French Crime, Locked Room International, Modern Crime

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter

MadmansAfter trying and enjoying my first Paul Halter novel, Death Invites You, last year I received some wonderful suggestions for which book I should pick next. I honestly did make note of all of those suggestions and I intended to utilize them. I really did. But then I actually came across a copy of The Madman’s Room and all those plans went out the window… Whoops!

Halter seems to represent something of a literary fault line among the bloggers I read regularly. That was the reason I was initially so hesitant to try him. His plots are constructed with a lot of elements that often seem to be pulling in opposite directions. This not only seems messy, it may lead some readers to wonder if he’s just throwing these crazy, imaginative ideas out there and forcing them into the shape of a novel.

The Madman’s Room is a much more complex narrative than Death Invites You, incorporating significantly more elements and questions for the reader to consider and yet I felt that these hung together exceptionally well to create a much richer, more rewarding story. It still can feel a little messy and unwieldy and at times I wondered just how these elements could be brought together but, when the explanation is given, everything seemed to align perfectly.

A very basic outline of the core points of the story is that the wealthy businessman Harris Thorne moves his wife’s family to live with him in his ancestral home. They learn the story of his great-Uncle Hector who appeared to be able to see the future, predicting the deaths of family members in a fire years after he himself had died. His room was sealed upon his death but Harris decides that he will reopen that room against his brother’s objections to turn it into his study. He dies soon afterwards with some aspects of the case seeming to mirror the circumstances in which Hector had died.

For another writer that alone may be enough material for a novel but Halter weaves a number of smaller mysteries around the bigger question of who killed Harris Thorne. Did Harris really did commit suicide or if he was murdered? What is the significance of a patch of water that appeared in front of the fire both when Hector and Harris died? What do people see in a doorway that terrifies them? Is everyone that we believe to be dead actually dead? Can Harris’ brother Brian really see the future? And just what are the short lecture about possible outcomes of an exhumation (a la Dr. Fell) and the brief romantic scene at the beginning of the novel there for?

It’s a lot to unpack and to do so would violate my intentions to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say is that I think Halter’s explanations of the ways these elements interconnect is really quite masterful and I respected the simplicity and common sense of many of those solutions. Solutions to some puzzles are easier to predict than others but I found all to be quite satisfying and appreciated the variations Halter gives us. Even the issue that Sergio felt stretched credulity struck me as a discrete nod to a similarly stretched moment in a very early Poirot novel.

While the artificiality of a moment like that can be a negative for some readers, I personally find it quite charming. Certainly I think there are very few people who would talk or act like characters in a Paul Halter novel but I think that’s okay as he is clearly playing with classic mystery fiction types and placing all other elements of the novel as secondary to his chief concern of developing the puzzle. His prose is never pretty, nor is it particularly atmospheric yet it conveys precisely the amount of information the author intends to very well and, like JJ, I find it to be very effective.

And though Halter’s characters here may read a little stiffly, I found them to be a much more interesting group than in Death Invites You. This is partly because Halter’s story plays out over a much longer period, allowing those characters time to change in reaction to the events they are experiencing. I found some of those changes in character to be very effective and I appreciated the psychological angles to the solution to this story.

On the subject of the conclusion however, I must take note of Brad’s criticism that the novel is undermined by its confusing and unnecessary final page twist. While I enjoyed the novel enormously, I would agree that this moment detracts from the otherwise clean, refined nature of the ending. Sadly this concludes an otherwise stellar work on a slightly cheap note.

In spite of that misstep, I think The Madman’s Room is a really striking and effective work. At the midpoint of the novel I had no idea how Halter was going to pull all of these elements together so I was really impressed by just how clean and tidy the explanations were. Unlike many seemingly inexplicable crime stories, the explanations given for how and why the strange events occur are very persuasive because of their simplicity while I felt that the supernatural elements in the story were used very effectively not only to build atmosphere but contribute to the key themes and ideas of the novel.

In short, I loved this and am looking forward to reading more Halter. And next time I promise I will actually utilize some of your suggestions!

Advertisements
French Crime, Georges Simenon, Golden Age

Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon

PietrMaigret receives word that a well-known conman, Pietr the Latvian, has been spotted on a train headed for the Gare du Nord. When the train arrives Maigret boards to discover a body looking like Pietr lying shot dead in the toilet. Shortly afterwards however he is astonished to see someone resembling Pietr, a man he believes is dead, entering the Hotel Majestic.

Pietr the Latvian was the first Maigret story to appear in print and is also my first brush with the character. While I am not planning some grand undertaking like my Ellery Queen and non-series Christie reads, I wanted to give this a try to broaden my knowledge of the development of the crime genre.

My initial impressions listening to the wonderful audiobook reading by Gareth Armstrong were that the book reminded me of my experiences reading Ian Fleming. I am curious as to whether the novel reads that way in the original French and will be curious to see if the comparison occurs to me with other volumes as Penguin used a number of different translators for their reissues.

Simenon writes with a direct efficiency and sardonic tone that simultaneously suggests a certain world-weariness and a sense of drive and energy that will keep the main character going. Like Fleming’s Bond, Maigret experiences some considerable physical and a little emotional trauma at points in this story, not to mention a lack of rest, and yet his dedication to tracking down Pietr and figuring out how everything connects keeps him going.

Also like Bond, Maigret’s story is a mix of chase and investigation following a clear lead he already has at the start of the novel. We begin reading the description of Pietr as Maigret works to commit the details to his memory and through the novel we do not see him working to do much thinking about the case. He follows leads, sets up observations and speaks with witnesses but he primarily follows his gut as he works through the case.

I have to say that I found Maigret to be quite intriguing. The character is nowhere near as colorful as many of his Golden Age counterparts, although he does have some defining character traits such as his desire to warm himself by the stove in his office and the pipe he smokes, and we do not get much of a sense of him beyond the job he does. I did enjoy the contrast Simenon draws between the unpretentious detective and the glamorous surroundings of the fine hotel and I thought that a key sequence in which Maigret recommits himself to his mission was very effective in giving a sense of his core character.

Having focused my comments so far on the author’s style and the characterization of Maigret I suppose I must turn to the details of the case although I possess few strong opinions on that score.

It certainly boasts an intriguing hook in its opening scenes as Maigret comes to encounter the body and discover the doppelganger but little of what followed appealed to the imagination or forced much thought. I enjoyed the process of following how Maigret worked through his leads but there were few moments of shock or surprise in the explanation of what was going on. The book never outstayed its welcome though and the plot was paced well enough that I did not struggle to stay engaged.

 

Overall, I found Pietr the Latvian to be a brief but punchy read. I was surprised by the style and tone of the novel, coming to it expecting more of a mystery novel, but that is more of an issue with my expectations than the material. I will be curious to visit some later Maigret stories and see how the character developed over in later years.

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

Death Invites You by Paul Halter

DeathDeath Invites You is my first encounter with the works of Paul Halter and I have to admit that I came to it with a certain nervousness. Halter seems to engender very strong and often quite divisive opinions in many of the bloggers whose reviews I follow with the some reviews loving some of his work while hating other stories. I just didn’t know what I was going to get.

I recently learned that a certain book subscription service had many of Halter’s novels available and I decided I’d give him a try. It turns out that my selection, Death Invites You, seems to be about as safe a choice for a first Halter as it’s possible to find. In fact, JJ recommends it as a first choice for new Halter readers while Brad entitled his review ‘Eureka! Found a Halter I Like’ which seems to say it all. All I can say is that I didn’t plan to play it safe when I made my selection…

Death Invites You is a locked room mystery in which a famous author is discovered in a locked room, bolted from the inside, sitting in front of a freshly prepared meal with his face and hands down on a hot pan that has badly burned them. There is also a bowl of water under a window. And, if that is not enough, it turns out that the body is not fresh but has been dead for over twenty-four hours while the tableau happens to mimic the setup for the murder in the author’s forthcoming book.

That already would seem like a lot of elements for a single case and do keep in mind that my summary doesn’t include any of the details that are revealed once the investigation really gets underway. This is a complicated crime with a number of developments that cause the detectives to reconsider their theories, keeping the reader guessing in spite of the book’s limited cast of suspects.

The investigation unfolds at a sharp pace with small revelations spread out throughout the novel and I was surprised when I realized that at the end of a sitting I was already two-thirds of the way through. I found that the book possessed a natural momentum that kept me going and that created a very effective sense of atmosphere. When I returned to pick it up the next day a little of the spell had been broken but I remain impressed and certainly think that few would guess that this was a work in translation.

As with many locked room stories the reader is required to accept the artificiality of the crime as well as a number of coincidences and unlikely events yet I felt that the solution was fair and logical. There were a few aspects of the killer’s plan and their actions later in the story that struck me at the time as being convoluted choices yet I felt that they made sense when considered from the murderer’s perspective and once you learn what they were intending to do.

Halter’s strong focus on developing the novel’s puzzles arguably comes at the expense of complex characterization but while it would be impossible to call Death Invites You a character-driven book, I do think that the characters work well within the context of the novel. In particular, I found the character of Henrietta, who is an artist, to be an interesting figure and I was entertained by Halter’s conceit of making the victim a mystery novelist whose work has fallen out of vogue. For the record, I failed to guess the identity of the murderer and was left kicking myself when they were revealed.

Contrary to my fears, I rather enjoyed my first taste of Paul Halter’s work although I am a little concerned that this may just mean that the novel is far from typical of his output. This story may not be the most outlandish or ingeniously plotted story ever written (in spite of beating me) but it was atmospheric and the scenario created is certainly imaginative and intriguing. I will definitely be trying out some more of his work soon.