Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Fourth Door

After the suicide of Victor Darnley's wife in a locked attic room, the Darnley house and especially said room became to be known as haunted and none of its tenants stayed for long. But when mediumistic Alice Latimer and her husband Patrick move in, things take a sudden turn. Alice suspects that Victor's wife had actually been murdered in that locked room and that the footsteps and noises at night symbolize her spirit's manifestation and the wish to expose her murderer. Consequently an experiment is planned in the attic: Patrick will stay in the haunted room to confirm Mrs. Darnley's manifestation and the door will be sealed with wax and a rare coin while somebody knocks on the door every half an hour to see whether Patrick answers and everything is fine. When Patrick ceases to answer and the seal is removed, Patrick is not in the room and instead the corpse of another person lies on the floor!

I've been reading about French author Paul Halter for quite some time now as Japanese locked room enthusiasts are praising him everywhere and Nikaidou Reito even considers himself to be his Japanese equivalent as a modern-day Carr so to speak. They do share similarities like the focus on gloomy atmosphere, mysterious incidents and - above all - impossible crimes, but there are quite obvious differences as well. Most notably, while Nikaidou's setting (in his Nikaidou Ranko series) are the late Japanese 60s adding several borrowings from older Japanese authors like Edogawa Ranpo or Yokomizo Seishi, Halter emulates Carr's style in its entirety; meaning his plots (in the Twist series) are set in post-war Britain. 

And here we get to what's being criticized about his writing style: The apparent lack of any feeling for place and time. While you feel that Nikadou clearly knows what he's writing about since he sets his plots in his young days, Halter simply did not live at that time in that country, so you cannot really entitle him the French Carr, since only Carr could write what he fabricated at that time in those places. All in all Halter feels more like a neo-orthodox writer whose stories are set in some kind of simulacrum of long gone times. And once you just leave it at that and don't compare him to his master, the plot of this novel is tremendously enjoyable and makes for a real page-turner. The little summary up there does not even begin to describe what's happening in this book and while some of the mysterious events are explained rather easily, it's just those where you don't expect any more elaborate solution anyway. The only mystery where the solution kind of disappointed me was that of the missing footprints at the second crime scene, but just as in Carr's The Plague Court Murders, this cannot be considered the main treat of the book.

Speaking of Plague Court, I realized this again: I did like the narrative of that novel compared to what I may have said elsewhere and the basic idea behind the locked room, workable or not, is a classic pattern reusable for many other settings. What I didn't like was the fact that anybody in the book just didn't care about any possible supernatural explanation after the murder, so I asked myself why the whole narrative was necessary at all when not even the characters believe in what has been suggested from the beginning. And that's what I liked about The Fourth Door: You are always reminded that the characters are really bewildered by the developments and don't know what to think anymore, while in Plague Court they are like "Oh I know it was a hoax all along!" even though they were talking differently at the beginning of the novel.

And speaking of the main treat: The locked room in the attic basically was something I already knew from two stories by the same Japanese author (one written around the same time of Halter's debut), so Halter's trick sadly did not surprise me with the same feeling of originality it might have for other readers. The big plus is that in Halter's case, regardless of the probability that no one notices anything, the solution is fairly hinted and I might have come up with it even if it was totally new to me. In short: I already read something similar elsewhere, but anyone else who didn't might find this to be a brilliant locked room trick (always subject to personal preferences and suspension of disbelief and considering the setting the author chose for this particular trick).

A strong read for any locked room enthusiast though, especially those who like the typical atmosphere that comes with a lot of the genre's more gothic classics. Anyone interested should definitely get a copy and support John Pugmire and his future efforts in publishing more translations of Halter's work. Given the theme of the haunted room, I should really read The Red Widow Murders right now... but next week is just too chaotic.

1 comment:

  1. I've only just discovered your excellent blog and I'd like to thank you for your unsolicited support.

    John Pugmire