Today is Paul Halter’s 60th birthday and JJ over at The Invisible Event put a call out for posts on Halter’s work in order to celebrate it. Aside from contributing his own invaluable piece, he will also be collecting other bloggers’ posts, so make sure to look out for his wrap up post. This is my second experience of reading Halter’s work, the first time being when I read The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) and did a joint review of it with JJ.
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) begins with Constable Watkins having the most unusual experience of his career whilst walking his beat. He sees an odd person from a distance who possesses ‘an abnormally long nose… as easily as long as the wide rim of the hat… [they] were wearing.’ Watkins even wonders whether what he is seeing is ‘a man disguised as a bird’ or something even worse. Eventually Watkins thinks he has the answer. What he is seeing is a plague doctor. But hang on a minute this is 1938, not the 17th century. What is such a doctor doing here? As he tries to follow the mysterious person Watkins encounters another odd person, this time a Dr Marcus in Victorian dress, rummaging through some bins and making criminating comments such as ‘We’d have been better off dumping him somewhere else.’ But the strangest thing which happens to Watkins this sinister night is that whilst re-searching a bin, he finds a stabbed and sick looking corpse, a corpse which wasn’t in the bin when he checked it a few moments before and the Dr himself has disappeared. The corpse’s home is quickly tracked down, yet more puzzling events are in store as the owners of the lodgings recount to Watkins how their plague-ridden lodger, David Cohen was being carried out by three doctors, only to then disappear through a bricked up door. Stumped, Inspector Archibald Hurst asks his friend and criminologist Dr Alan Twist for help.
The story then jumps ahead a few months when the personal secretary to Sir Gordon Miller (a famous mystery play wright), Peter Moore visits Twist reporting to him his concern that a murder will be committed. He tells Twist that Miller and the actor Donald Ransome may superficially appear to be good friends but in fact they hate each other due to a love triangle with Miller’s now dead wife, who drowned. Moore says Ransome was her lover and that Ransome is convinced that Miller murdered her, a statement Miller confirms and then refutes by suggesting that Ransome was the killer. Their conversation, which Moore reports, is much more complicated than I have transcribed as Ransome takes on a number of identities before revealing himself and there is a question of whether or not they are playing a prank on each other. But in all in all their conversation is said to end in a deadly fashion, a challenge is issued by Miller. One of them has to commit the perfect murder which incriminates the other, with the only rule being that they can’t speak of the challenge and that it must take place before the end of the year.
How do all of these events connect? Do they all connect? There are many versions of the truth in this story and the complexity of the case is increased by further deaths, making you wonder if Twist and Hurst will ever find the wood for the trees.
Now for those of you who have already read the book, you maybe be wondering why I am talking about this topic. After all there aren’t even two main female characters, only Miller’s step daughter, Sheila Forrest. But the other woman I had in mind was the female protagonist of another Halter novel, The Seven Wonders of Crime, Amelia Doll. Something I have pondered is whether dolls are a recurring motif in Halter’s work. The very word is Amelia’s surname and in The Seventh Hypothesis Sheila is described as ‘a living doll’ and as ‘a real doll with jet black hair.’ Having only read these two novels I cannot say if there is a similar motif in Halter’s other works, though if there was, it makes me wonder why he has chosen to describe his comparatively fewer female characters in this way. Dolls also recur in this book in another way but explaining how may constitute as a spoiler, so you’ll just have to read the book to find out.
A criticism which has been levelled at Halter’s work is that characterisation is not one of his main strengths, with his characters sometimes coming across as 2-dimensional. However, this story contains characters which are more fleshed out (although not Sheila). The psychology of the characters is bizarre but works quite well and helps to add to the characterisation of the text. Moreover, I liked how the story looks at the slippery nature of identity and how much it can be based on or altered by external features. The second section of this novel in particular emphasises the artificiality of identity. Furthermore, although a plot focused writer I found it interesting that Twist near the denouement of the book says to Hurst about the case that, ‘we’ve been looking at this from the wrong angle, from a mathematical angle. We’ve been following the trail I cautioned against from the start and, dazzled by the plethora of criminal combinations, we’ve lost sight of the essential: the human factor.’
Twist and Hurst’s partnership does have a slight Holmes and Lestrade feel about it, though I think they are much less competitive and antagonistic towards each other. Their good friendship is visible in their humorous interactions. I also noticed that a couple of times Twist has a few descriptive links to Christie’s Hercule Poirot as firstly like Poirot, Twist has an impressive moustache and secondly Twist says to Hurst that, ‘Your little grey cells are working overtime today, my friend!’ Golden Age detective fiction references also crop up with the main suspects in this case, Miller and Ransome, who are depicted as quite formidable opponents, ‘as crafty as a barrel of monkeys and… as perceptive as Holmes, Fell and Poirot combined!’
I found the setting of this story intriguing as its 1930s London, but still made to feel much more Victorian by the characters. One is also quite reminded of Poe’s work in the macabre and the atmospherics are good in this story, but not overdone. Readers are definitely taken on a surreal experience in this book but it is one which kind of works, with the reader trying to decipher what information is hoaxing or genuine and also trying to figure out the illusions which are being played on both us and the detectives. Halter is adept at leaving cliff hangers at the ends of his chapters. I did prefer the solution of this story compared to the one in The Seven Wonders of Crime, but I did wonder whether there were too many twists in the story, making me less stunned by the solution than I thought I would be. Did the extraordinary number of twists push my expectations too high? I also feel the motivation behind the crimes was a little bit imposed and that the role of one of the character’s in the solution wasn’t well prepared for and therefore felt like it came out of nowhere. But if you are in the mood for being bamboozled then this is definitely the book for you.