#88: The Lord of Misrule (1994) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2006]

Lord of Misrule, TheOne dark and snowy night, a mysterious figure who is observed entering the home of an upright citizen commits a murder in an inaccessible room and vanishes without leaving so much as a footprint to tell of their presence, only for a second murder to then be committed outside in the snow but leaving only the victim’s footprints in evidence…you can’t tell me the similarities between Paul Halter’s The Lord of Misrule and John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (a.k.a. The Three Coffins) are anything less than an absolute fanboying homage to the master.  And Halter would know the risk he was running, but having established himself as an artisan of the impossible crime by this stage in his career (this was, by my estimation, his tenth published novel – though the first to be translated into English by John Pugmire) it was clearly a task he was happy to take on.

It may seem like a facile basis for such comparison but, upon re-reading The Lord of Misrule for this post, I was struck by the sheer number of similarities – enough, in fact, to possibly warrant a future post dedicated to solely that topic – the most obvious of which is the use of enumerated maps to highlight the finer points of the murder scenes, disarranged furniture, slashed painting and all; click below to see for yourself.

And, in fact, the callouts to classic detective fiction don’t stop there – as well as a Sherlock Holmes reference there’s a conceit from one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and one aspect of key importance lifted from one of the genre milestones.  There’s therefore plenty of scope to accuse Halter of a lack of originality, but honestly I think the guy is just in love with detective fiction and is hurling in everything he can to set up his own new spins on the impossible crime while acknowledging the work that has gone before him (as seen in his first-time sleuth Owen Burns’ elevation of this to an art-from).  He has a lovely alternate take on the obliterated dates and surnames from the early days of the genre, and establishes his ‘isolated group containing a killer’ in an beautfully classical way.  As Puzzle Doctor says, if you weren’t given the publication date of this you’d place it much, much earlier.

Halter’s fidelity to the roots of the genre is something that can be taken as both a strength and a weakness of his writing, however, particularly his brevity.  I am no fan of gloomy introspection in my novels – I get enough of that in my normal life, thankyouverymuch – and find the lightness and sheer velocity of Halter’s puzzles as they whizz past you on the page a delight; there’s the odd ounce of fat here and there, but mainly it’s a liberal sprinkling of stuff happening (this being the second time I’ve read this book – well, I had to get the new version with the matching cover – I can honestly say that the clewing for the most recent murder is pretty bloody top notch) with just enough atmosphere to suck you in without drowning you, but then I’ve always sided with Jacques Barzun over Julian Symonds on this.  However, in Symonds’ defence, there comes a point where some psychology plays a part and it’s here that Halter can be found wanting.

There is an argument that a certain amount of the work has been done with the characters in this regard and it’s up to you to fill in the possible gaps and justifications, but some people will disagree.  I fully concede that aspects pertaining to the Lord himself aren’t fully fleshed out, but then Halter isn’t writing that kind of book and I’m happy to see the implications in the gaps he leaves.  If you require your psychology to be tightly-woven, knock a star off my rating and go in expecting to be short-changed in this regard.  A little extra work would undoubtedly have expanded the background myth of the murderous figure, but one of the things I enjoy about Halter is how easily he disassembles his own puzzle boxes and how unshowily he reveals the assumptions you’ve been lead into.  He excels in my eyes at tying together a chain of implications – in this case the series of attacks committed by the Lord of Misrule – and then quickly showing how the state of fear may have created something that didn’t exist.  But, yes, this perceived lack of resolution, not being played upon too heavily, won’t be to everyone’s taste.

His ‘indoor murder’ solution, then, will be slightly the less convincing; there’s a measure of convenience to it, but arguably that’s just a hallmark of the impossible crime.  The ‘outdoor murder’ – in stark reversal of Carr’s solutions – is brilliant, however, tying in a sighting of the Lord of Misrule by another party is a deft and cunning way and in doubt right up to the final line (seriously, don’t read the final line ahead of time).  In sheer construction, the dovetailing of these various elements is  enjoyably as opposed to brilliantly done, but the joy of Halter’s approach and the love he brings to this neglected form is something to behold.  A cracked diamond, yes, but still a diamond.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

Hmmm, what’s that?  Well of course it’s no coincidence that this review has gone up when it’s a month tomorrow until Paul Halter’s 60th birthday.  But I’ll put up yet another reminder even closer to the event to re-remind anyone who’s vacillating about getting involved [SPOILER: Get involved! Not sure where to start?  Allow me to help…].

 

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17 thoughts on “#88: The Lord of Misrule (1994) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2006]

  1. I cannot rate this higher than 3.
    The explanation for the identity of the Lord is nonsense.
    The actions of a person who is stabbed in the stomach are unbelievable, even though he does these for a specific purpose. The extent is too much. Also unbelievable is that another person regards the stabbing incident as a dream.
    A person sees an assailant through the window. The explanation for this is a clear cheat.
    In one of the murders, there is improbably good luck for the murderer that the murder takes place during a specific period of time when the victim is hidden from sight of others. (If I am following someone for protection, I’ll always keep him in sight.) Also, knowing fully well the plan of others, would the murderer take the risk?

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    • There’s an argument that it’s because of the actions of others that the murderer acts as they do, and that’s how I choose to look at it…but, as I say, not everyone will agree!

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  2. My review of THE MADMAN’S ROOM is done and ready to go – I do mean to try one of the Pugmire translations – is THE FOURTH DOOR the best place to start? I ask because the two Halter books I have read so far, not available in English, have been OK but not great …

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    • Of those translated into English, I think the best place to start is Death Invites You. With Halter it’s usually about some narrative trickery, and the tricks in DIY are less…let’s go with “outré”. Personally I think Picture from the Past, Phantom Passage, Tiger’s Head, Invisible Circle and Seventh Hypothesis are better books, but better appreciated once you have the taste for Halter. Others such as Fourth Door and Demon of Dartmoor have brilliant impossibilities, but struggle a little as narratives. DIY strikes the balance very well indeed – in my eyes, at least.

      Thanks again for getting involved, looking forward to tou take on The Madman’s Room!

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    • Many thanks, Santosh. A new one to me, so very interested in this. I’ll put up a post about a week in advance for the links, and then attempt to round them up even a quarter as well as Rich does every month…

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  3. Thanks for an alternative perspective on what appears to be a less popular Halter title. I recall him mentioning in an interview that he sets his novels in England out of love for the country – which makes it a shame that there seems to be little reciprocation from English publishers.

    I still have quite a handful of Halter novels to read, so thanks for the reminder!

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    • I see there being a lot that Halter sets out to achieve here, and if he wrote longer books he’d make his puzzles more palatable to people looking for flaws but also lose some element of what makes them so compelling. Obviously the translation plays a part, but I tear through Halter’s books because he just builds so quickly…The Picture from the Past is a key example of this, because it’s rather weird and the best thing is to just let it hit you and try to keep up. And he’s so clearly working his arse off to come up with new takes on such an old genre, it can only be an immense labour of love…possibly I lack perspective, but I see so much in what he does to celebrate that I really want to just celebrate it!

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  4. I’ve just purchased “Invisible Circle” on my Kindle, and I hope to finish it in one or two sittings. Perhaps I might come up with a review of it for Halter’s birthday… Hopefully, it lives up to the description of combining King Arthur with And Then There Were None. 🙂

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    • I’m reading it now for my double-Halter review! So far, so good, but I get what JJ means about reading in one sitting. My schedule doesn’t permit that, so I’m constantly getting lost.

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    • Awesome news! As I said before, I’m happy to “guest post” anything you write if you want – just email it to me and I’ll put it up here. Alternatively, GoodReads or Amazon or wherever reviews can be linked to without any fuss…whatever you prefer. And, hey, thanks in advance for (potentially…) getting involved!

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