#200: Celebrating 100 Impossible Crimes with Paul Halter’s The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. John Pugmire 2016]

vampire-tree-100

This, my 200th post on this blog, will also be the 100th to be tagged with the subject ‘Impossible Crimes‘ and — since my very first was a review of Paul Halter’s The Phantom Passage — I thought I’d hold this milestone to look at the most recent Halter translation from John Pugmire’s Locked Room International, which goes by the English title The Vampire Tree.  I will probably do this at some length, though without mentioning specifics past the 25% mark, and with a brief mention of only one slight spoiler, signposted in advance.  So, let’s get into it…

The plot of this one is difficult to summarise.  At times it almost feels like a sort of ‘lady in danger’ novel with gothic overtones, more akin to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or something by the Brontes but with a tree that strangles people (well, they probably would have used it as an allegory…), and at times it’s more of a ‘village secrets’ tale.  Additionally, there’s a back-and-forth in time dual narrative element, in which regard it’s not dissimilar to Halter’s own The Picture from the Past, published a year before, and once again the two threads become increasingly linked, though here it plays much more upon our possibly-imperiled lady’s state of mind…  But I get ahead of myself.

The lady in question is young newlywed Patricia Sheridan, who in a classic tenet as old as detective fiction itself, has known her new husband but a few months, has no surviving relatives, and is travelling down to his old ancestral home in a corner of the country where she has never been and no-one knows her.  This opening salvo put me heavily in mind of, among others, John Dickson Carr’s radio play ‘Cabin B-13’ and is one of just many examples of how Halter uses the typical underlay of the classics to inform his framing and plotting.  An encounter on the train leaves Patricia feeling uneasy, and this in turn leads to a sequence of events that gets her first night in the new house off to a rocky start.

416lx97b9ylFrom here, a lot of ground is then covered in a slightly uneven manner.  Firstly, next to the house there is an ancient tree, beneath which is buried the vampire of the title, who was condemned as such following the deaths of several children in the area, and next to which was found — a couple of centuries later — a man strangled to death but with no other footprints anywhere in evidence in the snow around him.  In the present day story, there is a murderer going around slitting the throats of children and leaving their bodies in woodland and other secluded areas, though without much blood at the crime scene, implying perhaps some vampiric intent on the part of this killer.  Oh, and Patricia is reading the diary of the woman whose husband was killed — Lavinia, her name was — and Patricia’s husband Roger seems to show an inordinate amount of interest in dressing Patricia in Lavinia’s raiments and visiting Lavinia’s grave.  Plus there’s a local artist carving a sculpture of Patricia out of wood in a way that definitely isn’t at all creepy, and the vicar going on about Evil, creeping around the gardens of the parish at night, and shoving a crucifix into the face of anyone he can get close to.

Also, there is dancing.  There is lots and lots of dancing.

With all these threads in the fire, the first quarter or so is an unusual mish-mash of characters doing things for no particular reason and scenes ending at odd moments (though I genuinely would not be surprised if this last was a deliberate attempt at raising unease).  It only really steadies when the series characters Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst show up, but you can’t fault Halter for trying something a bit different.  I know classically we should have a) characters and setting, then b) an impossible crime, then c) the detective on the scene to interview and investigate, but I personally like a bit of mixing of my ingredients when approaching a setup that was, at the initial publication of this in French, already well on to retirement age.  And it had worked so well for The Picture from the Past and, to a slighty lesser extent, The Seventh Hypothesis, so Halter isn’t exactly flying off in all directions without some form in doing so.

Nevertheless, that first quarter is very lumpy, made trickier by dialogue like this to contend with:

“It’s abominable: how can someone do that to a child?  There can’t be a motive for a crime like that…unless it’s insanity.  Which reminds me: I have a question ask you concerning strangulation.”

Or:

“I agree with you, Roger, of course.  But I’d go further: she needs to be immortalised in wood.”

Uh, sure thing.  But equally, on the other side of things, there’s the following reflection made to Patricia on the train at the start, which is only a mon ami away from being delivered in Hercule Poirot’s precise tones:

“How could there be such dramas connected with such a peaceful countryside, I can hear you say.  Look at the soft lines of the distant hills, the verdant grassland, the old houses sleeping under the gentle sun…  Everything to soothe the spirit.  How could tragedy occur here?  It seems absurd.  And yet…

Things do improve a bit, though.  Events are given some more shape, there are a few genuinely sinister moments that read extremely well, and on the whole we start to settle into a more fully-formed picture than the beginning might have had you expecting…but it never quite comes together in a way that feels convincing or compelling.  For instance, the need to adhere to the conventions of a classic detective yarn hamstring some of the developments: we like a closed circle of suspects, but the means by which it is decided that the killer must be one of seven people is…tenuous at best; equally, a huge amount of faith is put in hearsay with absolutely no basis: when a character claims to be on the trail of the murderer and later disappears, it’s unhesitatingly accepted that they were correct and therefore must have been killed by the killer.  It never seems to occur to anyone that these are both potentially fatal miscalculations.

41chpwr197lBut then, the characters are a bit nondescript all over.  Patricia seems to float through everything with a mental distance from everything that makes her somewhat difficult to engage with (though, in fairness, this might be dealt with in the conclusion, depending on how sympathetic you’re feeling…on which more later), and the others are often there to either look confused or blurt out the information they’ve just been given in strictest confidence: “I’ve been asked by the police to have a confidential think about who the killer could be…I told them it was you!  Haha, what japes!” — “I think I know who the killer it, but I’m not going to tell anyone” — “Mrs. So-and-so told me she thought the killer was X, but made me promise not to tell anyone; so, y’know, don’t you tell anyone”.  And none of this is really to any end or plot development (such as someone deliberately being given the wrong information, or someone possessing knowledge they shouldn’t), they just seem incapable of stopping their cakeholes from flapping.

And yet, and yet…there are some excellent character moments in here among the notable frustrations of them behaving like children.  A scene involving the painter Maude Rellys and…let’s just say another character…has a weighty emotional payoff in both directions, and a confrontation that ends poorly for one character ends on a sting of a note that’s all the more savage for what you know is coming next.  Oh!  And the discovery of one body by an innocent witness is injected with an air of whimsy that is polluted with a brutal and subtle efficiency.  String enough of these moments together and you’d have a very telling portrait, but Halter only dashes them off and so we simply get characters sketched around the edges and behaving weirdly the rest of  the time.  Still, Halter’s emotional pitch is always on the more gaudy side, so it shouldn’t be a surprise after 12 books that this is where we spend most of the time.  Besides, you want to know about those solutions, don’t you?

The modern-day killings are resolved…unusually.  Is it fair play?  Probably not quite, since there’s too much information never addressed, but there are a couple of stings that I certainly missed, and one piece of misdirection that is really quite breathlessly clever for the calm way Halter uses it to explain a key event.  It’s the little flashes like this that almost save the book overall, but the motivation and eventual resolution of that thread are, to be frank, kinda bullshit.  There comes a point where you step a bit too far outside of the norm for it to really work, and the whole prophetic dream thing here is an extra push on an envelope that has already fallen off the table quite some pages back.  No matter how good your moments of misdirection and construction are, you can’t save this as a scheme, I’m afraid.

The impossibility, however, is excellent, and a beautifully simple idea that is reminiscent of the simplicity of the invisible monster shoving a man out of a window in The Demon of Dartmoor.  It would be nice if Halter spent more time on these aspects of his plot, because there’s no real examination of it in depth and some discussions about false solutions and other ideas connected to it wouldn’t go amiss as far as my tastes go, but either way I love the workings.  What I don’t love is, well, perhaps best discussed in a paragraph with enough specificity to warrant a SPOILER tag.  So, KIND OF SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH — SKIP OVER TO REMAIN UNSPOILED

vampire-treeStill with me?  Fine.  Effectively, a very broad and sweeping statement is made about a character’s actions on the basis that he is depressed — if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean — and I find the ease with which this is asserted really very insulting, especially as it falls into the kind of cheap, manipulative, lachrymose sentiment that borders on the exploitative.  Saying “Well, even if he was depressed he still wouldn’t [do something]” is so painfully off the mark, unfair, and without basis that it actually makes me just the tiniest bit angry with how that idea is employed herein.  But, I appreciate M. Halter doesn’t profess to be an expert in mental health, and I’m going to do my best to simply dismiss it as tone-deaf and unfortunate.

Okay, hobby-horse unsaddled.  Overall, this is not the book that will convince anyone to love Halter’s work.  I’m about as big a fan as exists in the English-speaking world — hell, I M.C.’d the celebration of his 60th birthday last year, if it’s nerd points you’re after — but even I can’t recommend this too strongly for anyone except the very curious or those with a completion complex.  The impossibility and some of the ideas strewn throughout rescue it from complete oblivion, but those looking for a more enjoyable gambol through the delights that he has to offer should perhaps go elsewhere first — I’ll link my existing reviews below if you’re interested.

~

See also:

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: Characterization is not Halter’s strong suit, which is fine since it arguably wasn’t Carr’s either. Halter admits this about his idol and seems to embrace that deficit in himself. Here, however, the characters aren’t so much cardboard as pieces on a game board that move however the author wishes them to move at any given moment, often in ways that defy any sense.

Kevin Killian on Amazon.com: I tell you, one year, even 1958, isn’t big enough for so much evil! It has to span centuries, though Halter’s storytelling power is so great that he never leaves you confused about when is when, not even during the emotionally revealing parts where Roger gives Patricia the diary of Lavinia that describes the hideous events in the last moments of Eric’s life. From this moment on, and perhaps touched by a trying girlhood in London’s Blitz, and a nursing career out of which nothing much comes, Patricia becomes obsessed with Lavinia and her beautiful purple dress.

~

The Paul Halter novels from Locked Room International, translated by John Pugmire:

Feat. Dr. Alan Twist & Archibald Hurst

The Fourth Door (1987) [trans. 1999]
Death Invites You (1988) [trans. 2015]
The Tiger’s Head (1991) [trans. 2013]
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) [trans. 2012]
The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) [trans. 2012]
The Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]

Feat. Owen Burns & Achilles Stock

The Lord of Misrule (1994) [trans. 2006]
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) [trans. 2005]
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]

Non-series

The Crimson Fog (1988) [trans. 2013]
The Invisible Circle (1996) [trans. 2014]

Short story collections

The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004 w’ Robert Adey]

~

This is technically a review, despite the absence of a star rating, so I should link it into the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge.  Thursday’s A Quantum Murder links to this as both have plot-threads dedicated to solving a murder committed in the past of each narrative.

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40 thoughts on “#200: Celebrating 100 Impossible Crimes with Paul Halter’s The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. John Pugmire 2016]

    • Plenty to go around and — hopefully — plenty more to come. It’s a sad truth that no-one has a perfect back catalogue, and I’m more than happy to allow Halter a stumble, especially one that is as interesting as this.

      The tendency for detective fiction in the 1980s and 90s to go a bit “wider society” was more a reaction to the reading public than any necessity on behalf of the form — look had how well-regarded the very best books from the 1930s and 1940s are even today for proof of that. Halter stationed himself in the last barbican before the complete collpase of the form and, as such, is trying to straddle a couple of contrasting genres here (and, indeed, in most of his work). Sometimes that’s going to work better than others — there’s an excellent short story here with the impossible crime, and a very good vampire novel if he chose to make that more of a focus, but the slight jumbling of te elements doesn’t help when the actual focus of it is already so jumbled.

      This is why I struggle with so much modern crime fiction, because they’re rarely clear on what they’re about. But that’s a rant for another time (or, indeed, never….)

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  1. I’m sorry that ‘Vampire’s Tree’ didn’t measure up to expectations. 😦 I bought it very soon after it appeared on my local Amazon store, and was hoping that it would be excellent. Looks like I should read this earlier than later, given my tendency to leave the best for the last. Would you say ‘Vampire Tree’ outstrips ‘Lord of Misrule’? Or lags behind…?

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    • I am — as my review will attest — a big fan of The Lord of Misrule, and so inevitably this lags behind it.

      Really it just lacks a decent clear focus — if it were possible to get clearer handle on the actual purpose of the plot then I think Halter would have marshalled this one better. There are a couple of great revelations towards the end, and part of me thinks he worked it backwards from there: “Hmm, it would be good if there was a way to…so then I would need…but what if…okay, so the we must establish…” and once he’d worked it all out he had so many of the elements so finely poised that changing too much would feel like other changes would domino through it all.

      The best novels of detection have this, inevitably, but it’s such a fine balancing act that sometimes all the balancing in the world can’t quite make it work. I think there’s a lot of edifice building to hold up the various elements he needed here, and it doesn’t quite gel overall, really. Oddly, though, it’s for these reasons that I think it would be an interesting reread in about 18 months from now…

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      • Ah, ok. 🙂 As it stands I’ll probably read the novels in this order: ‘Vampire Tree’, ‘Lord of Misrule’, ‘Tiger’s Head’, leaving ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ and ‘Phantom Passage’ to the very end…

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        • Fair enough; will be interesting to see what you make of them. I always find it easier to accept am author’s weaker work if I have experience of their better stuff beforehand, but I can understand why working Perceived Weakest to Perceived Strongest might have its appeal. Will be curious to see what you think of them as you go…

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          • Yes, I agree – I only apply my “best for last” principle when I’ve read enough of an author to know that I want to read most, if not all, of the oeuvre. My very first foray into Halter was “Seventh Hypothesis”, and it was one of the best mysteries I read in 2015. I think it’s still the best Halter I’ve read so far, and it doesn’t seem poised to be toppled by any of the remaining titles… 😀

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          • I still think The TIger’s Head might be my favourite, though The Picture from the Past does a wonderful thing with narrative, and The Phantom Passage is such a clever puzzle told with real menace and atmosphere…

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  2. Happy 200th JJ! A great achievement. I always appreciate the frankness of your reviews, let’s me know what’s what.

    I confess to not having read a single Halter novel as of yet. And I my interest is piqued enough here to want to find out the solution to the strangling tree.

    But could I push you further for a recommendation for a first Halter book to read?

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  3. Congratulations on your two-hundredth blog-post and writing a hundred impossible crime related posts. A hundred locked room posts is still, IMHO, somewhat on the meager side, but you’re heading in the right direction. So keep up the good work.

    And about Halter: I’ve read some very discouraging comments about this particular title. So, I guess, the next Halter I’ll be picking off my wish list is Death Invites You, which seems to have been pretty well received. Even among his detractors, if I’m not mistaken.

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    • As a persistent Halter detractor, I would agree that Death Invites You is one of the best, it’s only real flaw being that I sussed the killer out immediately.

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    • Yeah, I know, it’s a paltry effort. But worrry not — I’m not giving up until I introduce you to some impossibilities you love…!

      As for Death Invites you; well, even Brad liked it, so you can’t go far wrong there 🙂

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  4. Congratulations on hitting that rather impressive double milestone. I’ve never read anything by Halter – I fully intend to but he just keeps getting pushed onto the back burner.

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    • Thanks, Colin — the coinciding of these two events was totally planned from day 1, obviously; I have that much of an idea what I’m doing.

      I know what you mean about Halter and back burners: I have a list as long as my arm (in really, really tiny handwriting) of authors I’m going to get round to a some point. One day, definitely one day…

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    • Think of it as Halter’s Postern of Fate, or The Blind Barber, or anything by Gladys Mitchell — everyone gets a dud now and again. Admittedly, you’ve felt like this about most of the Halter you’ve read, but, well, I can’t help you there 🙂

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    • Many thanks — and don’t forget that when you’re a grandee like TomCat the efforts of mere ants like us will always be muted and slight by comparison. One day, Kate, one day you and I will be standing at the tip of the mountain looking at all the Small Folk running around at the base…though, as it goes, you’ll be there a damn sight sooner than I will 🙂

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  5. Hey JJ, thanks for the review. 🙂 I’ve just finished this one, as I wanted to pick up a Halter but stuck to my resolution to leave the better-reviewed titles to the end. Surprisingly, given your and Puzzle Doctor’s negative reviews, I enjoyed this a fair bit. In fact I liked it more than I liked ‘Seven Wonders’ and ‘Crimson Fog’… Bearing in mind the usual constraints of thin representations of people and place, I thought the tension was well-maintained, and the interweaving of primary and secondary/ diary narratives worked. As a novel, it struck me to be closer to the modern thriller, and as such I wasn’t unduly fussed by some of the peculiar characterisations and motivations. Being a thriller more than a convoluted puzzle, however, also meant that the clues were disappointingly less comprehensive – especially pertaining to how the culprit managed to divert suspicion. I wasn’t especially impressed by the impossibility, but the two twists pertaining to the bloodstains and the missing blood I thought were good, and the latter hit me with sufficient force to drop my jaw.

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    • Actually, you’re right: the idea of it being more thrillerish is far closer to the spirit of the book; I think — given Halter’s previous form — I was anticipating something more convolutedly detectivish and so didn’t really engage with in because of this. but, yeah, it’s difficult to disagree that looking at it from the perspective of a modern thriller could improvve one’s experience. Good call.

      Can’t believe you didn’t like the impossibility, though — it’s one of the better ‘minor’ impossibilities in the Halters thus far translated (i.e., one that’s not the main thrust of the plot). However, horse for courses, and I’m pleased you found much to take away from this. No idea what’s due next from LRI in terms of Halter, but I’ll keep your points about thrillers in mind in case it’s tonally similar.

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      • I suppose I don’t especially dislike it, but I’m also not overly fond of impossibilities that turn out that way, with that particular reason as to why there are no other footprints… In any case, regardless, I’m hoping LRI has another Halter translation on its way – preferably one of his stronger puzzle mysteries. 😀

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          • Stronger than The Vanpire Tree? Sure, pretty much everything else published, but the especially strong ones are (in my opinion) The Tiger’s Head, The Phantom Passage, The Seventh Hypothesis, and there’s an argument (perhaps controversially) for The Lord of Misrule based on how much it does.

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          • Thank you, but I was being sarcastic. Did you NOT remember my review of The Vampire Tree?

            However, I have been thinking of giving one of the Owen What’s-His-Face books a try, and you keep bringing up The Phantom Passage.Better than The Lord of Misrule?

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          • As a standalone book, Phantom Passage is better, yes. Misrule is a fanboy retelling of The Hollow Man — I really need to do a post on this one day — and goes up a notch in my estimations for that, but taken on its own it has a couple of issues that people generally dislike (they’re sort-of intentional, I tell you!).

            But, Brad, we’ve been here already. Several times. We know how this ends.

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          • To JJ’s list of stronger puzzles – yes, they exist! – I would also add ‘Picture from the Past’. 😀

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          • I was so disappointed in “Picture from the Past.” So there’s a Tiger’s Eye as well as a Tiger’s Head? I read Tiger’s Head, which worked very well for me until the ending. JJ will be the first to tell you that I am NOT the one to run to for counsel or advice on Paul Halter, yet I continue to hope that he will turn out something that I enjoy. So far, only Demon of Dartmoor and Death Invites You have done that to a certain extent. The thing that lessened my joy in the latter title is one of my problems with Halter: I almost always figure out who the killer is! In DIY, I knew it the moment the killer appeared in the novel! But that one’s pretty fun!

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          • I believe the book mentioned here here is Le Tigre Borgne, which I believe is The Blind Tiger but gets referred to a lot as the One-Eyed Tiger; supposedly it is very good…

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