Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Paul Halter : Death Invites You (La mort vous invite, 1988)

Before 2003, I did not know the works by Paul Halter. But in that year I met Igor Longo,  consultant of  Giallo Mondadori”. It happened by chance: I asked the editor of those years, that could give me directions on how to find Mondadori novels who could contain Locked Rooms, because they were always my cue ball. He passed the word to Igor Longo, who answered me - I have to say enthusiastically - as he had found another type set about the Locked Rooms (Igor participated in the meeting a few years ago - directed by Roland Lacourbe which also participated John Pugmire - aims to choose the 99 best Locked Rooms in the history of the Mystery (novels of English-speaking and French-speaking novels). And so began a correspondence which became friendship correspondence: Igor among other authors, urged me to read Paul Halter (Igor Longo is his italian translator) which he said was the most important contemporary author of impossible crimes and locked rooms. I took him in word, and so .. I started to collect the Halter novels.
Death Invites You (La mort vous invite, 1988)  is a novel that has enjoyed until the beginning by a great success (especially in France) also on the basis of a television drama that was taken from it.
Harold Vickers is a successful writer of detective novels, but by bit of time the sales trend is declining, so he decides to write a novel with which plans to reverse the descent of likings: it will be a
phenomenal Locked Room.
He lives alone in a villa in St. Richard's Wood, with his wife Dane, with brother-in-law Roger Sharpe illusionist a with his daughters Valerie and Henrietta; Valerie is engaged to a police sergeant, Simon Cunningham.
One evening Simon comes to Vickers home: he was invited to dinner by the landlord, but no one knows anything of the occurrence. Another was invited to dinner: Fred Springer, critic of detective novels. For more Valerie who had to go to the theater with Simon was angry because she thought that Simon would have preferred another woman.
They are going to call the landlord, but he does not answer: he said to at that day not to disturb him for no reason. Knocking on the door, screaming, both don’t get any response. They turn around  the house: through taxes, they see the room illuminated. The butler gets a key from another port, since the locks of the house are all equal, Simon uses it to open, but it idles. It means that Harold put the bolt, so .. they decide to break the door down, which gives after a shoulder. The scene which presented itself to the eyes of those present is horrifying: on a laid table, is placed a pan with hot oil in which the flesh is sizzling: in this plan are immersed the face and hands of the writer, burned to the point of prevent a formal recognition. The death was due to a gunshot wound to the head. To witness the immediacy of death is the fact that two chickens still sizzl and smoke on the table, at the center of which towers a triumph of pheasants, near the pulses passed through with the shallot and bacon.
Near the window there’s a glass half full of water and two gloves. And of course no one is in the room: windows are closed and there’s no other passage to the outside, secret or not, and yet the chimney has a grating, small enough to allow the passage of only small animals. His wife fainted on the threshold, and immediately they call the police and so Archibald Hurst Inspector of Police, and Alan Twist criminologist, who are playing chess at home in the first, are thrown into another adventure absurd.
Right from the start you know that the death was not sudden, but it took some time before, at least 24 hours, and that the writer had a twin brother who lived in Australia. The question who begins to emerge little by little is that the burned face is intended to prevent the recognition: want to see that it is not Harold but Stephen Vickers, rich as much if not more than the brother writer?
The first thing to check is the teeth, but in this case it is useless: Vickers boasted of his healthy teeth and he never went to the dentist for this reason. At the morgue, before a show so painful, one of the daughters remembers something that happened the year before: his father was wounded in the leg and was left a little scar. She remembered because the wound initially had been slow to heal. So he is Harold..seems. 
Meanwhile, we learn about a curse: Harold's father had died by heart failure and its causes were to be found in the fact he did not appreciate the genre of fiction practiced by his son. One of the two daughters, Henrietta, who hated his father because, in turn, he didn’t appreciate her talent as a painter, evokes the presence of his grandfather. One night, Simon Cunningham sees a shadow in the cemetery: he says that seemed an old man, who wandered with on dirty rags in the direction of the old cemetery that is adjacent to the house: it is presence or hallucination?:
The fact is that just when you think that the identification has been well-founded, check out from autopsy that the deceased had two teeth implanted: then it is not Harold but Stephen? Where is Harold? Did he kill his brother?
Soon other unforeseen events occur. Twist realizes the pants of his friend are stained with the blood: where else may he to have soiled his pants?  Maybe when he kicked the rags in the street? When they find a piece of cloth stained with fresh blood, Twist has a premonition and they head home, where at her room they find Henriette slaughtered. At this point, they go to the cemetery, and they find the grave of his grandfather, although they can smell a strange odor, the smell of death. Hurst realizes that behind the tombstone, there is another corpse, old of few days: even if the features are distorted and he smells a lot,he  is undoubtedly the twin brother. They want to know why Vickers was so often to find Colin Hubbard, his neighbor? After the visit, and after having given a copy of the first detective novel by Gaston Leroux, they know about a crime took place fifty years ago, in which several of the details are the same as those found at the scene of Vickers: the cup half full of water and a pair of gloves on the ground, near the window, fact who had been witness Hubbard himself. 

Under the Dane Vickers mattress are found the tools used for the staging of the death of her husband, and among these two his hairs. This is enough (in addition to her severe psychiatric conditions, to converge on her the Inspector’s allegations.
But it is not over, because Alan Twist with a quick about-face turns over the cards and he nails the authentic murderer.
First and foremost, this novel is that of smells: the scent of fried chicken, vegetables, stench of corpses, pungent smell of fresh paint , the smell of fresh paint in the color of which the murderer has anointed the lock after having unscrewed and tampered. Many perfumes, too many of them so as not to remember other.
At first when I started reading the Halter, I noticed right away (and I said to Igor) of that long string of citations present in the novels by the Alsatian writer: Igor justified it with the love of Paul Halter to Agatha Christie and especially to John Dickson Carr.
To date I would say even more: while accepting that version, I would incline for another that does not necessarily eliminate the first but integrate her: the volume of citations is too important because it is made only by quotations. 

Quotations may be unconscious and conscious: I would say that too many times, in hindsight, seem aware of it. It’s as if the writer, having to write a new novel, resorted to the inventions of other writers. The point is that to understand the scope of the quotes, you have to be too a great reader as he is, and then automatically, there are many people who don’t understand the mechanism.
Of course, this does not mean that elsewhere, ie in other novels, the scope of the citations could not be less important or even not be there. For example,
Red Mist (Le Brouillard Rouge 1988), which I still consider today if not the masterpiece by Halter, at least one of his masterpieces, reveals an evocative power of imagination and writing so addictive you do not need any gimmicks and quotes: if you will, in that novel, the least important thing is just the Locked Room, which then does not serve the novel, but it was just a gimmick!
In this novel, quotes abound citations: to his novels (Red Mist, in fact: it is spoken in the beginning, but there is another more direct reference at a certain point in the novel: in both novels the murderer has to do with the paint, each of a different substance.
03lamortvousinviteitalie.jpgA characteristic of novels Halter is that some novels contain parts already used in other novels, so far I have distinguished at least three pairs (but could be more): the paint into Death Invites You and Red Mist, the bags with pieces of dismembered women in the Tiger's Head (La Tete du Tigre 1991) and the Bloody Match (the L'Allumette Sanglante, 2001), the cup full of water, in The Madman's Room (La Chambre du Fou, 1990) and Death Invites You, etc. etc.
The staging of the crime so imaginative and culinary (exclusive, I would say, among all the novels read so far) calls Arabian Nights Murder by John Dickson Carr: there the dead is dressed in a cylinder, a coat, has a false beard and nearby is a recipe book kitchen.
But at the same time, the fact that invokes a crime took place fifty years ago (mind you, fifty years, not forty or sixty!) calls a radio play by Ellery Queen, The Disappearance of Mr. James Phillimore, where an event happened fifty years first, occurs exactly fifty years later.
But there is also a reference to Gaston Leroux. 
And then .. the scar in his leg: what do we think? The strawberry-shaped birthmark on Brad’s thigh, in The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen: could also refer to the fact that the corpse as that of Brad Vickers and his brothers can not otherwise be identified: here the features are burned, as if he had no face, there just the head misses.
But there may be another meaning of citations, in addition to the one connected with the memory of the great writers of the past: it could also be a game, a challenge, whom the author throws to his readers . Ellery Queen did not behave in the same way in his first novels?
Ellery Queen left clues to the reader and they were ordered in the right way to come to rival the author: may Halter disseminate quotes, who properly interpreted can reveal the identity of the killer? The most direct quotes here are to Red Mist and to
Le Mystère de la chambre jaune by Gaston Leroux. But there is also another significant quote: the cup full of water, is related to another novel Halter, The Madman's Room at which is just a glass full of water. This is another characteristic of the novels of Halter: being coupled two by two on the basis of specific clues.
Halter proposes two solutions: the first is given by Hurst who accuse a false killer, the second by Twist who instead identifies the murderer. But it should be said at once, Hurst identifies already half solution: he understands how the door could have been made ​​up to look like closed, but it was not entirely. In this case, the link is to The Hangman's Handyman by Hake Talbot: it is evident that he must have had considerable influence on Halter as many ideas of the original novel can be found not only in the novel that I'm analyzing but also in others, such as The Madman's Room. The difference between the two solutions is given by the name of killer, substantially; in addition to the solution given by Hurst, Twist will explain other things, including, for example, where the corpse of his brother might have been concealed without the stench of decomposition was felt by anyone.
However, the thing that I like most of Halter is its tendency to describe situations or descriptions macabre: the "macabre" which is one of the peculiar characteristics of the French writer, is taken to the extreme in some novels: for example in which there is a lot of “macabre”, The Madman's Room or 139 Steps from Death.
Connected to this trend macabre Halterian narratives, is the last quote I found: the rotting corpse of his twin brother, reminds us again The Hangman's Handyman by Hake Talbot. Not only. There is another quote I do not know whether conscious or unconscious: the corpse hidden and then revealed, here is designed to make impossible the recognition of the corpse. In fact if the corpse is decomposing it will be problematic. In the first novel by Abbott, About the Murder of Geraldine Foster, the corpse is hidden, then later revealed, intact, so that the time of death may be delayed. The effect is the opposite, the medium is the same: the body is concealed, and in both cases the odors are doing their part: in the case of Abbott,  the smell of pine shall turn to the identification of the substance in which it was immersed body, ie the tannic acid; in the case of Halter,  the pungent smell of the paint he has sniffed at certain point in the novel, Twist will understand how and where the body may have been concealed. In both cases the smell of the substance leads to locate the murderer. 
In conclusion, Death Invites You is a good novel, replete with quotations, who has a great atmosphere (Halter is a master of atmosphere, as Carr), and grips the novel from beginning to end.  

Pietro De Palma         


  1. Thanks very much Piero for the detailed review of this clearly very aromatic and spicy book - and I am sure you are right about the influences (I haven only read Talbot's RIM OF THE PUT so far however) and there is certainly somewthing inevitably Queenian about offering two solutions. I think it is impossible to write this kind of story, and set it in period, without wanting to make various hommages to your favourite books and authors - Halter's is clearly an act of love and devotion but it is rare to be able to succeed in your own right so that is definitely something to be grateful for.


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  3. If I can find a copy of that book by Hake Talbot, in Italian language, I send it you. However, before, or if you want, after, you can read my article published on this blog at the following link:


    1. No need Piero, thanks, I have a copy in English but just haven't read it yet!