The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) by Paul Halter. Trans. John Pugmire

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

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.

The Women

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.

Characterisation

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!’

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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10 Responses to The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) by Paul Halter. Trans. John Pugmire

  1. JFW says:

    Oh. 😦 I enjoyed ‘Seventh Hypothesis’ very much, and ranked it among the best novels I read last year… Then again, thanks for the review, and for bringing this novel to readers’ attention/. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well it’s not like I hated it or found it mediocre, but I don’t think I will have the same enthusiasm for Halter’s work as you do, but I can see why this book would appeal highly to you, considering its high puzzle factor.

      Like

  2. JJ says:

    A quick mental sweep of Halter’s work makes me think that it’s not dolls so much that recur as it is the Golden Age staple of a beautiful young woman…very Carrian in that regard. Really pleased you enjoyed this one more than TSWoC, I agree it’s a better book and has some interesting points to make about character. From here, if you’re curious, I advide Death Invites You. Also, I’m really no sure what you mean by “too many twists”. Is there such a thing? 😉

    Thanks for getting involved, it’s lovely to see so much Halter in my blog feed today,,,!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I may well try DIY at some point based on your’s and Puzzle Doctor’s recommendation. And I think my issue with the number of twists was that they became so many that my expectations of the final solution became impossibly high and probably unrealistic. I think I prefer Twist to Owen Burns, having read one book of each now. Though his female characters are rather far and few between and are ciphers at best. Is there a reason for the lack of women in the casts of characters? As both books I have read felt very male dominated in terms of characters, though the same could be said for E C Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. But in the case of the latter it isn’t as noticeable, whereas in Halter’s books it seems more obvious at the time of reading. Could just be me I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      • JJ says:

        There’s an argument that the Burns/Stock late Victorian era is when women tended to be seen and not heard and so he’s being era-appropriate, but honestly I just think sometimes Halter overlooks the finer points of characters in order to get his machinations in, and the more machination there are – as in the two books you’ve read – the more grace notes have to be discarded.

        DIY certainly contains, in Harold Vickers’ daughters, two more distinctly-drawn female characters, and The Picture from the Past has a more symapathetic female lead than one might otherwise expect…perhaps they’ll give you something of a counter-point should you decide to read further.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’re a mind of information when it comes to Halter’s work. You should definitely choose it as your master mind special subject.

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      • JJ says:

        Also, I’ve not yet got to Trent’s Last Case. Perhaps next week, but it’s crazy exam season at work so things are a bit frantic…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Brad says:

    I agree that Halter’s characterization of young women is very much like Carr’s: they’re all lovely, bewitching creatures, and it all boils down to whether they are angels or demons. I’ve read three different titles from you, Kate, and I’ve yet to meet a fleshed-out female!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t thought that much about the women in Carr’s work, though I can think of a few novels of his that I have read which mirror what you suggest. Although I think The Case of the Constant Suicides, could be an exception.

      Like

  4. Pingback: #103: Paul Halter Day – III: The Round-Up | The Invisible Event

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