At the Scene of the Crime

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At the Scene of the Crime: Interview with Paul Halter (Part I)

Posted by on in Obscurities
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Some may have noticed that I have been inactive on the site for a while. This is due to this translation project that I am now proud to share. While I continued reviewing books on my blog, it's more time-consuming to post stuff on this site and the recent changes have not made it easier to find blogs you want to read. Please accept my apologies and hopefully you'll enjoy this interview, which can be read (with probably better formatting) here.

***

Paul Halter is arguably the current master of the impossible crime mystery. I have read ten of his books (one of which was a short story collection) and I was consistently impressed with the way he handles variation after variation on the impossible crime. He has explained away everything from the phenomenon of bilocation (La Quatrième Porte; translated as The Fourth Door) to an invisible man (Le Diable de Dartmoor; meaning The Devil of Dartmoor). The explanations are often simple and elegant, and at the top of his game, Halter can write books and puzzles to rival those of his hero, John Dickson Carr. 

Paul Halter
French publisher Le Masque published three omnibuses of Halter’s works, and each omnibus contains a preface. I was particularly fascinated by the introduction to Volume 1, which is an interview between Roland Lacourbe and Paul Halter. It had plenty of interesting information on Halter and his approach to mystery-writing, and I thought to myself “Wouldn’t it be great to get this interview translated?” However, I didn’t act on this right away because I didn’t want to inadvertently get myself into any legal trouble. 

However, the thought persisted, and eventually I was able to get in touch with M. Roland Lacourbe via e-mail, who most graciously gave me permission to proceed with the translation. I'm indebted to John Dickson Carr biographer Douglas G. Greene for making this possible. I would like to thank M. Roland Lacourbe for his kindness and the support he's shown throughout the project. I would also like to thank those who took a look at this translation and gave me helpful suggestions on improvements, particularly Barry Ergang, Xavier Lechard, and John Pugmire. Finally, another set of thanks goes out to Xavier Lechard, who helped me with footnotes about figures who will likely be unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. 

***

Paul Halter, what was your first exposure to the mystery novel?

Agatha Christie.

There was nothing before that?

Well, yes; books for children. Enyd Blyton and the “Michel” series written by Georges Bayard[1]: Michel and the Bric-à-Brac Traders, Michel versus Mr. X… Some adventure stories, which always had a guilty party to discover. Also Ric Hochet.[2] Establishing a chronology would be difficult, but if I had to define an image, it would be the mask, the lowered fedora, Mr. X acting in the shadows and whose identity must be discovered… with three or four possible suspects.

Roland Lacourbe

Enyd Blyton is also about the mystery, the haunted house, the forbidden place…

Yes, and the cave... I also read The Mystery of the Yellow Room early on, but I actually first read a comic book adaptation: well made, faithful, and well-drawn. I no longer recall at what age, but it’s something that impressed me. The puzzle! But I wasn’t yet conscious that it was this aspect in particular which pleased me: the Impossible, the locked room. It was when I was reading one particular preface to He Who Whispers that I discovered an author who specialised in this particular genre. And then I realised that this is what I’d loved all along. But that was a lot later…

Agatha Christie
Before, then, there was Agatha Christie?

My tastes developed without my really realising it. Agatha Christie was quality fiction, which I’d always appreciated. On top of that, there was a very English feeling to her work; well, at least the kind that the French imagine! That quietness, those gardens, an atmosphere suitable for crime… though not murder-for-hire carried out by a hit man! And there were also a few locked-room mysteries. For me, The Sittaford Mystery is a locked room mystery. Maybe not in its classically recognized form, but it contains an absolute impossibility: a person who could not have been at the scene of the crime because he/she was too far away! Another is Murder in Mesopotamia which has another attraction: archaeological digs. Those two novels particularly captivated me.

Which Christies do you think are the best?

I’ve read all of Agatha Christie, and re-read them, and re-re-read them! Maybe not all the short stories, but certainly all the novels. My favourites? Evil Under the Sun, which is based on a brilliantly engineered alibi. It may seem a bit flimsy now, but at the time, it held up! Death Comes as the End, which takes place in ancient times: it’s baffling, but the Egyptians are very much Agatha Christie characters. Apart from the time period, they react and act the same way as the modern English.

It’s almost English society: the only thing missing is the tea!

Yes. And also Towards Zero. Agatha Christie has the gift of beguiling her readers, of leading them astray. Carr does this as well but in a different way.

Which is to say? What differentiates them?

With Christie, you learn to guess where she wants to go, her deep intentions, by asking the simple question: “Who would make the most interesting culprit?” And you figure that out after ten books.

Also the least likely suspect? The one who couldn’t possibly have committed the crime.

Yes. It’s a bit too rigid a generalisation, but it holds up: the most interesting suspect, the one most likely to give the reader a pleasurable shudder at the end of the story. The biggest surprise. This observation holds for the majority of her books.

And after Agatha Christie?

A period of James Hadley Chase.

James Hadley Chase
Ah? That’s surprising! For what reasons?

The captivating nature of his books. No philosophical aspects, just action. It’s admirably constructed. His stories grab your attention. His is an exceptional storytelling talent. And then there are the unsound minds: you often find yourself in the murderer’s head. (But he was not the originator of this idea.) Afterwards… well, I was rather disappointed when I no longer had any Agatha Christies to discover. I was around 16-17 years old. I stayed away from the detective story for a while…

At 16-17 years of age, you had already read all of Agatha Christie?

Virtually, yes. I read her all in one sustained burst. I had started at twelve and even before that. But I was well-prepared: my mother was one of her great admirers and she often talked about her with my sister. My sister read the book to which my mother already knew the solution. And when you are reading a book, you always try to squeeze information out of those who have already read it. You don’t want to know everything, but some details here and there would be welcome! And I followed these discussions with a passionate interest. But there was an absolute ban on revealing the trick! So I was well-prepared, very excited. And so I started my first: The Sittaford Mystery. And I was really taken with its ingenuity! Next, I read The Secret Adversary. There again, I don’t know if you recall, is the discovery of a genuinely surprising culprit. I remember feeling extremely terrified at the end of the book, at thirteen years… This very close and sympathetic character who is ultimately unmasked as the enemy… That is terrifying: the mask drops! Afterwards, The Seven Dials Mystery. Again a good tale. Nowadays, it would undoubtedly seem rather dull to me. Yet I reread it regularly, and sometimes still with much pleasure.

Edgar Allan Poe
And classics of the old school like Edgar Allan Poe?

No, I didn’t know him. It was adults who’d tell me about him and his horrific stories. The Masque of the Red Death, and those people who were invited to a masquerade in a palace with rooms of different colours where some horrifying things happened! This too was very exciting, but it was nonetheless not as accessible. At 11-12 years, you don’t understand everything straight out.

And Murders in the Rue Morgue?

Ah, yes, of course! But I recall that the ending left me disappointed. There was of course the angle of old Paris, the horrible crimes, the weak women killed by a monster. But the solution is very average.

And it strays from the detective story so much that it approaches fantasy.

Yes. At the end of the day, I believe that I preferred The Gold Bug.

That’s understandable. It’s the one that is the clearest precursor to the detective story, along with The Purloined Letter. And Conan Doyle?

Ah! I also read him at around 14 years of age. The setting and the atmosphere in which I’ve revelled for so many years now… I have trouble placing my finger on a single image, something characteristic… Yes! The Boscombe Valley Mystery. That story of a character who returns from South Africa… Though there’s nothing extraordinary about it, it’s all about the atmosphere. Very intriguing. And The Speckled Band. But that’s more well-known. Ah! The Red-Headed League! There, the introduction of the puzzle is fantastic! A bizarre situation. Ultimately, I did quite a bit of reading. And I’m forgetting Henri Vernes’ Bob Morane[3]. In those days, I had already read about three-quarters of his work. The Temple of the Crocodiles, On The Trail of Fawcett… All this was linked: adventure and the detective story.

The cover of issue #271 of Mystère Magazine (see footnote)
And finally, John Dickson Carr. All simply because you could no longer find much that answered what you wished for?

Indeed, but I discovered him completely by accident! When I finished Agatha Christie, I could no longer find anything. There weren’t many books of the genre available at the time. It was while walking through a bookstore that I found He Who Whispers and Till Death Do Us Part, practically together. While reading the back cover, I suddenly realised that he was a specialised author. Nevertheless, I reserved my judgement. I wanted to see whether the content attained the heights of the plot summary. The first was He Who Whispers. What a discovery! Professor Rigaud’s vision on the tower… And Carr who was the author of 70 other novels! But nothing else was available in France… Panic! And then, as if in a novel, I stumbled upon something while digging through a dusty old used bookstore: the famous issue #271 of Mystère Magazine which had an article on Carr even more laudatory than the back covers of NÉO. But you know of it of course?[4]

Yes, I heard something about it…

It was complete panic! But while I enquired in traditional bookstores, which did not have these titles anymore, I nonetheless managed to find The Burning Court in the same used bookstore.

A good trilogy to start with.

Yes. But afterward, how to find the others? There was a specialised bookstore in Paris, “L’introuvable”, which sold them at high prices. But in the end, I was willing to pay this price to discover The Reader is Warned, The Red Widow Murders, The Plague Court Murders… With a few rare exceptions, they were the best Carrs, like The Three Coffins or The Arabian Nights Murder. With The Black Spectacles, The Crooked Hinge, Nine—and Death Makes Ten

John Dickson Carr
So, in comparison with your other reading, Carr is the summit? For the moment, what you found to be the best — what most satisfied your cravings?

Yes. When I stumble across an unpublished text of his, be it a novel or a radio play (because we’ve read all the novels except certain historicals which have not yet appeared in France), he’s the only one who can surprise me still today. And in the detective story, that becomes rare! For that matter, I read rather little nowadays. Sometimes some Sherlock Holmes parodies, interesting in some aspects, but the puzzle itself is always lacking depth.

That leaves the tour de force.

Yes the tour de force and atmosphere. All that has disappeared from the contemporary novel.

So what are, for you, the essential qualities of John Dickson Carr?

First and foremost, my favourite is the mix of fantastical atmosphere and the impossible crime. The fantastical, of course, essentially being something impossible. And there are plenty of secondary aspects. His art of distracting the reader, for example. He’s very clever, very strong. There’s a technical word to describe this…

Misdirection.

Yes. This aptitude of his is widely recognized. There’s also the interesting historical aspect, excluding the last ones which are in some ways full-fledged historicals. In his best novels, there’s some old murder case which adds a real dimension…

Yes, and then it is repeated in the present.

Yes, and this throws the reader’s mind into confusion. For example, Maelzel’s chess automaton in The Crooked Hinge. Always his favourite themes. I don't know if there’s another author who did this in such a systematic way. And his openings are always fabulous and flawless. The best in this regard—and I’m not the only one who thinks so—is The Three Coffins: the discussion in the back room of the pub, the magician’s intervention as he talks about his brother, stronger than he… he is dead “but if he calls on you…” Right there that is really puzzling! But there are others… Till Death Do Us Part. There, also, it’s remarkable: the consultation in the tent, the fortune-teller, the shadow on the canvas, the girl who fires a gun and who has supposedly killed three husbands in locked rooms.

Yes, she is shown as the frail heroine. She is on the point of marrying the main character… And at the end of the second chapter, we learn she is a poisoner!

Ultimately, it’s Carr who gave me my greatest literary pleasure. I think we’re in agreement there?

Absolutely… And what do you think about the characters in Carr? Are they well portrayed? Does he make them come alive—compared to Agatha Christie, for example?

It’s different. With Carr, there are often weaknesses. He must describe the character swiftly and well. I have the impression that Agatha Christie is more subtle in this regard. I visualised the major from India very well — although I never knew one! There was always the old lady who hangs around the village… In short, I distinguished them well. After some analysis, I began to see how she described them. She paints her characters with small touches. She doesn’t dwell on them. But she always has the right words.

Yes, she’s subtler than Carr in this respect.

Exactly. He sometimes delays—not always—but when it’s not successful, this quickly becomes long and boring.

We’re in agreement. I think it’s Carr’s greatest weakness. I don’t think he creates flesh-and-blood characters that have psychological depth. They’re always silhouettes.

Yes, the keen occultists, the eccentrics… Those characters always succeed because they interest us, as we love the bizarre. But there are some secondary protagonists who don’t make the grade. In fact, it’s tough to portray characters. I’ve had the same sort of problem in my books . A young girl of twenty, how to distinguish her from others? They all resemble each other a bit: impulsive, eager to know everything they can…

And his detectives?

That’s different. They are successes! Let’s forget Bencolin, the Mephistophelian caricature of the French investigator… No, I far prefer Sir Henry Merrivale or Dr. Gideon Fell. H. M. is certainly the better portrayed, more worked-out, more accomplished. He’s been in politics, a lot of things, he has a career. Fell, he’s just there… Sometimes, it’s possible to interchange them. It’s true; Fell is less fleshed out than H. M., except for his first appearance, in Hag’s Nook. He’s a lexicographer. He has a wife whom we seldom hear speak of again, nor will we hear any more about his profession. H. M. is more detailed, more comic, more farcical, but I have a particular soft spot for Fell, with his canes, his hat, his triple chin and his “harrumph”: he is bizarre with his cape and his appearance, he’s perfect for a ghost story. For me, although they’re very similar, he’s THE detective.

Either way, the character is a bit transparent.

I admit it. But I don’t know, it might be linked to the stories. You know, the first one I read was He Who Whispers. Again, I can see Fell’s shadow moving. With his cape, he jumps out. I also like how he always has some irritating remarks for the reader: “I understood from the beginning…”, “But you don’t see what goes on under your nose…” “Use your eyes and not your brain…” “Forget your prejudices…”

Yes. “One hour after arriving here, I already knew the criminal’s name!” There’s nothing more irritating for a reader who is mad at themselves for still not having arrived at the answer…

Yes, in this domain, he’s particularly talkative. I don’t know if he’s more irritating than H. M. but still…

Maybe he’s more irritating because he’s more pontifical. Meanwhile, we can’t take H. M. seriously.

H. M. has a bit of a military side. Eccentric. He’s rotund, he stamps his feet. He’s scatterbrained. But Fell is more bizarre.

There’s more mystery surrounding Fell than H. M. Maybe it’s because we have no idea of his past history. We don’t know what he’s actually done. We don’t even know how he earns his living. But Fell and Merrivale are equals. Once you get onto the subject of secret societies in 17th century Italy, there we go! Both become inexhaustible sources of information.

And, besides, they’re somewhat like Carr, I think: they are anti-conventional while being convention itself. Do you see what I mean? They knock about ideas they’ve received and taboo subjects, but…

…and yet they are typical investigators.


[1] Georges Bayard (1918-2004); author of the “Michel” series of books that are primarily aimed at a younger audience. The star of the series is 15-year-old Michel Thérais, resourceful and courageous, getting himself into adventure after adventure.

[2] Ric Hochet is the main star of a comic book series named after him. He’s a journalist, and the character is inspired by Joseph Rouletabille from Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room. The creators are André-Paul Duchâteau and Tibet. 78 books were published between 1964 and 2010.

[3] Bob Morane is a highly popular hero of adventure stories in Belgium and France. He was created in 1953 by Belgian author Henri Vernes. You might call him the French equivalent of Doc Savage and James Bond put together. He’s had numerous adventures (over 200 books published to date) which have been part of not only spy fiction, but also science fiction and fantasy.

[4] Mystère Magazine is the French edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Number 271 includes an article by Roland Lacourbe titled “Le Monde fantastique de John Dickson Carr” (The Fantastical World of John Dickson Carr), which had considerable success, reviving interest in the Master of the Locked Room among classic crime aficionados. This led to a considerable amount of publishing— at the time the article was written (September 1970), half of Carr’s books were not yet translated into French! The cover of #271, by Tibor Csernus, illustrates the John Dickson Carr short story The Gentleman from Paris (1950), which, curiously, was not in the issue but had been published twice previously: in Issue 265 (March 1970) and all the way back in Issue 69 (October 1953) under the title of Le Testament perdu (The Lost Will).
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Comments

  • pharmmajor
    pharmmajor Saturday, 26 November 2011

    Excellent interview, Patrick. I hope this will help expose more people to Halter and encourage them to check out his work. It was also neat to learn his opinions on his inspirations like Carr and Christie.

  • patrick_o
    patrick_o Sunday, 27 November 2011

    Thank you for commenting-- the reader reactions have been great thus far. I didn't dare anticipate such unanimous support for my work. It's such a rewarding feeling. :)

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