“That’s the problem. No matter how far back I go, I can’t remember a case where we’ve talked so much . . . “
That’s Inspector Archibald Hurst, the rotund Watson to Paul Halter’s super-sleuth, Dr. Alan Twist, channeling the complaints of this reader in what some fans seem to consider their favorite Halter, The Seventh Hypothesis. Actually, the speech goes on a bit:
“That’s the problem. No matter how far back I go, I can’t remember a case where we’ve talked so much, concocted so many theories, combined so many possibilities, postulated so many hypotheses, demolished them, reconstructed them, brooded over them . . . “
Which all goes to make it sound like this entry in the series is jam-packed with interesting ideas and events. Except it’s not. Ostensibly it centers on the relationship between two men: the noted mystery playwright, Sir Gordon Miller, and his leading man/muse/frenemy/rival, Donald Ransome. The two are overheard challenging each other to commit a murder and frame the other one for it. When death ensues, it’s up to Dr. Twist to figure out who’s framing who.
Because Halter likes to include at least six impossibilities before breakfast, the book doesn’t actually start there. First, there’s a prologue containing an impossible event involving medieval plague doctors and missing corpses popping up in 1930’s London. There’s also a death in the past, which could be murder, suicide, or accident. Ultimately, Halter’s task is to link these events to the duel of wits between Miller and Ransome.
A story that boils down to two people can go in one of two ways: it can bubble and boil delightedly like Anthony Shaffer’s brilliant murder play Sleuth, or it can hobble along like Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember, which asks the question: “Did General Ravenscroft murder his wife and kill himself, or did Lady Ravenscroft murder her husband and kill herself?” The answer to this question, and to the choice between Miller and Ransome, ultimately becomes, “Who cares?” For the bulk of the novel, both men are presented as egomaniacal sociopaths, to the point where I didn’t care which one of them did it – I wanted them both to leave.
I have now read five Paul Halter mysteries, and while that certainly doesn’t make me an expert, I feel more entitled to solidify an opinion. Herewith, my seven hypotheses as to why Halter doesn’t work for me:
Hypothesis Number One: Halter’s trademark layering on of complexities masks an inherent shallowness to the situation. There is no good reason why anyone, sane or twisted, would go about doing the things his characters do. It’s not coincidence that so many of his books contain mystery writers, along with the suggestion is that these kinds of people couldn’t do a straightforward murder if they tried. (All Agatha Christie had to do was to drive her car into a ditch and disappear. Now that’s a plot that makes sense!) There has to be an easier way for the killer to have accomplished his goals here. Yes, but then there wouldn’t be a book for us to read, you say! And I would counter with the possibility of a better book if only the ingredients of the sandwich were meatier and smelled fresher.
Hypothesis Number Two: Character, character, character! I’m not going to argue that Halter should pay more attention to characterization. It’s not his thing, nor has it stopped many Golden Age writers (and those who emulate them) from producing classic mystery fiction. But all of Halter’s characters sound the same and, until the finale, seem to think the same, and that fact is exacerbated when you only have two characters to deal with. It was hard to tell Ransome apart from Miller, particularly because they both had to sound like monsters to serve the needs of the plot.
Hypothesis Number Three: Absurd situations. There’s a line – and it’s not even a fine one – between baffling and just plain silly. What the heck with the whole plague doctor thing? It’s hard to discuss the specifics without giving too many plot points away, but the murderer’s plan here is, to my mind, absolutely ridiculous, and the motivations of the others involved do not justify the extreme nature of this scenario.
The bulk of the novel centers around two conversations: the one overheard between the playwright and the actor, and the subsequent discussion of the hypotheses by Twist and Hurst. The first contains a series of “surprises” that struck me as ludicrous, and I cannot imagine how the person who overheard the conversation could have taken it seriously. It relies a great deal on a twist that formed the center of the mystery in The Invisible Circle, (which I also didn’t buy), and it made me pine for the much better use of this device in Sleuth (which Halter could have channeled for a guide as to how two twisted nutjobs really can one up each other.)
The list of hypotheses that Twist and Hurst come up with merely serves to point out what happens when you reduce a story to a math problem. How do you get the fox, duck, and bag of corn across the river without the fox eating the duck or the duck eating the corn? The intellectual satisfaction of solving that problem is brief, and that’s what I tend to feel at the end of a Halter mystery. Which leads me to . . .
Hypothesis Number Four: No emotional resonance. By the end, Twist is saying things like, “I swear I have never been confronted with such a sordid, ugly affair in my life.” Yet, although the final revelations explain why Twist feels this way, our disconnect from the characters as anything more than chess pieces makes it extremely difficult for the reader to engage sympathetically with their troubles. This is one of those novels where you don’t want to read the final sentence ahead of time, but as I stared at the words, all I could muster was a shrug.
Hypothesis Number Five: Halter cannot write women. I see what he’s going after. It’s sort of a combination of film noir and the John Dickson Carr method of presenting females as alluring, mysterious creatures who are either angels or devils. There is only one female character in this novel, Gordon Miller’s stepdaughter, Sheila Forrest. Although she is someone who ultimately is crucial to the plot, she emerges as nothing more than a cipher by the end. The same thing happened with the two women in The Invisible Circle and, to some extent, The Demon of Dartmoor. My favorite novel of the five, Death Invites You, is relatively more successful; at least, it presents three women who are somewhat distinct and interesting. Contrast this with the women in a Carr classic like He Who Whispers. Oh man! I wish Halter would study this aspect of his idol’s genius and incorporate it into his own work.
Hypothesis Number Five: Unfair detection. My Facebook friend and fellow mystery lover Scott Ratner will mow you down with his arguments that there really is no such thing as a “fair play” detective novel. You could certainly make a great case for Scott’s opinion by reading Halter. Dr. Twist’s “method” tends to originate from a spark of divine inspiration that comes out of either nowhere or from a dubious chain of “deductions.” The final chapter’s explanation amounts to a large portion of guessing peppered with some esoteric knowledge about some of the odd things that have popped up in the story. One of the major “giveaway” clues centers on a psychological quirk in the killer’s make-up that would never hold up in court. In fact, when Twist confronts the murderer, he spends a lot of time imagining how the killer accomplished certain things, and we get no confirmation that this is how it happened. Never have I read a book where the culprit had more right to simply stand up, bid everyone adieu, exit and go on with their life.
Hypothesis Number Six: Vagueness. Maybe it’s me, but I can never really follow the plotting and ideas in a Halter novel. Nor can I really see the people and places in my mind as I read. I have thought that the Twist novels are set in the 1930s, the 1950s, and in an indeterminate time containing only gaslight and fog. Between Twist and Hurst, I get confused over who’s the thin one and who’s the fat one. (Twist is the thin one, yet he does all the eating.) When the novels are set in the city, I get no sense of London, and when they are set in the country, the author might as well name the places Generic Village One, Two or Three. The most Halter can manage is atmosphere, which he often does well. In Hypothesis, I never bought the atmosphere.
Hypothesis Number Seven: Despite the author’s propensity for creating one baffling situation after another – and his books tend to resemble a seven-layer cake of crazy – the biggest problem for me is that I always guess the killer! Always! Halter is simply not adept at tucking in those glaring inconsistencies of event or that odd character trait that gives the game away. A great mystery writer has to become an expert at hiding the truth in plain sight in order to earn that “Aha!” moment at the end. You can stack up all sorts of information to try and convince us a person is innocent, but if you don’t expertly bury the fact that this character inherits all the money or that she was a champion figure skater or pole vaulter or master of disguise or voice mimickry, you don’t stand a chance with me. Plus, Halter tends to repeat ideas over and over again. I’m frankly sick of all the mystery writers and magicians and former gymnasts lurking about in all his stories. His format of piling on one baffling scenario after another may end up confusing me about the how – even after it’s explained! – but it never blinds me as to the who.
My dear blogging compatriot (and staunch Halter fan) JJ at The Invisible Event opened my eyes to how my relative lack of interest regarding murder method – the hallmark of Halter’s work – plays a big part in my resistance to his charms. I think that’s true, although I never felt that way about Carr. At his best, Carr balanced his books or at least framed his ingenious methods with fun characters, vivid setting and atmosphere, and grand dialogue. And some of his methods, like the second murder in The Three Coffins or the murderer’s secret in The Crooked Hinge, both intrigued and delighted me. And so, Paul and I are gonna take a little break from each other. I’m not saying “never again” because I like being part of the conversation. But I also realize that I’m being a “Negative Ned” here when it comes to Halter, and I know there is so much more out there to explore and rave about. Thus, in an effort to accentuate the positive . . . adieu, M. Halter, at least for now.