Sunday, November 27, 2011

Interview with Paul Halter (Part II)

Yesterday, I posted Part I of an interview between Roland Lacourbe and Paul Halter. Now here is Part II, which deals more with Halter's own writing career. Both these parts originally appeared in Le Masque's Paul Halter omnibus, Volume 1, and have been translated with the permission of M. Roland Lacourbe.


Now we’ll begin to tackle your own work. So, traditional question: what brought you to write? The fundamental reason?

Fundamental? … (Long silence.) I believe I wanted to follow up on the investigations of Dr. Fell and H. M. Particularly Dr. Fell. 

La Malédiction de Barberousse (Barbarossa’s Curse)

This goes back how long?

1984. The first book I wrote was La Malédiction de Barberousse (Barbarossa’s Curse). And at first, it was Gideon Fell who solved the case. But since I wasn’t allowed to use him, I erased him and transformed him into… Twist. He wasn’t fat, he was thin, but apart from certain details, he generally had the same mannerisms and behaviour.

But how did you know you weren’t allowed to use him?

I simply asked the literary agent. And I got a response, a letter from the Hoffman agency. The heirs formally asked me not to use him. I was rather upset, but that was okay, the book hadn’t been published yet. Nor was it about to be…

But had you written it deliberately for publication, or simply for your personal satisfaction?

I don’t know. At the outset, I wasn’t hoping to be published. Perhaps I wanted to bring myself some pleasure? And I was also curious. I asked myself: how can you conceive a similar plot? Carr is always surprising: everything coincides to perfection, everything is strange, everything is mysterious… It was a sort of challenge: attempt to build a story in the same vein. It’s a long-term project. The construction builds up bit by bit…

So would it be right to say that you start from the puzzle?

That’s it. Afterwards, you no longer control anything. The story writes itself for one imperative reason… I knew this well, but I didn’t want to precisely say so, although the first book inevitably had an autobiographical side to it.

More so than the others. 

Yes, more so than the others. 

And there’s also the journey to England. 

Yes. I had to find the world that inspired me. But I still see Haguenau as a child: the town, the people, and how one behaved, it was a bit like Carr and the classic detective novel. It was not the modern city of nowadays. There were cobblestoned alleyways, you never knew much of what was going on. The houses had high walls as in the Jean Ray stories[1], you never knew what lay behind them. All that was seen with my adolescent eyes…

And what do you think of Barbarossa’s Curse today, and its place among your works?

I don’t know. I’ve always been very surprised by the reception of readers and their different comments. It has its qualities, to be sure, but it’s far from perfect. But for my first try, a lot of things came together and it’s close to my heart. It’s really the only one of which I can’t really say anything. When I retrieved it for republication, I plunged right back into the story. 

So you completely rewrote it?

No, I wasn’t able to! I revised it, simply. I added a few small things here and there, and I erased some things that were a bit too personal. That was tough. Above all, I revised the writing. But I didn’t change the story one bit.

You self-published it the first time?

That’s a very strong word! A friend of mine printed fifty copies for me. You can’t talk about a first edition to account for the author’s presence. It was fifty photocopies.

Bound with an original drawing.

Yes, one of my own. One of these days, I’ll be able to resell them for a small fortune to Americans! (Laughs)

And the prize? Because you did win a prize for your first novel?

Ah yes! How did that happen? I won a regional prize, a prize that grouped together all sorts of literary leanings, from poems to philosophy. And I won the prize that year with that book. And it being a roman policier particularly pleased me!

But how was it that you came to compete?

An ad in the newspaper! I was therefore the laureate of the year 198…? 1986! The writing, therefore, went back to 1984-1985. And I got a little cheque and a beautiful certificate, but the book was not published… And that was what was most dear to my heart from then on. At about the same time, I had sent it to the Prix du roman policier de Cognac. Which I didn’t win…

So we arrive at La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door)?

Yes, the famous Fourth Door. 

La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door)

So tell me: how did this story start off?

I had already written Barbarossa’s Curse, which I had sent to various publishers; it was Le Masque who presented it to Cognac. But I did not yet know the result of the Prix du Cognac when I began on The Fourth Door. Later, I learned that Barbarrosa’s Curse had placed second but hadn’t won any award. The first prize was published but there was nothing for second place. I was disappointed, not to say furious!

So Le Masque was your first contact with the world of publishing?

Yes, the first negative contact! But it wasn’t the current team at Le Masque. It changed around that time. So they returned the manuscript to me. But despite that, I was rather flattered by the reception at Cognac. And I was already writing The Fourth Door at that moment…

Had you already decided to cut out a literary career for yourself?

I was seduced by the heat of the action! I had written one book and an idea had begun to sprout for a second. I had read Houdini et sa légende (Houdini and His Legend)… I don’t think that you know it? …

I vaguely heard something about it…

Well, I had a good idea, I could feel it! I had read Houdini and His Legend at roughly the time I was writing Barbarossa’s Curse. In any case, I’m certain that I read Houdini and His Legend after discovering John Dickson Carr, because I remember saying to myself: “Why, it’s by the same author as the article in Mystère Magazine! That enigmatic Roland Lacourbe who interests himself in locked rooms, John Dickson Carr, and Houdini’s tricks! Curious!”

And did Houdini’s name mean anything to you?

Yes, I was impressed with the Tony Curtis film—which I saw in black and white although it was filmed in colour…

Yes, a film which, as with you, fascinated me!

That went back quite a long way! So when I discovered the book, I set about learning who Houdini really was and how he pulled off his tricks! But what struck me most was a certain saying of Carr’s that you noted in your article… He declares that, when he writes a book, he does it with the hope that it will outdo all the others… That’s what pushed me to write: it’s very stimulating! I’m not saying I wrote Barbarossa’s Curse because of this, but certainly The Fourth Door: the urge to write something striking! But I didn’t altogether succeed…

On the contrary! I consider it one of your finest books.

I admit it has certain qualities. Will you understand it if I say that it was written with the idea of rising to a challenge? That sounds awfully megalomaniacal.

Certainly, but it’s so sophisticated in its construction that it doesn’t surprise me that you thought that way and that you wrote it with such a challenge in mind.

There are several small phrases of Carr’s  that I picked up from your article — the famous number 271 of Mystère Magazine —which were crucial for me. That was it, but it was enough. And of course your summary of the fantastical themes in his works. It was well laid out in a few sentences, and it had an impact on me.

Where did you get the idea of including Houdini’s personality in a detective novel?

I don’t remember if I thought of this as soon as I finished the book. But it seemed to me a fabulous base for a story. Incidentally, do you agree? I don’t know if the idea has already been used but there’s a lot of material there.

And so with all that you mixed in a story of reincarnation…

Yes, I was still full of certain stories… I don’t know if it was Carr who moulded my brain from up above on some cloud. I admit it’s a bit mechanical. I tried to take everything that could have a bearing on the story and on the theme of the impossible crime: reincarnation, bilocation, a lack of footprints in the snow… But when I created the plot, everything fell into place naturally and logically. Which is not always the case, I can tell you! Sometimes you have to force it, but this time, everything came together in a rush. You do need to put in some effort, of course. But when I searched for something, I immediately found the solution: everything came together. There was also the figure of Conan Doyle, who appeared in the person of Arthur White. And Weiss (White) was the family name of Houdini… Everything fit together perfectly!

And this time, you did win the Prix de Cognac. How did that happen?

I sent it to Le Masque. The old team rejected my first, but I tried my luck once again. I called Le Masque a bit later, I have no idea what for. And the person in charge, then Hélène Amalric, told me (once I’d given her my name) that I’d only just missed the boat the first time. I was surprised and touched. But never mind, I hadn’t won! She told me that she had read the book and found it very good. She added: “This time, you have a serious chance.” But she couldn’t be sure because it was a contest. Sometime afterwards, I got a letter from Cognac which told me I had won first place. And I instantly told myself, here we go… Even if I now realize that the game had not been won for all that.

And so you were invited to Cognac?

Yes. It was 1987. I spent two or three days at the Festival du film policier (Detective Film Festival), where you pass the time by eating, drinking, meeting people and watching films. Very pleasant!

You also met Claude Chabrol[2]?

Yes, and he told me he really liked what I was doing. In fact, he had already been my advocate for Barbarossa’s Curse which he liked a lot. And The Fourth Door brought him enormous pleasure as well. Unfortunately, I never got the chance in later years to talk to him about my books.

He is also a John Dickson Carr fanatic and a connoisseur of his works.

Yes, he told me so.

And he immediately found that there were similar points between his work and yours?

Yes, and what’s more he talked about reincarnation. I now think he was joking, but I was a bit naïve and I asked myself if he was being serious! There was also François Guérif[3]… and who else? Michel Guibert[4]… He was the press officer of Le Masque at the time. He’d written four or five novels, I believe. A very likeable character, but the detective novel may not have been his forte

And Guérif enjoyed it as well?

Yes, but his tastes are very eclectic, whereas Chabrol was genuinely interested. There was also Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe[5]. What did he tell me while talking about The Fourth Door? … That it was a veritable assault on Carr! But in a good way. Very strong. In short, very strong in a very focused genre.

Le Brouillard Rouge (The Red Fog)

Afterwards, it was Le Brouillard Rouge (The Red Fog) that you wrote while The Fourth Door was competing at Cognac?

Yes, it was beginning to grow on me. Every time a book was finished, I had a brand-new idea.

And this time it was Jack the Ripper?

Yes. There’s also a small parallel, in a way, with Barbarossa’s Curse… but I won’t say any more! And the structure is completely different.

An Italian translation of
Le Brouillard rouge (The Red Fog)
Although the two parts of The Red Fog are very distinct, there’s a common point between them that I at first found somewhat artificial. But these reservations disappeared completely upon a second reading. So you had already read about Jack the Ripper?

I read a book by Tom Cullen with almost as much interest as Houdini and His Legend. A book which retraces the facts while underlining the miraculous side of the criminal’s interventions and which nicely reflected the atmosphere of the era. I felt that I had to write something about it. So, in The Red Fog, the first half is a classic puzzle…

Which brings magic into play as well…

Illusion, in fact. (…) And in the second part, we rediscover the London fogs of that sinister year 1888.

And then: a third consecutive prize!

Yes, Le Prix du Roman d’Aventures. There had been a bit of a hiatus before I knew whether Le Masque would continue to publish me. They let things drag along for a few months without telling me if they’d take the book: they had left me in the fog, so to speak… In fact, Michel Averland also wanted to be certain. I believe they always present two books to the jury for the Prix du Roman d’Aventures. They took their time and, for me, it was unbearable.

Afterwards, it was La Mort vous invite  (Death Invites You).

Yes. I wrote that one very quickly. It’s rather short and succinct.

The Rumanian translation of La
Mort vous invite (Death Invites You)
Yes. And yet, it’s a little gem!

It’s not that I don’t like it but I have the impression that it’s a parenthesis. It had a certain amount of success. I wrote it quickly. It’s a series of reflections, but without a theme underlying them. I wanted to make — how would you call it — a rapid and linear story, with a succession of twists and turns. That was all. And yet, I had a lot of luck with that one. It was translated into Rumanian.

And adapted for television! On a technical note, when you think of a subject for a novel, do you thoroughly examine your plot, do you take notes? Your characters, for instance, do you write a biography for them?

I make a skeleton. I begin writing my story when I have about three-quarters of the plot—a good framework lacking a few points that can be improvised. The essentials are already there, but never in the same way. I put the finishing touches on the characters before… in the middle… during… in an exercise book. With some small drawings to illustrate a little bit. As a matter of fact, my method is never the same. But in the first place, I have to find the right atmosphere, or else I can’t do it. I can’t make the mechanics work. I have to be happy with what I do. If not, writing is no fun.

But to follow the characters, they have to have some stature from the very start? They need to be well-structured?

Yes, but some are more important than others. The criminals are always the most interesting characters.

Because they have a double facet.

Yes, even without wanting to emphasize this. Without exception, I don’t think the characters are my first concern. Most of the time, I don’t create a detailed gallery. It’s the story that takes precedence.

But a character who intervenes several times in the novel has to be the same and react with his own logic. You can’t change personality mid-way! So you are obliged to take some notes.

Of course. But sometimes I get lost. It’s necessary to keep not only the character’s description in my memory, but also his mannerisms and habits. But what I want to say by this is that I have no desire, for whatever purpose, to place such and such a character to describe my neighbour, for example.

But you can nonetheless find protagonists inspired by famous people.

Yes, that happens sometimes, like with Conan Doyle for example. But their presence must be made necessary by the story. The character does not intrinsically interest me except in terms of their relationship to the plot. I have no desire to put in a character for the simple pleasure of doing so.

Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst

So Twist and Hurst are Fell-Hadley or H.M.-Masters?

Hurst is Masters without a doubt. Masters could be someone that I know. I think he’s modeled on Watson.

He makes me think more of Lestrade…

I can see the similarity! But in a word, when I write about Hurst, it’s Masters. No problem. He also has a sanguine face, a growing baldness…

So Twist is Dr. Fell?

In some ways. As I explained, I couldn’t use him in Barbarossa’s Curse. He could therefore no longer be fat: I made him thin and the vision I have of him is the typical English comic-book detective, you know…

… [Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce] Clifton[6]?

Yes, Clifton. With his chequered tweed jacket, but taller and thinner. Does he really have special features? I’ve noticed that he changes throughout the novels.

Against your will?

Yes. Anyway, it’s always some sort of filtered self-projection. Apart from that, what can you say about Hurst? He loves flowers.

He’s already a sexagenarian?

Ah, it’s best not to study the age problem!

In any case, he’s not far away from retirement…

Hurst is never far from retirement. As for Twist, he’s very old.

And what has he done in his life? Have you ever asked yourself that question?

I believe I wrote somewhere or other that he’s a doctor of criminology. But I don’t even know if that exists. (Laughs) Ultimately, I remained rather discreet. How he’s earned his living. I don’t know. A private detective? He once had an amorous adventure which he referred to briefly. I didn’t dig further.

He’s never been married?

No, no. He’s an old bachelor. No doubt about it!

One final point. I wanted us to talk about fantastic authors who particularly influenced you?

Let’s see… (Silence) Ah yes, Jean Ray. I like the Harry Dicksons a lot. But he’s not perfect—sometimes his writing disconcerts me. You can tell he writes for a living. But Harry Dickson: the marshes, the houses, the giant walls... And his obsessions, his deliriums...

Fredric Brown?

Ah yes, Fredric Brown! He’s very original.

With a lot of humour.

Yes, he has imagination! He inspired quite a bit of my ideas. The Far Cry is an exceptional book: you never know where it’s going, you don’t understand, you feel that something is coming… But he hides his intentions underneath silly chatter.

And Ellery Queen? We haven’t mentioned him.

Ah yes, I forgot. I read a lot. I practically bought everything, but I stopped myself along the way. He doesn’t produce the same sort of pleasure Carr does. Sometimes he’s long. He’s not theological, but… I don’t know, in some books he hits upon bizarre ideas.

Yes, a bit of a pretentious philosophical side. But there are some good things: Cat of Many Tails, The Egyptian Cross Mystery, The King is Dead…

That’s certainly true.

S. A. Steeman
And [Stanislas-André] Steeman[7]?

I like the film adaptations, but I don’t get enthusiastic over the novels. I’ve found him very uneven. I haven’t read much. Un dans Trois (One in Three) is not bad.

While we’re talking about Steeman, I found that La Mort derrière les rideaux (Death Behind the Curtains) has some points of similarity with L’assassin habite au 21 (The Assassin Lives at Number 21).

Yes; I dedicated the book to several mystery authors…

…including Steeman.

Yes. Because of that, actually. The family hotel, that’s Steeman. With the atmosphere of London streets, snow, Jack the Ripper. (I recall that the book, as opposed to the film adaptation, is set in London.) I couldn’t get this atmosphere out of my head. The Golden Age of Detective Fiction! So I wrote the novel while immersed in an atmosphere that I love.

You can sense that the book was easy to write.

I included a lot of familiar trappings. There’s India, the mention of a flying carpet… and a major. And the fakir who wants revenge because he’s been beaten. There’s also a crime committed in identical circumstances a hundred years before, in the same spot where the main crime will occur. And there’s also a heroine, a detail to note in comparison with other works. It’s in the style of Agatha Christie’s heroines: the young girl who finds herself alone after the war. Incidentally, I realize that I often talk about the Blitz. Without using it as my main source of atmosphere, but in the background; I like that.

Indeed, I think this is one of your essential characteristics: you have yet to write a single contemporary novel! It’s always a story that takes place 40 or 50 years ago. Why this fascination?

The rejection of the present! When I wrote my first novel, there really wasn’t any reason to complain or reject everything instinctively. But already, I don’t like the modern world! So now… what can I say?

Another point in common with Carr, who also took refuge in the past…

Politically, I share his outlook. When I see what money does to those in power… It corrupts everything. Who do you confide in? I understand what he rejects, with his nostalgia for a gentleman’s manners. And what’s mind-blowing is that he was thinking so just after the War!

Yes, and for you, that’s the past in which you find refuge.

There are some articles he wrote at the time which could have been written today, where he criticizes and rejects, where he talks about architects who have ruined everything… I don’t know if it’s excessive to say this, but someone who loves traditional detective stories is inevitably a little bit conservative somewhere.

Yes, undoubtedly because this kind of novel takes place in polite society, with aristocracy, and brings together dignified people, haughty, who hide their feelings and above all wish to preserve their apparent respectability.

In short, polite society or not, it was a time where even common folk had dignity. Maybe you weren’t rich but you didn’t go about wrecking everything because of that. And then, this apparent tranquility and honour gave rise to crime. It becomes spectacular. If everyone in the world kills each other, it’s no longer fun!

Exactly. This contributes to pervading anarchy. While crime in high society destroys the organization of the world.

There: the modern world is not favourable to the “elegant” crime.

Besides, the classic detective novel ignores the social dimension, which would appear misplaced.

Nonetheless, my criminals are people who succeed despite belonging to modest ranks. They’re ambitious, intelligent, they follow a fixed plan. Certainly there’s much that could be said morally. But the fact that they’re the guilty party but from a modest family is not a dishonour.

In brief, they’re simply books for entertainment.

Voilà. I’m not saying that sometimes I haven’t succeeded in curbing my pen. But I would then be abandoning the objective.

[1] Jean Ray is the pseudonym of prolific Belgian author Raymundus Joannes de Kremer (1887-1964). He is best known for his tales of the fantastique. He was a most intriguing person—in the 1920s, he was sentenced to prison for six years for embezzlement but only served two. He contributed to a series of detective stories called The Adventures of Harry Dickson, The American Sherlock Holmes; he was at first hired to translate the original stories, but he found them so bad that he asked for permission to write his own (which he did, provided that the stories matched the book cover). 

[2] Claude Chabrol (1930-2010) was a French film critic and director—he was part of the French New Wave that gave rise to the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, and others.

[3] François Guérif (born in 1944) is a French editor and film critic. He won the MWA’s Ellery Queen Award in 1997. 

[4] Michel Guibert (born in 1941, according to Le Vrai Visage du Masque by Jacques Badou and Jean-Jacques Schléret) was one of the flagship authors of Le Masque in the 1970s and 1980s. His main character was a private detective named Mario Malfatti, but he also wrote some books without a series character. He won the Prix du Roman d’Aventures in 1980 for Le Vieux Monsieur Aux Chiens (The Old Man of the Dogs). He was also in charge of the television section of the French edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine from 1988 to 1992. He’s since gone out of print. 

[5] Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, pen name of Maurice-Bernard Derbène (1918-2005), was a prolific translator and author specialising in the detective story. His series detective is Elvire, “La Vieille Dame sans merci” (“The Merciless Old Lady”), a sort of French equivalent to Miss Marple. One of the books he translated was John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court, which was very successful. 

[6] Clifton, who is the main character of a series of comic books, was originally created by Raymond Macherot in 1959, though it’s been Bob De Groot who has written most of the stories. 24 books were published between 1961 and 2008. 

[7] Stanislas-André Steeman (1908-1970) was a prolific Belgian mystery author whose books have had some success on the silver screen. A dozen of his books were adapted between 1935 and 1962, including two famous films by Henry-Georges Clouzot, L’Assassin habite au 21 (1942) and Quai des orfèvres (1947). The latter film was released in the United States under the title Jenny Lamour. Unfortunately his books have been “lost in translation”. For an excellent article on Steeman, see this article from At the Villa Rose.


  1. This was another wonderful and insightful read, Patrick, and once again thanks for taking the time to translate this for us. What I especially liked about this two-part interview, is that it showed that these classically styled mystery writers are just fan-boys like you and me. The only difference is that they took their fandom one step further. :)

  2. My last comment has been removed due to the worst proofreading job I've ever done in the comments section.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it, TomCat. Personally, this is the place where I have the biggest objection, and that is the appraisal of Ellery Queen. Seems too unfair and rushed for me, personally.

    But I'm quite happy this project is finished and I've been able to let the cat out of the bag. Finding anything on Halter is very difficult in English, so I'm glad to share this information. Some of it I already knew and shared in my Halter reviews, but much of it was new to me when I read it for the first time.

    Of course, the one thing to keep in mind is that this interview dates before the year 2000--can't remember the exact date but "The Crime of Daedalus" had yet to appear. Interviewing Halter myself doesn't seem like an option, but I think this interview has plenty of points of interest as is.