Never open a sealed room. Not in a mystery novel, and especially not if the reason that it was sealed was that someone died mysteriously in that room in the past. And it’s not long before the room is exerting its influence once again – people are being scared to death by a mysterious something, a something whose only trace is a damp patch of carpet in front of the fireplace…
Hatton Manor (just round the corner from me, if it existed) soon is the location of all sorts of shenanigans. Apart from the suspicious deaths, it seems that one of the family is psychic. Oh, and one of the murder victims seems to be walking around again. And let’s not go into what’s in that coffin… Luckily Alan Twist is on the case.
Locked Room International and John Pugmire, the translator, have been doing a sterling job in providing us readers with translations of Paul Halter’s work. Paul has written forty or so mystery novels to date, but has inconveniently chosen to write them in his native French. His speciality is the locked room mystery – one of the only regular writers to be doing so these days. But this was an especially important book for me – it was something of a make-or-break book.
You see, I like what Halter does, but not necessarily always how he does it. Even his best books – The Demon Of Dartmoor, for example– have unnecessary extra mysteries and impossibilities thrown in, distracting from the main narrative. There’s often a strong central idea, but the extras can distract from it. Also, I find that his style of writing can be off-putting. Admittedly, that may be due to the translation being a fairly literal one to maintain the, for want of a better word, French-ness of the original text, or possibly the original was just a bit clunky in the first place, but it’s been niggling at me. And, to be honest, I wasn’t impressed with The Vampire Tree at all.
So I cautiously approached this one…
And it has got the odd writing style. The opening chapter, for example, between two long-term acquaintances contemplating each other for potential romance, is really odd. People just don’t speak like that at all, at least not in my experience.
And it has bonus impossibilities thrown in too – the psychicness of one family member, the contents of the coffin, on top of the various deaths.
But it works. It works magnificently.
There is a beautiful idea in the various deaths concerning the water on the floor that, for some reason, really impressed me but overall, the solution makes sense. Admittedly the murderer has to do some utterly ridiculous things – and, it has to be said, the murderer makes their bonkers plan up very quickly… And there’s a couple of unnecessary deaths… And what happens if one of the methods of murder didn’t work – as it’s a bit dodgy, really…
But somehow, this works perfectly. You have to take it all with a massive pinch of salt, but this is one of Halter’s best works to date, with everything fitting together. It’s worth pointing out that even Halter realises that it’s all a bit daft, with Twist giving a lecture on the coincidences involved in everything after the murderer has been brought to justice.
You could spend an age nitpicking the problems with this one, but if you’re willing to embrace the unreality of the whole thing, then this is something rather special. Highly Recommended.