French Crime, Locked Room International, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter

DemonBack when I posted my review of the first Halter I had read, Death Invites You, I received a number of excellent suggestions of what I should try next. I took them to heart, put them all on my wishlist, and promptly picked a book nobody had mentioned. Fortunately I loved it but for my third pick I went back to those suggestions and picked a book most people seemed to love – The Demon of Dartmoor.

Have you ever read a book where there’s a little detail that just seems to bother you based on some personal knowledge you have? Well, naming a house in Devon Trerice Manor is exactly that sort of thing. The word is a Cornish one meaning a farm or estate owned by Rhys. Every time I read it, the detail just seemed wrong to me and pulled me a little out of the book. It isn’t a big enough deal that I think it affects my overall reading of the novel but it’s there somewhere in the background.

The good news is that beyond that detail, I found a lot to like here. Halter crafts an interesting and engaging story that is rich on detail. This is a mystery that seems to be grounded in a sense of the community in which it takes place and I appreciated the idea of the Moor as an almost mythic location, reminding me of the role it has played in other adventures. Parts of this book even draw on real local myths such as the Headless Horseman so kudos to Halter for pulling those elements into his story.

As with The Madman’s Room, there are crimes here that occur in the present and in the past and they may, or may not, be linked in some way. Early in the novel we learn about the deaths of three young women on the moor over the space of a few years, each apparently thrown from the rock by some invisible force. These bodies were carried off downstream and were only discovered days later but the locals seem to believe that a demonic force was responsible and have connected these events to an even earlier death where a young woman is seen to have been thrown down the stairs of Trerice Manor (!) by an invisible person.

When a newly married actor and his wife visit the area, he is inspired to create a comedic play loosely based on the idea that a man can make himself invisible and, several years later, he has bought the Manor house and renovated it. He takes his wife to the house and his producer and his mistress, who co-stars with him in his play, to stay with for the weekend. Ill-feeling seems to grow among the small party over that weekend so when history repeats itself and the actor seems to be flung from the window to his death we might assume that one of his guests or a local was responsible. The problem for the Police is that the scene is viewed by multiple witnesses, each of whom say no one was near the actor when he fell.

I thought this was a truly excellent impossible crime and while I quickly developed a theory for what may have happened, it turned out to be completely incorrect. In fact none of my ideas came close to the actual explanation of the crime so I was delighted that the solution to this murder was relatively simple and, to my mind, fairly credible on a technical level.

I was a little less certain whether this was actually a clever method for the murderer to employ given the number of things that might have gone wrong. Twist, in his explanation, does pay lip service to the possibility that the murderer had considered what would happen if they were not entirely successful but I am not convinced this was the safest way for that person to achieve their goal.  I can’t say more without spoiling.

I was even more impressed with the explanation given for the oldest of the historical crimes. Twist’s reasoning is solid both psychologically and mechanically and I love that Halter is able to tuck a second, well-constructed crime around his main one and make it rich and satisfying in just a handful of pages.

The other three crimes? Well, here I think the novel is at its weakest as while these murders add plenty of atmosphere the methods utilized by the killer or killers are something of a stretch. I did appreciate the way they strengthened the main mystery however and built up that sense of a local myth that has built up around these tragic deaths.

In addition to its rich setting, I also feel that this book features much stronger character development than in either of the other two Halters I have read. John Pugmire’s translation is also particularly strong and helps build on that sense of atmosphere to make this a really engaging story.

While I think that the crime in The Madman’s Room is a more intricate and clever impossible crime, this is the most satisfying Halter I have read to date and I look forward to continuing to work through his sizeable back catalog this year.

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11 thoughts on “The Demon of Dartmoor by Paul Halter”

  1. I’m not qute clear on whether you know that there is a real house in Cornwall called Trerice (or Trerice House, but not Trerice Manor).

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  2. This may be my favorite puzzle that I read in the past year, and it’s up against some stiff competition. Not my favorite story from the past year mind you, but my favorite puzzle. The setup stimulates your imagination and the explanation for the core problem thoroughly satisfies with its simplicity.

    I agree that the explanations for some of the earlier murders are a bit of a let down, but as you say, they meld into the overall misdirection so beautifully that I’m glad Halter included them.

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  3. I… uh… Yeah.

    This is the Halter I was looking the most forward to, as everyone, even Halter’s detractors seemed to praise it. If I look through the Internet, all I see are positive reviews, especially praising that central murder. And—um…

    I don’t know if I were reading it too fast or what, but I didn’t like it, and I didn’t find it especially clever. Something seemed very off with that central crime. I don’t know; I sometimes think I have to read it again to see if I missed something.

    Anyhoo, glad you enjoyed it, and if I may just recommend the one Halter I liked unapologetically, The Phantom Passage. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation. It is high on my list of Halters to try!

      I can understand not feeling wholly satisfied with the central crime. In terms of the character’s motivations for carrying out that crime, that way in that moment, I felt it was an unnecessary risk with limited upside. I was able to appreciate it as a solution to this puzzle though (and, as I say, I like the earliest historical murder the most).

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    2. Yeah, I’m always careful of over-praising this one — I really like the central murder, and I think the overall sense of mystique is aided and abetted by the wider crimes going on around it, but the story feels a little under-cooked in spite of that superbly clever impossibility.

      I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a bad book, but I do think The Tiger’s Head, The Madman’s Room, The Phantom Passage, The Seventh Hypothesis, Death Invites You, and others are better as complete narratives…this just has a better explanation than some of those (the impossibilities in Seventh Hypothesis, for instance, are rather minor).

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    3. Allow me to second the recommendation for The Phantom Passage.
      The Demon of Dartmoor is indeed great, particularly as a puzzle detective, but the explanation for an entire passageway that appears out of nowhere, only to vanish under equally impossible circumstances, is undoubtedly Halter’s greatest miracle. It makes the ridiculous answer to the visions from the past and future forgivable.

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