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Locked Room Reviews:
Paul Halter: The Lord of Misrule
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Few authors have ever come close to equaling the locked room novels of the great John Dickson Carr, in quantity or quality, but Paul Halter has certainly given him a run for the title of ‘Locked Room King’. We have already reviewed ‘The Fourth Door’, Halter’s first novel, which is a five star puzzle (see Fourth Door review), so now we will turn our attention to another of his great impossible mystery novels.
Those who have read ‘The Fourth Door’ review may remember that all of Halter’s works were originally written in French, though several have now been translated into English by John Pugmire, including ‘The Lord of Misrule’. Paul Halter burst onto the French mystery scene in 1987, when he won the Prix de Cognac, a respected award for French detective fiction, with his first novel ‘La Quatrieme Porte’ (The Fourth Door). The next year, he gained the highest prize in the French mystery genre, the Prix du Roman d’Aventures, for ‘Le Brouillard Rouge’ (The Red Fog). ‘The Fourth Door’ introduced 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. ‘The Lord of Misrule’ now serves as our introduction to his other remarkable sleuth, Owen Burns, a man who views impossible crimes as an art form, ably assisted by his chronicler, Achilles Stock.
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 reportedly because he felt it provided a more appropriate atmosphere, and also partly a tribute to 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 hard to miss the many nods to Carr found in Halter’s 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 – an atmosphere he faithfully retains. Despite being a star in French mystery literature, with a huge following in several countries, it did not prove 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.
‘The Lord of Misrule’ begins with the back story of how the friendship between Owen and Stock began. Our narrator, Achilles Stock, is a young man who has just arrived in London from South Africa. He is searching for his ‘art’, when he first encounters Owen Burns in the streets of London. His first vision of Owens has him dressed in a rather loud orange suit, in the process of buying all the flowers in a street stall – save one that is imperfect – before he enters a cab to cross to the other side of the road! Later that same day, Achilles explores the gritty neighbourhoods of east London, and buys a young waif a Christmas goose. He has just paused to listen to an organ grinder with his monkey, when he discovers that he is sharing this simple street scene with Owen, and they fall into a deep conversation that founds a firm friendship. A little too coincidently, it is later on this same fateful evening, that Achilles accidentally startles a young woman who mumbles in fear about masks and bells, before disappearing into the night.
A year later, Achilles, now returned from his travels in Scotland, drops by Owen’s home and is soon persuaded to help him with his latest investigation. Owen Burns looks at some forms of crime as artistic expression, and the more eccentric the better, with the very best requiring his time and contemplation! He is regularly consulted by Scotland Yard when impossible cases arise, but this time has been asked by a Miss Catherine Piggott, to investigate a series of strange occurrences. She has been staying just outside London, at the estate of the Mansfield family, where Miss Piggott and her brother are spending the Christmas season. Unfortunately, Owen has fallen madly in love with an American actress and cannot spare the time to join the Christmas party, so he sends Achilles in his place, under the guise of being the fiancé of the not so young, nor beautiful, Miss Piggott. Owen provides him with little background, preferring that Achilles form his own opinions. He simply notes that Miss Piggott fears for her brother’s safety, before concluding with the ominous warning, “While you’re down there, if you happen to see a ghastly white mask one night, or if you hear tiny bells tinkling, you need to be a bit careful. You may be in mortal peril.”
Achilles arrives at the Mansfield mansion the following evening, still no wiser, and his position is further jeopardized when the not so comely Catherine slips on the front steps and breaks her leg while welcoming her new “fiancé”. To make matters worse, at her side is the young dark haired beauty he had frightened a year earlier in London. Achilles now must join the Christmas party, uncertain of Catherine’s preparations, or the intent of the young woman now introduced as Sybil Mansfield, as he faces a rather daunting group of family and guests. At the head of the dinner table is Charles Mansfield, twice widowed, step father to Edwin, who tragically died two years earlier, and father of the lovely Sibyl and her red haired sister, Daphne, who is also present for the holidays. Then there is Sybil’s fiancé, Samuel Piggott, an older businessman who is saving Mansfield from ruin – at the price of marrying the young Sybil to this rich man with ‘piggy fingers’ – or so believes the jealous Achilles. Piggott’s sister, Catherine, is still absent in hospital after her mishap, but Samuel’s assistant, the dour Edgar Forbes, is brooding over his food, next to a strange figure, wearing a cape to dinner, who is introduced as Professor Julius Morganstone. There are also two trusted retainers, more family than servants; Nicholas, who manages the estate and drives the family ‘bus’, and his wife, Mary, a small energetic blonde who run the household. Upon Achilles arrival, there was also a fleeting appearance, outside the house, by Harry Nichols, a one time suitor of Sybil, whose visit is now taken as an ill omen. Still, Achilles manages to survive the evening’s conversation without destroying his cover, but he becomes concerned later that evening, when he witnesses an odd event from a second floor window. All the other members of the household are seen gathered around a table, just before the lamp is suddenly extinguished. Then, in the middle of the night, he awakens to the soft tinkling of bells, just moments before a piercing scream rents the quiet. When all turn out to investigate, they find Sybil and Daphne both badly shaken, after another vision of the man in the ‘white mask’ has appeared at their bedroom windows!
Fortunately, it does not take long for Achilles to win over Daphne and gain the family’s trust, and the next evening he is given the full story of the Lord of Misrule, by Charles Mansfield himself. It is a long twisted tale of a demonic horror with deep roots in a dark family past. The tale involves the death of a young fool named Peter Joke, who had been elected the ‘Lord’ of a profane series of Christmas festivities over 200 years earlier. These debauches had resulted in Joke’s death when his throne crashed through the thin ice that covered the lake behind the house. It was to prove the beginning of the end of the Mansfield family fortunes, and the origin of a long standing curse, where members of the Mansfield family were taken each Christmas by the Lord of Misrule, with his odd pale white mask and black cape, always presaged by the sound of the tiny tinkling bells attached to his costume. Yet, the curse had apparently faded away over time, only to return with a vengeance the past few Christmas seasons. First there was the odd death of a distant relative, which had revived the old story of the curse; followed the next Christmas by the death of Edwin, Mansfield’s stepson, who was found horribly mutilated in his tower room under impossible conditions, with untrammelled snow for several yards in front of the only possible entrance. This tragedy had once more fuelled local fears the previous Christmas, as Achilles had observed that night he accidentally frightened a nervous Sybil, who was doing penance with the Salvation Army on the poor street of London. Her fear had all too soon proved justified, when a young butcher from the nearby village set out to prove that this demon was a sham, only to be later found in the same icy lake where the legend had been born over two centuries earlier. Now Samuel Piggott is determined to rid the family of this curse, once and for all, before he joins the family ranks, which explains the presence of Professor Julius Morganstone, a renowned medium employed by Piggott to exorcise the family demon, as well as the dark seance Achilles had witnessed the previous evening.
While this old tale has a long history, few details survive of the historic tragedies, and the death of the distant relative may well be the simple heart attack the coroner had ruled three years earlier. Even the butcher’s demise remains uncertain, as the most likely answer is that he foolishly crashed through the too thin ice while ghost hunting under the influence of Dutch courage. However, the murder of Edwin is a completely different kettle of fish. A former governess, who had proved to be a trusted observer, had clearly seen a strange figure, later assumed to be the Lord of Misrule, enter Edwin’s tower room, and not emerge for at least an hour, by which time she had retired to bed – only to be woken, along with the rest of the house, by an extremely noisy altercation at 2 AM. Rushing to the window, she had seen Sybil in the courtyard, only yards from Edwin’s door, struggling with a dark figure, who impossibly fled before she could open the window. When the tower room is finally entered from the courtyard, as all other exits are firmly bolted, they find the badly mutilated body of Edwin in the middle of his completely ruined bedroom, apparently stabbed to death with some form of long and extremely thin blade. Outside the courtyard door to the tower, not a single mark had marred the yards of virgin snow that lay between where Sybil had collapsed, after being awoken by the governess while sleepwalking, and the entrance to the destroyed room where Edwin lay dead. Despite a long and vigorous investigation by Scotland Yard, with Sybil as the primary suspect, the police were finally forced to file it as unsolved, as they were never able to explain how it was possible for the murderer to enter or exit the locked and sealed chamber.
Achilles continues to investigate and reports to Owen at the local, and now that he has been taken into family’s confidence, he is also invited to join the seances. Before Christmas, the spirit had already knocked out a promise to reveal the truth about Edwin’s death, though it is not until Boxing Day night, that a particularly violent session sends Piggott running off to a late meeting on a small barge along the shore of the nearby lake – at the very spot where the legend of The Lord of Misrule had been created. Achilles and Nicholas follow a hundred yards behind to provide assistance, if necessary, but after losing sight of Piggott for only a single minute, in a shallow depression in the trail, they discover his body lying at the shore, stabbed with an ornamental dagger stolen from the house – and not a single person in sight within a good hundred yards in all directions – only a minute after they had witnessed a very similar scene with the living Piggot just arriving near the shore. Though they later find a crazed Forbes running about the countryside, fleeing a frightening encounter with the Lord of Misrule, his prints in the snow make it quite clear that he never approached the lake. The entire case is just as completely impossible as Edwin’s death. No one could possibly have covered over 200 yards, coming and going, within a single minute, under such conditions, especially without leaving any marks of their passage in the fresh snow. In the end, it is not until the attempted murder of Harry Nichols, Sybil’s onetime suitor, that the murderer makes a fatal error, and Inspector Wedekind of Scotland Yard is finally able to make an arrest. Owen promptly holds the de rigour country house denouement and provides the necessary explanations, which every Halter fan will immediately recognize as a compilation of lies and half truths, which is as far as we may go without a spoiler alert.
Some locked room fans may figure out the basic ‘howdunnit’ of both impossible deaths, before Owen finally provides all the details – a long six months after these events – but this story is so incredibly intricate, with so many unique points to be resolved, that many of the details will likely still be missing, and the ‘whodunnit’ of Pigott’s death, may well be missed by even the most avid fan.
The clue to the central theme of this mystery occurs in Owens final solution, but it requires no spoiler alert. “She (Sybil) has barely recovered from the disappearance of her fiancé the young Harry Nichols, when the nice, sweet Mr. Piggott starts to court her, with the blessing of her father, of whose financial difficulties she is well aware. Only she can save him by sacrificing herself – like a modern Iphigenia – on the alter of filial devotion.” In Greek mythology, Iphigenia, Princess of Argos, was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, but after offending the goddess Artemis with his hunting boasts, Agamemnon was commanded to kill Iphigenia as a sacrifice to allow his ships to sail to Troy. The irony lies in the fact that Artemis is actually the deity of young women in distress and, in most versions of this myth, she rescues Iphigenia at the last moment. Agamemnon’s problems were all created by his own hubris and greed, and such a sacrifice could never have restored him to grace. In much the same manner, Sybil’s self sacrifice, abetted by her father and Piggott, is bound to lead only to further tragedy. Two wrongs can never make a right, and the Mansfield’s long history of bad behaviour, will not be propitiated by the sacrifice of this Iphigenia, who like Helen, has already caused too much strife not of her own making. Instead, all must pay for there own conceits in proper measure, before this curse can finally be lifted – though I cannot help but note that her father gets off rather lightly.
Yet another clue to the underlying themes of this mystery is found in Halter’s reference to the poem ‘The Oak and The Reed’ by Jean de La Fontaine. Sybil, like the reed, has been tested and twisted by every wind, without her ever finally breaking, yet her experiences still leave her carrying an impossible burden, which soon requires further sacrifice, in order to maintain any hope of eventual redemption. Meanwhile, the mighty oak, who once seemed so strong and fearless, will be the one to perish by fire.
I read the ebook edition of ‘Lord of Misrule’, and must admit that I was rather disappointed with my purchase, which is missing all the delightful diagrams (but not the captions) that are found in the paperback, and these would have been quite helpful. It really is no big deal to include diagrams in ebooks these days, so this is rather inexcusable in a book worth this price. Pugmire’s translation remains a joy, as always, but this Locked Room International edition is also poorly edited, with several minor errors. None are critical to the basic story, just a bit confusing – especially the reference to “Catherine Mansfield”, rather than Catherine Piggott. (page 110, Loc. 1564) This book is also more novelette than full novel, at only 148 pages, which is also not reflected in the price.
I freely admit to being a serious Halter fan. To this point, I have failed to discover a single Halter work that is not a locked room masterpiece – or at least the next best thing! My only quibble with this one lies in the emphasis on Owen’s eccentric nature in the opening chapters, which fails to reappear as the solution draws closer. ‘The Lord of Misrule’ is not quite as good as ‘The Fourth Door’, which is a ridiculously high standard, but it is still a truly excellent locked room read! The first locked room device is clearly not original, but is expertly handed, while the second is apparently unique, though perhaps requires a little more flesh to appear absolutely solid – though it is not far off the mark! A few critics have also complained about the psychology that underlies the true identity of The Lord of Misrule, which I cannot fully discuss without ruining this fantastic mystery, so I will only note that I actually find this means of dealing with a psychologically unacceptable event, which is therefore inexplicable, to actually be quite convincing! (p143)
So how should we rate this particular Halter outing? Halter quite simply remains the best thing to happen to locked room mysteries since Carr, and still retains all that charming Golden Age country house murder atmosphere! In addition, I actually prefer Owen and Achilles as locked room detectives, over the rather odd Dr. Twist. I also love the reference to Sherlock as a contemporary colleague! (p137) So, at the risk of seeming repetitive, this is (just barely) my second in a row five star rating for Paul Halter, and we will soon return with even more of this fascinating author!
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