed since I watched this series and had to consult an episode list to refresh my memory. It's really time to re-watch this series.

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  4. According to Wikipedia, this book was written before La Malédiction de Barberousse. Was that a mistake, or did Barbarossa come before this?

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    1. Never mind. I went back to your interview and Halter explains that Barbarossa was actually the first Twist/Hurst book, which was originally intended written as a Gideon Fell fanfiction book which unfortunately the estate of John Dickson Carr did not approve.

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