The Tiger’s Head (1991/2013) by Paul Halter – a re-read

Suitcases have been cropping up, full of the dismembered arms and legs of young ladies, all over London – although one was found in the village of Leadenham. An odd kind of place, Leadenham. There have also been some bizarre thefts – a church candle, a selection of hats, a lamp post… And Major McGregor, a leading light of the community, decides to demonstrate the mystical powers of his souvenir from his time in India. The bronze tiger’s head on the end of his cane has the power to summon a genie – one who has the ability to murder people within locked rooms… Enter Dr Alan Twist, renowned expert on this sort of thing. But can even he make sense of the multitude of baffling occurrences?

Another re-read, I’m afraid, but you can blame JJ for this one. We’ve had the occasional discussion over the years about it, as he considers it one of Halter’s finest. My recollection – and do remember that I first reviewed this eight years ago – was that the bit with the genie was a let-down. After he reviewed it the other day, I figured it was time to settle this once and for all. So what do I think about it with my now-experienced blogger wisdom?

It’s a lot better than I remember it being – to be fair, my review of it was very positive, so part of my misgivings is my memory cheating – but the plot is one of Halter’s best. There are three strands to it – the thefts, the murder-by-genie and the dismembered women in suitcases, and two of the plots intertwine with each other exceptionally well. It’s the genie strand that I still have some trouble with.

Oddly, it’s not the same trouble I had before. The genie situation works a bit like Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window – two men are locked in a room together, one is found dead and the other has a story so bizarre that they couldn’t possibly be the murderer (or could they?) In this case, they are locked in when one of them claims he as a relic that can summon a murderous genie, who promptly arrives and kills his summoner before vanishing. My criticism of this was that the survivor later recants his story and says something like “maybe it was just someone with a mask on instead” but that’s not really the case. First of all, the witness is concussed and he never really describes the genie as such, just saying that a figure appeared and attacked them.

What I think is less successful is the fact that while the other strands weave around each other, the genie plot stands out for two reasons – its fantastic elements are a jarring contrast with the nastiness of the suitcase murders and while there is an additional overlap between this crime and an impossible disappearance related to the suitcase murders, that disappearance is the weakest explanation of the whole tale.

Be warned, while I’m not going into spoiler details here, I can see how the careful reader might read too much into what I’m going to say next.

I appreciate the need for the genie strand – or at least a third strand involving a locked room at least – as it serves two plot purposes, but making the genie murder more, well, normal, would have worked better. The dissociation between the two types of murder draws the reader too heavily towards a number of crucial aspects of the solution and while the solution is fairly clued, I think large chunks of it, notably the “who”, are extremely guessable, due to a dearth of alternatives.

But there are many more positives to praise here. Halter wisely intersperses the build-up in Leadenham (where not a lot happens bar important set-up) with Twist and Hurst investigating the suitcase murders with chronological jumps forward and back until the two scenarios link up. The discussions between the investigators works well, although Hurst does come across as a bit of an arse at times.

A word should also be said about the ending, as well, notably the fate of the villain of the piece. There are questions as to the ethics of some sleuths when they deal with the murderer, either letting them off or leaving them alone with a loaded gun/bottle of poison while the police are fetched. This is a different solution and is really effectively grim…

All in all, I do agree with JJ, this is one of Halter’s best, but it does suffer a bit with the “too many ideas” syndrome that Halter seems to suffer from. Maybe I’m being hyper-critical here, but there are a couple of choices that, had they been made different, could have tightened this up into a stone-cold classic.

Oh, and a note to authors – when naming characters, please don’t give them similar names. I kept having to remind myself which was which out of “Esther” and “Evelyn”. Or is that just me?

8 comments

  1. The similar-name problem is such a naturally occurring phenomenon (in rough drafts) you’d think authors would be hyper-aware of it. One that springs to mind is 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑈𝑛𝑝𝑙𝑒𝑎𝑠𝑎𝑛𝑡𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑠 𝑎𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝐵𝑒𝑙𝑙𝑜𝑛𝑎 𝐶𝑙𝑢𝑏. The sister is named “Dormer” and her companion “Dorland”, and I recall page after page featuring both names. I’ve also noticed it in Japanese novels where names are sometimes differentiated by a single letter.

    I avoided most of JJ and your respective reviews because I plan to read this, but I’m glad both of you enjoyed it a second time around.

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    • I’ll be curious as to what you think of it as a writer. I struggle sometimes not to put daft things down like “if I was a writer, I would have done this” as I am obviously not one, but I do wonder if one particular choice was made to give the book a saleable hook…

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  2. Very pleased to the spectre of what you remembered to be a flaw banished — it’s always lovely when you reread/-watch something that vexed you for a particular reason and find that reason to be non-existent (the episode ‘The Message’ from Firefly was the perfect example of this for me).

    I like that final page. I don’t agree with it, but I like it. As you say, GAD threw out quite a few instances of detectives choosing to act how we wouldn’t, and I appreciate the attempt not to fade out on forgettable blandishments (or duck ownership). This was maybe halter’s sevent or eighth book, and I appreciate the desire to do something a little different. I don’t think it came to anything, so no harm done…

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      • There’s an over-sufficiency of clewing in the matter of the “who” where the genie is concerned, I feel — one light touch would have been fine for me. I love the way Halter pushes these out there schemes, though — why do you think I’m such a fan of The Invisible Circle!? — so a less preposterous framing for that killing is not something I relish… 🙂

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      • I didn’t hate The Invisible Circle…seem to recall rather enjoying it, but can’t remember anything about it. And yes, a couple of hints at other motives with that would have really helped.

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  3. As regards your last paragraph, I couldn’t agree more. I once read an historical novel where five different characters names began with H. Why, when there are 25 other letters to use?

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