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Locked Room Reviews:
The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter
Another modern classic locked room!
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This is our third Paul Halter review, and our second review of his series featuring the genius criminologist Dr Alan Twist. There really can be little doubt that Halter, and this series in particular, is the true heir of John Dickson Carr’s classic Dr Fell mysteries and this volume only proves it once again!
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 largely laid unclaimed, but not for those who read French, and now not for those who can read Locked Room International’s series of 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 his 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). Our review of ‘The Fourth Door’ introduced our readers to his primary detective, Dr. Alan Twist, a pipe-smoking, whiskey drinking, thin, Englishman, who works with the energetic Chief Inspector Archibald Hurst of Scotland Yard. Then, our next review, The Lord of Misrule, looked at Halter’s other great series, featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock, which remains one of my all time favourite locked room mysteries. Now we return to the fifth book in the Dr. Twist series, as the third and fourth have yet to be translated, and the second, Death Invites You, has only recently been added to John Pugmire’s list of translations. With a total of twelve Halter’s works now available in English, we can finally add more of these fascinating titles to our locked room libraries, a part of the mystery genre that has been far too longed neglected.
The Seventh Hypothesis opens with a very strange, quite long, prologue. It is the night of August 31, 1938, and Constable Edward Watkins is walking his usual London beat when he hears a strange shuffle of feet and catches a brief glimpse of a figure with a monstrously long nose. He hurries to the next corner, just in time to catch another brief glimpse of this strange figure, and a second long nosed shadow. There can be no real doubt of what he is seeing – the ankle length coat, the gloved hands, the wide rimmed hat, and a white mask in the middle of which rests a foot long nose – he had just seen a 17th century plague doctor – but there had been no plague in London for almost 300 years!
Watkins briefly loses sight of these odd apparitions, and has nearly convinced himself it was all a delusion, when he spots another man, dressed in top hat and cape, with a silver tipped walking stick and a doctor’s bag, leaning over a dustbin:
“‘It’s about time, Kominski,’ the man grumbled without turning around. ‘I thought you may have done a bunk. Hell’s bells, I hope no one discovers him too soon,’ he added, closing the dustbin lid firmly. We’d have been better off dumping him somewhere else. I say, Kominski, are you listening?”‘
At this point, Watkins makes his presence known and asks for an explanation. The man identifies himself as Dr. Marcus – Doctor of Crime – and claims to be living in an earlier era of gaslight and carriages. Watkins soon tires of this ludicrous banter and opens the bin, but finds it nearly empty. He next moves to one on the other side of the narrow alley, which proves to be full – of garbage – and quite odiferous. Finally, he returns to the other side and opens a third barrel, which once again proves to be empty. Watkins decides to put an end to this nonsense and sends Dr Marcus packing, but not before the doctor delivers a parting shot – suggesting that the constable again take a look in the first dustbin. As Dr Marcus skips away, the constable turns and once again surveys this classic shell game:
“The man was even madder than he’d suspected,” the policeman thinks. “He’d hoped to make him believe there was now a body inside the dustbin which had been empty mere moments ago. It was not only absurd, it was manifestly impossible. With a smile, he lifted the lid.
“He could not believe his eyes: there really was a corpse inside.”
Watkins blows his whistle to summon help, and a window facing the alley opens a moment later. Inside this rather dismal boarding house, the Mindens, a husband and wife pair of cheapskates, relate an incredible story. The three doctors, two wearing the long nosed masks, and the other clearly Dr Marcus, had come to take away their lodger, David Cohen, a poor young musician, who they claimed was suffering from the plague. Unfortunately, after they had loaded him onto the stretcher, and were halfway down the long narrow passage that connected his cold, shabby, tenement room with the foyer, he had apparently fallen from the stretcher and simply disappeared into thin air! On closer inspection, the police can find no door or opening of any kind in the passage. They carefully search the entire building, but even Inspector Archibald Hurst cannot explain these odd events – nor can the renowned Dr. Twist when he is finally consulted. True, the pox marks on the corpse had proved to be make-up, and the young musician had been stabbed to death by some long thin instrument, but nothing seems to explain this bizarre drama. It seems clear to both Twist and Hurst that all three doctors were accomplices in this deadly charade, but what could be the motive behind such an elaborate and deadly farce? With no firm leads, this case stays unsolved for more than two months.
The break in the case, when it finally arrives in the first week of November, comes in the form of Peter Moore, private secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a famous mystery playwright, whose name virtually guarantees a successful production. Moore is worried, but demands secrecy on the part of a Twist and Inspector Hurst before he is willing to reveal his employer’s private business. Twist immediately agrees, though Hurst is far more reluctant, but Moore finally tells an odd tale of a mysterious visitor to Miller’s home, and a conversation that he had heard while listening at a keyhole. The man had initially identified himself as a cousin of Miller’s late wife, who had died in a tragic drowning accident. It soon becomes apparent that this cousin claims to have evidence that Miller had actually murdered his wife, and Miller nearly falls for the ruse, and is ready to talk blackmail terms, hen ‘the cousin’ finally admits that the evidence is not as strong as it first appeared. He then reveals that he is really Inspector Sterling and that Miller is now under arrest, but this grand farce is only beginning! After several more parries and thrusts, the visitor is found to be none other than Donald Ransome, a great stage actor, who has starred in many of Miller’s productions. It is generally acknowledged that these two are nearly inseperable friends, though some suggest that the reality of this relationship is actually quite different, especially now that the aging Ransome has become engaged to Miller’s young step daughter, Sheila. Moore, by this point, was beginning to think that this entire performance was nothing more than an elaborate practical joke, until the conversation took yet another dark turn. Miller now freely admits to murdering his wife, and Ransome claims to have been her lover, and both agree that the situation has grown intolerable and one of them must go!
Sir Gordon finally proposes a solution to this dilemma by challenging his old friend to a duel, designed to settle, once and for all, their deep disputes and the question of Sheila’s marriage to Ransom. In addition, Peter Moore notes that just as Miller speaks of “the game and the murder” that is to follow, he picks up an odd doll of a plague Doctor! This tidbit clearly grabs Hurst and Twist’s attention, suggesting that this odd drama is far too coincidental to not be related to the two month old case. Still, a duel it is to be, but not with pistols at dawn. Instead, the agreed solution is far more creative. They flip a coin to decide which one of them will commit murder – and attempt to pin it on the other! The result will be that one or the other will almost certainly die at the end of a rope – settling all outstanding scores – be it the murderer or the one being framed. Unfortunately, Peter Moore is unable to see who wins the toss, but he is now determined to tell the authorities before he ends up in the middle of a murder investigation! Unfortunately, he actually has no reason to worry about his future, as he will soon become one of two new victims to be murdered in this most extraordinary case.
Of course, Hurst and Twist immediately sit down to analyze the case, and Hurst proposes six hypotheses that might fit the facts, each of which Twist finds fault with, before the great criminologist adds a seventh hypothesis, the human factor, where nothing is simply true or false, and the laws of logic are suspended by the presence of pure madness!
This is clearly another of Halter’s great locked room masterpieces, with a strong Golden Age feel. Pugmire’s translation flows completely smoothly and seamlessly, without any indication that this novel was written in another language. The e-edition is also much better in this instance than it was with the problematic editions of The Fourth Door or The Lord of Misrule, which missed most of the diagrams and contained far too many errors. I also found the whole history of the plague doctors to be quite fascinating, and recommend the Wikipedia entry on Plague Doctors as a good reference. I had never heard of this very odd occupation, but it certainly adds a very dark and haunting note to the atmosphere of this modern mystery classic.
I really have only one quibble with The Seventh Hypothesis, to put it bluntly this is a lousy whodunnit! (Unfortunately, my seconding a row after reviewing Rupert Penny’s The Sealed Room) (See review) The Seventh Hypothesis begins with the unstated premise that one of the two main characters, Miller or Ransome, is the murderer, and though I faithfully waited for Twist to provide a final twist, it never occurred. This is purely a pick A or B scenario, and despite a few carefully laid red herrings, I assume that most readers will nail this one. In short, it is an eerie, haunting novel in the best of locked room traditions, with a reasonable, fairly original, Howdunnit, using a locked room device that is perhaps made a bit to obvious, but otherwise very well handled. It is only when we look at it as a whodunnit that things are not quite so rosy.
However, there is another way of looking at ‘The Seventh Hypothesis’, which escapes this conclusion. It might be the case that Halter was trying something new and felt that it was unnecessary to present more than two possibilities. It seems likely that his primary focus lay in accentuating this elaborate, extremely bizarre, cat-and-mouse game between Miller and Ransome, in effect creating a semi-inverted locked room mystery, which is dependent on busting the impossible crime and wading through the multiple layers of truth and illusion that surround these two masters of mystery. If this is the case, it is an intriguing experiment, though not one that I find particularly engaging. It may have worked better as a fully inverted plot, a pure duel between the team of Miller and Ransome and the team of Hurst and Twist, without setting up any expectations of whodunit plot! Still, a few critics, like Patrick At the Scene of The Crime, apparently love the tortured game created by this two suspect format and consider this to be one of the best parts of the mystery. I remain far less convinced that this was actually a success, though it still remains a highly recommended read.
No matter how the reader views this experiment, this is truly a compelling plot, with very good clues, and a dynamic pace that never stops for an instant. Other reviewers have criticized Halter’s poor character development, and not without some reason. The main characters in the tale are pretty well fleshed out, but minor characters, like the nasty landlords, the Mindens, or The Kominski brothers, sound far too much like the upper class characters that fill the rest of the pages. Still, in that old battle between the Word Painters and The Puzzle Masters, which we have mentioned several times lately, there can be no real doubt where Halter fits in, though it is usually a bit less obvious than it is in this instance. As for the references in other reviews to this being a little too similar to playwright Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth – I simply don’t see it!
So how do we rate this case! It is definitely a must read for all locked room fans. It is not quite as good as ‘The Fourth Door’, though few books are, and I personally prefer ‘The Lord of Misrule’ with Owen Burns as the enchanting gaslight era detective. If this novel had been written by any other author, I might reluctantly give it a qualified five stars, but isn’t, and Halter is capable of far better! However, this in no way implies that this is not a modern locked room classic! Does that make sense? Enough said, I will leave it as a very solid four stars, leaning towards a five, and still keep it in on my favourite locked room novel list!
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