Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paul Halter: A 139 Pas de la Mort, 1994

Roland Lacourbe, years ago, talking, labeled  A 139 pas de la mort  by Paul Halter as one of the minor works of the Alsatian writer. I, while recognizing the indisputable authority of  Lacourbe, take a different view: for me, this is one of the best work, a true masterpiece.
On what basis do these statements?
The novel is a true anthology of bizarre situations, strange. The story is developed on the basis of a plot which seem outlandish and gruesome, most can not. In many novels Halter, are macabre scenes, probably a legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. And, in our case, the "macabre" abounds.
But Halter is also a mannerist. Besides, it could not be so: after Carr (and Rawson) the rest of the novelists who followed in their footsteps, ended invariably to repeat their inventions, only presenting them differently. But even if Mannerist Halter has the major advantage is a novelist born with an overflowing imagination and delusional.
He can merge two situations, which at first sight are absolutely unrelated, in a plot which, while not being able to make people forget Carr (it's still a Mannerist) at least impresses the imagination that brings into play.
In one night, Neville Richardson, private detective, comes across a beautiful girl who is scared of someone or something. Decides to follow the pick and soon after talking to a guy. From a distance, can not be identified except for one thing that makes him shudder: a voice and a hoarse and shrill laughter. Boarded the girl, and posing like that guy (collar up and trying not to see the face), is able to know that something should happen on April 16. And this is related to a move that has seen him do, in the dialogue between the individual and the girl, a fist with the thumb up. And then the cryptic phrase: "On the 16th, at 21, above the door at the bottom of the bird." What do you mean never?
The action moves elsewhere. Such Paxton reveals Inspector Hurst and criminologist and detective in his spare time Alan Twist, that such a hired him to do something completely meaningless: wearing clothes and shoes, made
​​available to him (and only those: he can not wear others, for example their own), have to walk all day to deliver the mail, from one place to another, always the same: to deliver an envelope, and deliver the clothes, and then the next day pick up from there another envelope and bring it to his employer, re-wearing the same clothes: always and only two envelopes, always the same clothes .. But the great thing is - and is anticipated to own Twist in the revelation - that there is nothing inside the envelopes.
What does this strange occupation, with what is narrated above? The fact that the mysterious businessman who hired him for something seemingly meaningless, has a voice hoarse and shrill.
Because of the jewels are stolen, someone thinks of a traffic precious concealed in the heel of the shoes that invariably wear out, since the courier involuntary moves always in the same places.
Meanwhile, the scene shifts to a small village half an hour away from London lives here an ex-cop with his niece. While he is looking for her, finds an abandoned house and laying in ruins, first belonged to an old eccentric, a Fiddymont. It is said that an aura of mystery hovering over the house.
On April 16, arrives and meanwhile you have not figured out yet what that mysterious gesture with his hand. Or rather, you arrive late, in that day: "The Bird in Hand" is the name of a pub near the Covenant Garden. In the attic of the building where the restaurant is found, a man is found slain: he is the messenger which has been talked about before: Paxton.
Why was he killed?
Meanwhile, someone alert the police, the man with the squeaky voice, that "someone" was seen wandering near the home of the deceased Fiddimont. Here is what connects the two parts: the man with the squeaky voice. A coincidence? Twist and Hurst do not believe. And go to this abandoned house, whose front door is locked from the inside. Got into the house, it is a nightmare scenario: in a room, closed to the outside on a chair placed between the window and the fireplace, found the corpse of the old Fiddimont, still dirty from the ground, five years old . How did he end up there, if there are footprints on the floor covered with dust? And how is it that the house was locked from the inside in turn, as if the old Fiddymont had risen from the grave and there he had gone? A bit of time before, someone had talked about noises and voices from the tomb of old, and the earth itself had appeared moved. Obviously, recovered the coffin, buried deep in the earth in short, it will be empty. The thing is that, inside the house, no matter what has occurred, it witnessed countless witnesses: dozens of pairs of shoes, of all shapes, sizes, colors, male and female, aligned to each other a side by side, on the ground, covered with dust. And the dust inside the house reigns supreme, even as it is on the floor.
What does Fiddymont link to mysterious individual with shrill voice?
It has its own importance in the story of the disappearance of a piece of eaves of the house?
The fact is that very soon, a new murder occurs: Professor Lynch is killed, married to Emma Lynch, heir of the old Fiddymont. He is found in another abandoned house, this time near Covenat Garden: but how many abandoned houses! And next to the corpse, always old shoes.
It's up to nail a Twist evil murderess, not before they killed the old cop Winslow, a friend of Twist and Hurst, who participated with their investigations, and who lives in the village. Why?
The novel is a portentous "divertissement".
It is full of red herrings (starting with the first murder, another red herring is that of shoes. But then why the old Fiddymont wanted them to stay in his house, that amount? There’s also, the red herring of the desecration of the grave of the old , the unearthing of his body, and his ostentatious house in a hermetically sealed from the inside), false clues (the high-pitched voice), real clues (the adulterous relationships that four people have woven together, and the piece of gutter disappeared).
The novel is full of false suspects and perpetrators of covert, manipulators and manipulated: theft are important, but not a reason or a motive nor murderers. Halter in this, it seems to me that you mention "The Siamese Twins Mystery" by Ellery Queen, but reversing the situation. Those who know the novel by Ellery Queen, knows what I am talking about when I talk about theft. There, the murderer is the thief, not here. But the motive of the murder is the same masked. And just as there, even here the murderer tries to blame those who had nothing to do. A series of coincidences that seem to me very little chance to not be remembered.
Halter's novel is full of quotations from the novels of other great mystery writers, as often happens in his case: intentional and known quotations (He Would Not Kill Patience by Carter Dickson / John Dickson Carr), but also scrolls and unmanifested ( The Siamese Twins Mystery by Ellery Queen). Another quote is The Adventure of the Red-Headed League from "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" by Conan Doyle (refers to Paxton, taken for a purpose unknown to him, which in this case is also connected to his assassination).
Here I emphasize, one of the common features in the novels of Halter: the fact that often in his novels victims are at the center of machinations, but also that the same killers end up being the victims of events that occur without their knowledge (an another example is in "La lettre qui tue"). In our case, the killer who had premeditated the perfect crime is discovered only because a third person, outside the circle of people in which the killer operates, having suspected that a person is in danger, he causes the police operation.
How? Just read the book!
Finally, in addition to the double impossibility (door locked from the inside, with corpse dug up and seated on a chair, without any footprints on the floor covered uniformly by powder), the interesting thing of this novel is a "Locked-Room Lecture" , inserted in Chapter 42 (which enriches the novel, and differentiates it from others he has written), which stands as a Halter tribute to Carr and Rawson, both cited two examples: the second, those strips of gummed paper draws From Another World  by Clayton Rawson).
But the shoes? What about them? It will be the final, a final jaw-dropping, which has the flavor of a melancholy tale, to explain its significance. Especially in light of the attitudes "of madness" attributed to the old Fiddymont, that he was not mad but instead of that childhood nostalgia that had not.

Pietro De Palma

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