Two things I’m always on the look out for (both in my personal reading and for this blog) are books in translation and books published by small presses. It’s hard enough to keep up with all of the English language books coming out of major houses, but the extra work is worth the effort when you end up stumbling across someone like Paul Halter. Halter is a French novelist who focuses on “locked-room mysteries”–mysteries “in which a crime—almost always murder—is committed under apparently impossible circumstances. The crime in question typically involves a crime scene that no intruder could have entered or left, e.g., a locked room”, according to Wikipedia.
Halter’s books fit this definition to a tee. In the two books reviewed below the primary murder in each case taking place in a locked room. In both cases, there are other people in the room, but they are excluded as suspects based on the logistics of the crime. Halter has gained quite a reputation in France as a master of this form, but until recently, it has been difficult to find his work in English translations. Enter Locked Room International, a very small press devoted to the very specialized task of tracking down foreign language locked room mysteries and translating them into English, with Halter as one of their prime suspects. LRI’s website has some excellent additional information and recommendations of locked room mysteries.
All of this brings us to the books under review today. The Tiger’s Head, which was published by LRI back in June, is by far the more traditional mystery of the two. It is part of a series by Halter featuring a pair of detectives named Dr. Twist and Chief Inspector Hurst, and as I note in my review, although the violence is a bit more graphic, it has surprising similarities to modern cozy mysteries. The Crimson Fog, on the other hand, goes out of its way to blow up the whole concept of a cozy mystery, by yoking the traditions of that genre together with the facts and traditions of the literature on Jack the Ripper. It is a tour de force of narrative misdirection and genre confusion, while maintaining a quick pace and engaging prose that make it easy to read. In other words, it is just about perfect for teen mystery buffs–especially those with a bent towards Ripperology, or true crime in general–and it is our starred review for today.
* HALTER, Paul. Crimson Fog. 184p. Locked Room International. 2013. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781491244234.
Adult/High School-Halter’s deftly written, fast-paced novel, first published in French in 1988, uses two very different mystery subgenres to challenge readers’ preconceived notions of each. He begins with what appears to be a straightforward, Christie-ian “locked room” mystery. Narrator Sidney Miles-he openly admits that the name is not his real one-has returned to his hometown of Blackfield, England, to solve a seemingly impossible mystery of some years earlier. In the process of his investigation, the murderer strikes again, twice, apparently to cover his or her tracks, and once again shows off a phantomlike ability to disappear from the scene of the crime. Eventually, Miles unravels all three mysteries, and readers are left with a satisfying, well-written classic mystery. That is, until Halter abruptly pivots and gives over the last third of the novel to an incredible new take on the Whitechapel murders of 1888. Focusing in on Jack the Ripper’s seemingly supernatural ability to vanish-particularly in the case of the dual murder of September 30-and strongly implying that Jack the Ripper is identical with the murderer in the novel’s first section, the author shows readers the alarming similarities between so-called “cozy” mysteries and one of the world’s most infamous serial killers. Teen Ripper-ologists and strong-stomached cozy fans alike should find much to think about here.-Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
HALTER, Paul. The Tiger’s Head. tr. from French by John Pugmire. 176p. Locked Room International. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781484991022.
Adult/High School–In his fifth Dr. Twist and Inspector Hurst mystery, Halter nests his traditional locked room tale within two seemingly related crimes. The locked-room mystery features two men alone in a room, one found dead, the other with wounds impossible to self-inflict, and a fabulous story of a vindictive genie arising from the eponymous tiger’s head cane to fell both men. The surrounding mysteries are a fairly innocuous string of thefts–some of which also show signs of impossibility–and a gruesome series of murders marked by pieces of bodies found in suitcases. The crimes all take place in the sleepy town of Leadenham, and it is only the seeming impossibility of this coincidence that brings Twist and Hurst there to investigate. The suspects include three young couples: two visiting to the town and a local minister and his wife. Halter’s characterization of these suspects is fairly utilitarian, but he more than makes up for it with a strong sense of setting and an intricately worked narrative that includes several flashbacks and a flashforward, as well as glimpses into the thoughts of all the principals–and a tremendously well-designed mystery. The book is less formally inventive than the author’s The Crimson Fog (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), and it will appeal to fans of Frances Brody’s surprisingly similar A Medal for Murder (Minotaur, 2013).–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA