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…
Aaaah, the debut novels of celebrated authors. Would anyone read It Walks by Night and predict The Problem of the Green Capsule or Till Death Do Us Part? Does The Mysterious Affair at Styles in any way prepare you for The Moving Finger, or for Crooked House? Often it’s a challenge to look back on the opening salvo of a career that would go on to become notable and find any vestige of that in those first few hundred pages, and it can be even harder when — as in the case of Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills — you’re waiting 80 years to read it in your native language and are told up front of the author’s own huge contribution to the genre. Frankly, it needs to be The Usual Suspects mixed with The Mystery of the Yellow Room (spoilers for that in this, incidentally) as rewritten by David Mamet…and even then it probably won’t match the hype.
After many years reading, talking about, reviewing, and now blogging on the subject of detective fiction I am presented with a real difficulty here: I honestly don’t know quite what to write about Noel Vindry’s classic The Howling Beast for fear of giving anything away. It is a balancing act of a book that, while probably not completely successful by today’s standards, is hugely enjoyable and absolutely something that those who count themselves as puzzle fans or lay claim to an interest in the emergence and development of detective fiction really should read. And I’m not just being vague here because I don’t want to criticise it — I really enjoyed it, and there’s one key thing it does absolutely brilliantly, and I’m especially keen to preserve that for those of you who should experience this pure. So, with that out of the way, here goes.
First up, and with thanks for his not taking legal action over me stealing his Crimes of the Century round-up idea for this post, Rich at Past Offencestackled The Demon of Dartmoor, his first toe into the Halter Pool (see what I did there?), and liked what he found:
Declaring that the detective novel was the only form of literature that put the reader to work, [S.S. van Dine] argued that “a deduction game emphasising fair play within a limited setting” would be the story structure with the best potential to result in masterpiece mystery stories […] But when the elements of the game are too severely limited and the building materials are all the same, only the first few builders will get all the glory and there will be an over-abundance of similar novels…
If I ran one of those clickbait-style websites, I would have been teasing this for at least a week now as the tautology of a ‘world exclusive never-before-seen Paul Halter translation’. I mean, it is exactly that, but that’s not the point.
In order to help with the acknowledgement of Paul Halter’s 60th birthday, John Pugmire — perhaps better known under his stage name of Locked Room International — has, with M. Halter’s blessing, sent me a copy of the letter he received from Halter when mutual friend Roland Lacourbe first showed Halter the English translation John had done of his debut novel, The Fourth Door. Lacourbe is, of course, the acknowledged overlord of the French impossible crime scene and compiler of the encyclopaedic reference 1001 Chambres Closes, the French equivalent of Robert Adey’s English language rundown of all things fictional and impossible, Locked Room Murders.
I have absolutely no doubt that Kate, Rich, Puzzle Doctor, and many others will do jobs far superior to anything I ever could in summarising yesterday’s hugely enjoyable Bodies from the Library and so I’ll leave that to them.
Instead, I’d like to remind anyone still considering it that next Sunday will be Paul Halter’s 60th birthday and so Paul Halter Day will come into effect. If you’re posting anything Paul Halter-related on that day, put the link in the comments of this post and I’ll do a wrap-up later in the evening.
My thanks in advance to anyone getting involved, really looking forward to what people come up with…!
Children, incarnations of The Doctor, phases of the moon…generally I try not to play favourites. But if I had to pick one crime fiction conceit above all others it would undoubtedly be a group of people on an island getting killed off one by one. Sure, isolate them in some ancestral mansion via thunderstorm or on a train via unexpected snow and the effect is arguably the same, but there’s something about the island in itself that renders the idea all the more thrilling to my senses. And so this Japanese island-set puzzle, the second collaboration between Locked Room International’s John Pugmire and translator and crime fiction blogger Ho-Ling Wong after last year’s excellent The Decagon House Murders, would be just what the doctor ordered if the medical profession ever thought of prescribing books for those of us with the thrill of fictional murder in our hearts.
One 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. Continue reading →