Kate: A positive to writing a blog and reading other people’s, are the recommendations you get to try out different authors, authors you may not have experienced if someone hadn’t pointed you in the right direction. This was the case for me with Paul Halter, who is known for his locked room and impossible crime novels and I was persuaded to give him a try through JJ, at The Invisible Event, who unlike me has read many of his novels and is far more knowledgeable when it comes to locked room or impossible crime novels. Therefore once I finally got around to buying one of Halter’s books, The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997), I thought it would be fun to do a joint review with JJ, looking at the book from a novice and more experienced perspective.
JJ: The Seven Wonders of Crime was the third English translation of Paul Halter’s novels by John Pugmire, originally published in 2011 under the Locked Room International banner he set up for this express purpose. To date he has published twelve Halter books and several other English translation debuts by authors such as Noel Vindry and Yukito Ayatsuji, as well as lost classics like Derek Smith’s two novels Whistle Up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair – all of them concerned with impossible crimes. However, for the novice, seven in one book will be a tempting proposition, so how do they stack up?
Set in the early 20th century, The Seven Wonders of Crime opens fairly dramatically with amateur sleuth, Owen Burns telling his friend, who is also the narrator, Achilles Stock that he has received a letter in the post saying: ‘You love me? I find that very pleasing. So now, kill!’ Even more mysterious and sinister there is a serial killer on the loose and no ordinary one. When the novel begins, two deaths have already taken place; a man burnt to death in a lighthouse cut off from the mainland and another man killed with crossbow in a field where there was no one visible for 300 yards around the victim who could have done it. Each of these seemingly impossible crimes are preceded by a cryptic letter to the police, which hints at the name of each victim and the way they are going to die.
When a further death follows, Inspector Wedekind asks Owen Burns to get involved. Burns who classifies himself as an ‘aesthete’ believes this is no ordinary set of killings and that the murderer is striving to achieve an artistic quality to their murders:
‘Our criminal is a painter, and his crimes are his canvas…’
A development in the case seems to hint at a more mundane reason; a complicated love triangle, with Amelia Doll at its centre. Are these killings done for her as proof of devotion? Yet as the dead bodies mount, with the deaths becoming increasingly mind-boggling, the detectives, police and amateur, seem no further forward in solving the mystery. Even Burns admits that they are dealing with no ordinary killer:
‘We’re dealing with an exceptional individual, an extraordinary criminal, the like of whom I’ve never seen. He defies justice; taunts the police; lays multiple false trails; strikes whenever it suits him; kills in whatever manner he wishes; and all in defiance of the basic laws of physics. He can be invisible; he can be lighter than air; he can kill from a distance; and he can persuade his victim to die of thirst.’
Will they ever be able to identify the culprit?
Although there are several things we do agree on, let’s start with one area we didn’t quite see eye to eye on…
Kate: The book is split into three sections and at the start of each one there is a subheading which includes an Ancient Greek/Egyptian reference. The one for the first section is Icarus and as this is one I am quite familiar with, it caught my eye and mentally I returned to it on finishing the novel, mainly because I couldn’t quite decide on one thing: Is the Icarus reference directed at the killer or the detective? Or maybe both? The killer and the detective are mirrored in each other to a certain extent in my opinion and in this case I think an argument could be made for both of them over reaching themselves.
JJ: I saw Icarus as a reference to the killer as Aten (the title of the third part) a reference to the detective, as the very final line of the book implies this quite heavily. It’s a slightly unusual choice for the part names if that’s the case, because it only really makes sense retrospectively, but then Halter has done something similar to this before: see The Crimson Fog, where the prologue is worth reading again given the revelation of the closing pages. The re-evaluation of earlier information is something of a puzzle plot classic, and it’s interesting to see it applied even to the part headings, though – that was a new one on me.
However, I think it is safe to say that we both agreed on the effectiveness of the opening of the novel…
Kate: Since this is my first Halter novel I was impressed with how it opened as I liked how the reader is confronted with the mysterious letter but not told that it is a letter, information which is only discovered further down the page. I think the delay in this contextualising information helps to create intrigue and suspense.
JJ: It’s also interesting to reflect that the first two ‘Wonders’ have already happened as the book opens. Given how much there was to fit in, this works very well and is similar to the openings of Halter’s books like The Picture from the Past, The Tiger’s Head, and Death Invites You, where a set of off-page murders forms part of the background. The Crimson Fog starts with a protagonist who has Something To Hide…all contributing to a sense of propulsion, like you’re thrown in amidst proceedings rather than having to be there at the very start. But then The Seventh Hypothesis, The Demon of Dartmoor, The Fourth Door, The Invisible Circle, etc do start from almost first principles – so it’s not like it’s a trademark of Halter’s writing – but he’s able to wield it wisely as a conscious narrative choice as he does here.
Our attention then turned to focusing on Owen Burns as an amateur sleuth…
Kate: Something which struck me straight away about Burns was that he came across as a Fin de Siècle aesthete and that this extends to his perception on murders which he views ‘as works of art’. The narrator adds to this saying that Burns’ ‘“heightened sensitivity” allowed him to understand such “artists” [murderers] so well that he was invariably able to identify them in the end.’ Burns regarding murder as an art form, firstly reminded me of Thomas De Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’ (1827) where he says:
‘People begin to see that something more goes in to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature’.
Later on I was also reminded of a line from G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Blue Cross’ (1910) where the narrator says that ‘the criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic,’ which I felt was pertinent to this tale as I think Burns does see himself in the role of ‘critic,’ judging and evaluating the crimes, as well as trying to solve them.
JJ: It’s also quite novel to have a detective who isn’t simply pursuing criminals for some moral or ethical reason; I see this as an attempt by Halter to create something a bit new, motivating his sleuth in a way that falls a little outside of the norm. I mean, it has classical roots – echoing, say, Holmes’ need for mental invigoration in a way, because that element of ‘beauty’ as Burns perceives it must be present – but it’s yet another wrinkle that distinguishes Halter’s work for me. And it’s very nice to see a genius amateur banging his head against a wall at times; to have him confounded at most turns by what’s going on, rather than aloof and supercilious throughout.
Of course an examination of Owen Burns led to us looking at Burns’ relationship with Achilles Stock, his friend, helper and case chronicler…
Kate: I think it is immediately apparent in the opening pages of the book that Burns’ relationship with Stock is along the Holmes and Watson lines. However, I felt that this relationship was more combative and fraught at some points in the text. Moreover, I felt that Burns was perhaps more petulant than Holmes is and that Stock, taking more after Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, was more comfortable at taking his companion down a peg or two. For example Burns’ more petulant moments are described by Stock as ‘histrionics’ and when Burns says, ‘Your impromptu remarks are too precious to me…,’ Stock immediately mentally translates them as ‘You say anything that comes into your head, but sometimes that helps me to concentrate.’ There is a distinct lack of hero worship coming from Stock.
JJ: Burns is more playful than Holmes, I’d say – it comes across more in The Phantom Passage particularly, but it feels more like…well, if not exactly a meeting of equals then at least a meeting of slightly-less-unequals. The fact that Burns is in disarray for a lot of the novel helps, I think, because it removes the temptation to put him on some genius pedestal – had Holmes been reeling around, sleepless and crazed out of his mind at the problems he was facing, it would have been difficult for Watson to stand back in such awe, after all. This makes Burns a bit more human, and opens up a wider scope for their friendship.
Our varying experiences of Halter’s work definitely came into play when we looked at how women were depicted in the novel, in particular Amelia Doll…
Kate: Personally I struggled to like or identify with Amelia due to her irresponsible and thoughtless behaviour. Part of me also wondered whether her outrageous behaviour would have been so easily tolerated by the more morally upright characters, as it has to be remembered that this is set in the early 20th century. Consequently I wondered whether she jarred with or was anachronistic to the rest of the novel’s milieu. Alongside that I also wondered if this jarring effect was deliberate on the author’s part, imposing a more modern unbridled image of woman into the story. My final thought on Amelia was that her surname was rather ironic, as the word doll suggests passivity, but Amelia is anything but passive. JJ has a more down to earth and probably correct opinion on this though…
JJ: It occurred to me that Doll may not be her name in the original, but John Pugmire assures me that, no, she was called Amelia Doll in the French text. So perhaps Halter was just reaching for something that sounds English rather than attaching a particular meaning to it (the nearest word I can find in French, douleur, means ‘pain,’ but it would be a bit of a leap to claim this was a deliberate intention on Halter’s part).
Either way, there is something about Amelia’s depiction that doesn’t quite ring true – she is a very emancipated presence in a milieu that wasn’t especially big on female emancipation just yet. Possibly it’s just a shortcut on Halter’s part when there’s so much plot to cram in: novels like The Seventh Hypothesis and Death Invites You focus more intently on character, but here he’s got a lot to do and doesn’t want to take up too much space while doing so and thus character takes bit of a back seat. Which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, really, as a slight alteration to her character – as really the only woman in the piece – could have enriched this side of things a great deal.
The ending of this book found us thinking along similar lines, though JJ was able to helpfully put this within the larger context of Halter’s work:
Kate: When it gets to the end of the book and by that I mean around the last 10-20 pages, I did start to wonder if the killer was going to be discovered at all. Annoyingly I was disappointed by the ending a lot as firstly I disliked the structure of the scene where the murder methods are revealed. It came across as too ridiculous (and I read books where vicars sit next to sea lions at bangers and mash parties!) and as a bit weird. Moreover, Burns’ answers to how the crimes occurred are down too pat for me. Furthermore, this section dissipates the drama and tension the rest of the novel has so brilliantly built up so well. Some tension is regained with the revelation of the killer though, (as their worldview is a little chilling to say the least), but not quite enough, as the open ended nature of the novel prevented this for me. Overall I came away feeling like the ending was an anti-climax. Perhaps the Icarus reference of the first section was for the author after all…
JJ: Alan Twist, the detective in Halter’s other series, is a deducer, piecing together the crumbs that Halter has scattered along his trail. Owen Burns, perhaps due to the nature of his interest in the crimes to begin with, often requires a ‘moment of startling realisation’ to reach his explanations, and so at times some of the reasoning can be a little spurious as it’s not reinforced in quite the same way.
Halter is far from alone in this, of course, but I wonder if the nature of Burns as a character makes this element more necessary – the nature of the crime determines the sleuth and hence the solution (as opposed to, say, Carr – well, we had to mention him at some point – whose Merrivale books could by and large have been solved by Fell and vice versa). Detection is not Halter’s strong point. He’s good with clues, but often requires a ‘moment of startling realisation’ to reach his explanations. Comparatively fewer Burns books have been written to date and John Pugmire has translated three of these and six Twists, so it’s not really a large enough sample to tell.
Our discussion of this book ended with us looking at the puzzle aspect of the novel:
Kate: I think Halter did a good job overall with fitting the murder method to each death, although like JJ I found the solution to one of the deaths ludicrous and farfetched. Though for a number of them I liked how eerily simple the methods were but the consequences of which were fantastical. The mystery surrounding the deaths is kept up well until the end as throughout the book there are several strong contenders for the title of killer, having the means, motive and opportunity. The identity of the killer is reasonably well hidden as even though they are the sort of person you do consider, the narrative, which filters the events through Achilles Stock, makes you dismiss them.
JJ: It’s not so much plausibility for me with Halter as…maybe ‘imagination’ is the word. The lighthouse is very clever, as is the stabbing at the Gates of Paradise (though easy to work out), but the explanation of the Colossus of Rhodes crime is, by Halter’s standards, rather poor. The Temple of Artemis crime is good, but mirrors a John Dickson Carr story too closely, and not deliberately enough for it to be an homage. Halter has written some brilliant impossibilities, but these are not among them.
I do like the revelation around how suspicion is shifted from one person to the next – that is very clever indeed, and salvages an element of the explanation because you’re forced to review how this trick was worked again and again without you having been aware it was happening at the time. This is an element of Halter’s plotting that it’s always possible to overlook because your eye is on the impossibilities – see The Seventh Hypothesis, where this kind of thing is thrust front and centre, and is an absolute joy – and that, in a way, helped save the book for me.
Kate’s Rating: Because this is my first Halter novel I really enjoyed the narrative style, the cleverness of the majority of the crimes committed and the relationship between Achilles and Owen. For these factors I would give the rating of 4/5. However, the ending of the novel really disappointed me, despite the killer being a good choice. Personally I think due to the vague and short ending, the nature of this choice is insufficiently explored for me. My rating of this factor would be 3/5. On the other hand though I have enjoyed many elements of Halter’s work and I am interested to give him another go. But which to choose? Thankfully JJ has done a post giving 5 suggestions to try.
JJ’s Rating: The more Halter I read, the more I realise how much he bit off here, and that has to be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, little dropped threads – like the paintings, nothing’s really done with that – frustrate me because of the potential that wasn’t quite realised, but I can appreciate that he would have been almost as dizzy as Owen Burns at times when putting this together. Overall I’m 3/5 on this.