French crime writer Paul Halter is what mathematicians call a singleton. Back in the eighties, when social noir reigned triumphant on Gallic crime fiction, it took damn guts to proclaim one’s allegiance to John Dickson Carr and specialize oneself in locked rooms and other impossible crimes: Halter’s literary fate, as he swimmed against the tide, seemed to be doomed from the start. And yet Halter won the Cognac Prize (one of the major local mystery awards at the time, sponsorized by publisher Le Masque) and went on to write over thirty novels all dealing with his favorite subject matter, to increasing acclaim. Twenty years later, noir is still a major force in French crime writing – so much so that « noir » is routinely used as a synonym for the genre as a whole – and Le Masque, once a pillar of the traditional mystery, has moved to darker (trendier?) territories, but Halter is still part of its catalogue, imperturbably churning out his annual puzzler with a supreme disdain for fashion. He has readers in Italy, Germany and Japan and recently made his entry into the English-speaking market with a collection of his best short stories, gaining a Barry award nomination in the process.
His dedication to impossible crimes is not the only feature that makes Halter’s work outstanding. While often dubbed as the only heir to John Dickson Carr, Halter is not a docile follower, he has an universe and an approach of his own and is not afraid to experiment, even though the result is not always convincing or successful. Carr for instance never thought of rooting a locked room mystery in Greek mythology – Halter did, and this odd mix gave us books such as Le Crime de Dédale or Le Géant de pierre. Likewise, Carr, while often giving pseudo-supernatural overtones to his stories and being an enthusiast reader of M.R. James, always kept mystery and horror separated bar for a few short stories and the famous tour-de-force known as The Burning Court. Halter, on the other hand, has no problems with crossing genres and leaving the door of the unexpected wide open. Finally, Halter’s imagination is way much darker than his master’s and he doesn’t shrink from graphic violence and bleak endings. He is definetely not a cozy writer.
As I said above, Halter’s decoctions have uneven effects, due in a large part to his flaws as a writer, not helped by his prolificity and enthusiasm. Nick Fuller made a good summary of Halter’s strenghts and weaknesses and I won’t parrot him. I’d like to add, though, that Halter’s puzzles tend to be lacking in the motivation department; too often his impossible crimes seem to be impossible… because they have to.
La Toile de Pénélope was published in 2001 and is one of Halter’s most straightforward works. No hint of the paranormal, no attempt to « push the envelope » or play the mad scientists of detective fiction, no psychopaths in sight: just a plain locked room mystery in a traditional setting with everything worked out and back to order in the end.
It all begins with Frederick Foster rising from the dead. The rich and famous entomologist had left to Amazonia three years ago in order to study local spiders and hopefully discover some still unknown to science. Alas, everything went wrong: he and his partner went lost and he was finally declared dead after the river brought back a corpse with his papers on. His family mourned him, then resumed life. You can thus imagine how shocked they are when Foster turns to be alive, if not exactly kicking. The corpse was actually his guide’s; Foster was captured by indigens and spent the following two years in captivity before finally escaping and finding his way back to civilization – with his precious spiders. Needless to say, this « resurrection » is not necessarily good news to everyone, most particularly his wife, Ruth, who was about to re-marry. Still, Foster slips back in his ancient life and everything would be fine – well, almost – without a troubling photo found in his luggage. It represents Foster, but the name behind is his partner’s, which raises doubts: would the miracle man be an imposter? The family sets to extensively interview Foster on the most obscure aspects of his life, with no probing results either way, and the only specimen of the entomologist’s fingerprints vanishes mysteriously.
Climate progressively deteriorates as no solution is likely to be found, ‘Foster’ being not the least frustrated one at this uncertainty. It thus comes off as the logical output of the whole affair that he is found dead at his desk, with a revolver near his hand and a bullet in his head; the impostor brought justice to himself, case closed. But of course this ain’t suicide and now things are getting really interesting, for the door was locked from the inside and the only practicable window was obstrued by an intricate and unfakable web meticulously woven by Foster’s favorite spider, the aptly-named Penelope. How did the murderer get out of the room? And who really was Frederick Foster?
La Toile de Pénélope, I said, is one of Halter’s most orthodox detective novels – that it was born out of a challenge (from Belgian scholar Vincent Bourgeois, to whom the book is dedicated) may partially account for that. Because he has to deal with only one impossibility, which he solves brilliantly, Halter has more time for the larger plot which is more elegantly and soundly devised than usual with him. For once the reader has his chance to work parts of the truth out of the physical and psychological clues, and the guilty party is not arbitrary nor thrown out of thin air. The writing is tightier, with only occasional slips into clichés and some typos which suggest editors at Le Masque are paid way too much, and some characters are reasonably well-sketched, most particularly Major Brough. In the end, the book looks more like Christie than Carr, though neither would’ve condoned the second murder – a reminder that Halter-the-Bleak is always lurking in the backstages and that he takes no prisoners.
Paul Halter, a Master of Locked Rooms, by John Pugmire