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Locked Room Reviews:
A modern locked room master!
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When John Dickson Carr died in 1977 it left a major gap in the mystery genre. Carr had ruled as the undisputed King of Locked Room mysteries since the early 1930’s – and died without an apparent heir to the title. In the English speaking world this title has laid unclaimed, but not for those who read French, and now not for those who can read a series of quite excellent translations of Paul Halter’s best known novels and short stories!
Paul Halter burst into the French mystery genre in 1987, when he won the Prix de Cognac, a respected award for French detective fiction, with this first novel ‘La Quatrieme Porte’ (The Fourth Door). The next year, he gained the highest prize in the French mystery genre, with the Prix du Roman d’Aventures, for ‘Le Brouillard Rouge’ (The Red Fog). ‘The Fourth Door’ introduces us to his two primary detectives, Dr. Alan Twist, a pipe-smoking, whiskey drinking, thin, Englishman, who works with the energetic Chief Inspector Archibald Hurst of Scotland Yard. With nine of these works finally available in English, we can now add these fascinating titles to a part of the mystery genre that has been too long neglected.
Oddly, though Paul Halter was born in 1956, in Haguenau, a part of Alsace in north-eastern France, and writes exclusively in French, almost all of his mystery novels are set in England. This is partly because he felt it provided a more appropriate atmosphere, and also partly to emulate John Dickson Carr, an American who set most of his novels in England, and was Halter’s primary inspiration from a very young age. It is often hard to miss the many nods to Carr found in his works, from simple plot devices to very similar detectives. The main difference between Dr Twist, and Carr’s Dr Gideon Fell, is that Fell clearly outweighs Twist by a substantial margin. Nods to other great masters of this sub-genre also abound in many of his stories – demonstrating Halter’s fascination with the literature of his Golden Age predecessors. Despite being a star in French mystery literature, with a huge following in several countries, apparently including India, it has not proved to be a very rewarding career at a financial level, with Halter still earning his bread and butter as an electrical engineer for the French company, Telecom. Things may have worked out quite differently, if his novels had been translated into English at an earlier date, but at least our patience has now been rewarded by this excellent series of translations by John Pugmire, the force behind Locked Room International, and a highly respected authority on the locked-room sub-genre. I think it is now fairly safe to assume that Carr’s title has finally been passed on to another generation!
This first published novel, ‘The Fourth Door’, is set in a late 1940’s English village and is primarily concerned with three families who have long lived as close neighbours, with the pot now stirred by the arrival of two new tenants, who have come to share one of these grand old houses. The central roles are given to three young men who have grown up together in this rural area – a recurring theme of ‘lost years of innocence’, that is found in several of these Halter novels. One of these young men is the narrator, James Stevens, whose sister, Elizabeth, also plays a central role. The other two are Henry White and John Darnley. John sadly lost his mother in a rather horrid fashion some while before the novel begins. She had been found dead in a sealed attic room covered with slashes, which may or may not have been a rather gruesome form of suicide. Victor Darnley, John’s father, has never quite recovered from this loss. Lights are often seen in the isolated attic room where John’s mother died and local opinion is split between a haunted manor and Victor wandering around the house in search of his dead wife’s ghost. The story has barely begun, when Henry’s mother is also killed in a car crash, while driving home with his father from London. His father escapes unscathed, but the news arrives only moments after James has witnessed Henry talking in his sleep about the loss of his mother!
Victor Darnley, with his life in tatters, has lost most of his income and is obliged to rent out a large portion of his house to make ends meet. Many have moved in and soon left, after hearing eerie footsteps in the attic in the middle of the night, but the latest tenants, Alice and Patrick Latimer, who dabble in spiritual matters, seem to find it the perfect place to live. Still, it is not long before their arranged seances with the dead wives and mothers, leave all convinced, except the gullible widowers, that the Latimer’s are making a lot of money out of these and other scams. In short, they are charlatans preying upon the sympathies of bereaved relatives.
This situation inevitably leads to clashes between the sons and fathers, until one night Henry’s father is attacked after seeing a suspicious figure carrying what looks like a body. He recovers, but by the next morning Henry has disappeared. The police investigate, but find no body, and the Latimer’s claim to have seen Henry in a London train station. Since they are not yet suspects and there is no real evidence of a crime, it is assumed that Henry, who always held a fascination and an incredible talent for acrobatics and the art of illusion, has simply gone off to join the circus, after the numerous bitter arguments with his father. The only really jarring note in this early investigation occurs when James asserts that he saw and talked to Henry in Oxford, at almost the same moment as Henry was seen London, suggesting that Henry is either capable of being in two places at once – or someone is lying!
Unfortunately, all these odd occurrences lead to no real conclusions. Arthur White and Victor Darnell grow ever closer to the Latimer’s as several years pass with no major incidents or sign of Henry. Finally, these four decide on an experiment designed to make Mrs Darnley reappear in the sealed attic room where she died long ago. It is the ‘fourth door’ down a narrow, and very dark, attic passage. Patrick Latimer agrees to be locked into the sealed room as part of the experiment, and all is made ready, including wax seals, designed to prove that no one could possibly have entered or left the sealed chamber. Patrick finally arrives and is locked inside, muffled in coat and scarf due to the bitter cold, but when the others are finally alerted and break the seal, it is not Patrick who lies stabbed on the floor, exactly where Mrs Darnley had died! Patrick claims to have been ambushed and put out of action, but that still does not explain how this new body was stabbed in the back while inside this perfect locked-room!
The identity of the corpse is only the first of many twists, all of which Inspector Drew, aka ‘The Psychologist’, must unravel and finally draw to a conclusion. Nor is it the last impossible murder, yet another death occurs, this time in an isolated house with unblemished snow on all sides! Drew clearly botches the investigation, but all ‘appears’ to be finally unravelled, with ‘appears’ being the operative word in this novel which is all about appearances and illusions. The final denouement, with Drew and the remaining characters, is a masterpiece of literature which skirts that always fine line that separates the mystery and horror genres.
It is not until much later that Dr Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst, with the invaluable help of mystery author, Ronald Bowers, realize that the whole truth never emerged. To tell you any more, would clearly require a spoiler alert, and this novel is far too good to ruin. I strongly urge every fan of the locked room genre to get ahold of a copy of this quite remarkable, extremely inventive, and entirely unique, award winning mystery novel. ‘The Fourth Door’ has long been considered one of the all time great locked room mysteries, holding down one of the top three spots ever since the list was first created by a panel of experts back in the early 1980’s.
I almost guarantee that you will initially find all these impossible crimes to be piled on with too thick a trowel, but even this is finally justified by the solution. It is also quite certain that you won’t divine the final twists and turns of this very odd, yet extremely compelling tale.’The Fourth Door’ is not a long novel, maybe 150 pages on paper, and it runs at an incredible pace, with hardly any break in the action – though the events narrated are condensed from a period of several years. About three quarters of the way through, you are likely going to feel cheated, I know I did, but do not let this pause in the narrative let you put this book aside. It is, in reality, no break at all, just another brief glimpse behind the curtain that hides the real illusion. The spectre of Harry Houdini also haunts this novel (sometimes referred to as ‘The Houdini Murders’), both directly and indirectly, leading us to view this novel more as an act of illusion, than your usual mystery drama. Other reviewers have made a quite valid point, holding that ‘The Fourth Door’ is not only a gem of the locked-room sub-genre, but is really one of the best mysteries of all time and should be considered as simply a fascinating piece of literature that deserves much wider appreciation.
There is not much to say on the negative side. Some critics find the translation to be a bit awkward. While my poor French does not allow me to make a valid comparison, I tend to accept that this rather odd style is a necessary part of the plot. If it was written with more polish and a stylish flair, that would actually raise a quite serious plotting issue. It can also be argued that some of Halter’s peripheral characters are rather shallow and under-developed, but the same argument applies, as this is clearly a requirement of the plot, a point most readers will likely acknowledge after finishing this amazing novel.
To put it simply, this is one of the best books of any description, I have read in a very long time! It is a masterpiece of the locked room genre, and also a very good piece of modern literature. Reading it was not unlike my barely remembered responses, when I first read a few of Sherlock’s better adventures, or a couple of Christie’s classic endings! What higher praise can be offered? More of these Halter novels will be reviewed over the next few months! Unequivocally a full five star mystery read!
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