The “Impossible Crimes” of Paul Halter
♦ Peter Mann (for it is he!) looks into murder, mystery, and the career of the modern-day master of the Golden Age mystery
If you have enjoyed Jonathan Creek you may be surprised to know that there is an entire genre of crime fiction devoted to the “impossible crime” so familiar to viewers of the program. Although various of the crime fiction authors of the golden age of crime fiction – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr et cetera dealt with the impossible crime, and Edmund Crispin even had a toy shop disappear in one of his books – the modern age of crime fiction is much more concerned with in misery, pain, and serial killers to bother with the intricacies of plotting the necessary to deliver an old-fashioned entertainment in the way that Jonathan Creek does. Indeed, creator, David Renwick has explained that one of the reasons for the paucity of episodes of Jonathan Creek is the difficulty of coming up with new crimes. David Renwick: meet Paul Halter.
Paul Halter specialises in the impossible. Halter, an ex-French Marine disappointed with the lack of travel in the Marines, left the military, sold life insurance, played guitar in the dance orchestra, worked for France Télécom, and finally settled on being what is probably the world’s premier writer of “impossible” mysteries. Halter’s writing is strongly influenced by John Dickson Carr, who, writing under his own name and that of Carter Dickson, establishing himself as the master of the locked room mystery and impossible crime. French crime fiction has an odd interplay with that of British mystery fiction, probably starting with Maurice LeBlanc, the creator of gentleman thief/detective Arsène Lupin. Lupin is often thought of as a French counterpart to Sherlock Holmes, and though his fictional afterlife has not been as extraordinary as that of Holmes, it is still considerable.
Although Dickson Carr is undoubtedly a major influence Halter varies in one significant way. Not all of Carr’s novels were impossible crimes, but through over thirty novels Halter has focused specifically on the genre.
An oddity of Halter’s books is that they are set in London – which he apparently thinks is the right milieu for an impossible crime – and have their own Holmes and Watson, in this case, Inspector Hurst and Dr Twist. Twist was introduced in a book that Halter wrote before his first published at a time when he was trying to get the rights to use John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell as a character. Twist’s mannerisms, from The Fourth Door onwards, are similar to Fell’s, but this lessens over time. Inspector Hurst takes the Watson role in these books..
Halter was first published in 1987, but his books are fairly firmly set in the same ambiguous period as most of Agatha Christie’s television adaptations. Somewhere between the 30s and the 50s, and although Halter does mention dates at times the mysteries could have happened at any time in between those dates: In Halter’s world the modern era does not intrude at all.
That first book, La Quatrième Porte (The Fourth Door), was Paul Halter’s first best-seller and won the coveted Prix du Roman Policier in 1987. Admirably translated into English by John Pugmire, Halter’s characters appear fully formed, and truth to tell do not develop much over his oeuvre. In the book, the Darnley House has a haunted room – and as per the tropes of golden age crime fiction, someone wants to spend the night there. The room uses a wax seal made by pressing a one-of-a-kind coin into the wax the wax. When the door is reopened entirely different person’s body is lying there although the seal is unbroken, and the coin has not left the possession of the person it was entrusted to. Not content with one murder, a second, equally impossible, murder occurs, leading Inspector Hurst to believe he is dealing with the reincarnation of Harry Houdini. This book establishes the format of many of Halter’s novels, which seem to have borrowed structurally from Freeman Wills Crofts – in many of Halter’s novels we are introduced to the criminals and the crime before with we meet the detectives. Crofts’ novels work in the same way: Logically, if there isn’t a crime, there is no need for detectives.
In addition to Twist and Hurst, Halter also has the characters of detective Owen Burns, and Achilles Stock. They Meet in The Lord of Misrule, when, Achilles Stock, newly arrived in London from South Africa in the late 1890s, makes the acquaintance of the aesthete Owen Burns who regards the impossible crime as an art form. With an English country setting at Christmastime, a centuries-old family curse, “impossible” murders galore, and and the eponymous title character and suspected murderer, Burns and Stock have their hands full.
This could turn into a tedious recitation of synopses of Halter’s books. They are all of a remarkably high standard, which is not to say that some are not weaker than others, but all of them are enjoyable. If you like this kind of fiction, whether in movies, TV, or print you will enjoy Paul Halter’s books. If you are an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscriber many of the e-book versions are available included with your subscription. If you are not, the e-books hover around £5-6 ($7-8) although some are little more expensive than that. The paperback editions are wince-makingly expensive I’m afraid, doubtless due to their limited appeal to a genre audience. If you can read Italian, the Italian versions are considerably cheaper.
The cost of the books is a shame. At a better price point, with more focused marketing I can see them appealing to readers who like TV shows such as Midsomer Murders, Lewis, Miss Marple, and Poirot. Many of Halter’s books are published by Locked Room International, who have some other commendable mysteries on their list including Hard Cheese, Ulf Durling translated by Bertil Falk, a very funny impossible crime from Sweden, and The Decagon House Murders (a cheeky updating of And Then There Were None) by Yukito Ayatsuji with an introduction by the noted Japanese crime fiction author Soji Shimada. These titles alone make it worthwhile investing in Kindle Unlimited in my view, and I will enlarge upon crime fiction from around the world in future posts on Tripwire. In the meantime, if you’d like to reacquaint yourself with the sensation of being completely baffled, only to have it spelt out for you what you’ve missed, perhaps Paul Halter can get you through until David Renwick can write another series of Jonathan Creek.
You can contact Locked Room International at http://lockedroominternational.com/ and their Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/lockedroominternationalNY/