Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview with Curtis Evans about his essay Masters of the"Humdrum" Mystery.

The last year the publisher McFarland has published Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery by Curtis Evans, an essay who focuses on three masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (Crofts, Rhode, Connington). Certain authors, of the '20s-'30s, were called by Julian Symons in his essay about detective fiction "Bloody Murder", "humdrums." Basically Symons abhorred some authors whose many years before he had been a fan, for their insistence in dealing exhaustively detail the plot running out the puzzle and the detection, without regard to outline the characters psychologically or without to linger about the descriptions.
For the first time, an indipendent scholar tries to lift the heavy curtain lowered by Simons and outlines a rediscovery of some of these "humdrums writers", also speaking at length about the evolution of Detection Novel 1920-1961.
These three authors, in some ways, were masters of crime fiction, more than the '30s, the '20s. In particular Rhode, who despite being the author of the '30s, seems be more author of the twenties than he seems at first sight. In particular, his tendency to dwell on crimes committed with diabolical gadgets, a characteristic that takes us back in time, and that can also be explained by the fact that Rhode had been formerly a military.
Moreover, in his essay mentioned above, Simons was rather laconic in speaking about these authors (also included Walling, Wade and Cole), and only Croft had been sufficiently outlined.
Curt, in love with this historical period of Novel Detection, widely tries to clear the three principal authors of this hypothetical subgroup, speaking at length about their works. The essay analyzes but also the British Novel in its evolution.
In short, a sample of which it has been discussed not much, a sign of how the essay by Simons has influenced the criticism of the crime fiction sector, an essay who would deserve, for its rigor, for the profusion of details and for its quality of writing, much more attention.

1) Curt, can you tell us something about yourself? Title of study, work, family. Your passion, mystery: how did it start?

I received my Ph.D. in history back in 1998 and taught American history for a short time.  I’m now what they call an “independent scholar,” but I try to write in a way to reach both academics and the mystery fan community.  So often it seems like these two groups don’t really talk to each other.

My Ph.D. is in American history, with my chief interest the nineteenth-century American South.  But I always have been a great fan of mystery fiction, even since I read Agatha Christie and the Sherlock Holmes tales in grade school back in the 1970s.  I got my first Agatha Christie books off the paperback racks at Sanborns department store in Mexico City: And Then There Were None, Easy to Kill (Murder Is Easy) and Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral).  They were 95 cent paperbacks, or 14 pesos (or about $1.12).  They were my introduction to the mystery genre, outside of the Scooby Doo cartoons!  A few years later I read Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which had just been published in paperback, and soon afterward all the Arthur Conan Doyle tales about Sherlock Holmes.  By the time I had finished high school in the 1980s, I probably had read two-thirds of the Agatha Christie mysteries.  Towards Zero was the last one I read in high school, I recall. 

In the 1990s, while I was in graduate school, I became acquainted with the works of other great British Golden Age detective novelists besides the renowned Crime Queens, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh.  These included the so-called “Humdums,” of course, but also John Dickson Carr, about whom my friend Doug Greene had written a fantastic biography, and Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, R. Austin Freeman, Henry Wade, Clifford Witting, Anthony Berkeley, Christianna Brand, Elizabeth Ferrars, etc.  I loved Carr, but I also was intrigued by the Humdrums, especially John Street, because Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor wrote so highly of him in that massive tome of theirs, A Catalogue of Crime.

With the rise of internet commerce, I was able to track down a great number of these English authors, doing buying and selling myself.  I felt uniquely placed to write about them in a serious way.  Academic criticism tends to focus almost exclusively, when it come to the Golden Age of mystery fiction, on the Crime Queens in England and hard-boiled writers in the United States. I combined book dealing with researching and after a number of years was able to produce Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, my study of Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington.  It was published last year.

Since 2000 I also have read much more American mystery: Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and less known writers like Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick, Fredric Brown, Helen McCloy and Rufus King.  People have this idea American mystery in the 1930s was all hard-boiled, which is so far from the truth.

2) You have a beautiful blog, Curt. I noticed that almost never talk about Hardboiled, but preferentially about Mystery. I wonder how you manage to set your articles: where are the sources and photographs, often absolutely unprecedented?

Thank you.  It’s fun to do a  blog and one naturally does take a certain pride in it.  My preference if for what is termed classical mystery though I in fact do like hard-boiled.  I like Hammett’s short stories especially and I think Chandler certainly is one of the very greatest crime genre stylists.  In a few of his books, he’s also an underrated puzzler.  Ross Macdonald is very interesting too, to mention the other member of the great triumvirate.  Macdonald’s The Ferguson Affair was one of the best books I read last year, as I wrote on the blog.  I hate this idea that classical mystery and hard-boiled are necessarily in opposition to each other.  It’s perfectly possible to like both!  Just ask Bill Pronzini.

I have accumulated a collection of mystery material: books articles, interviews, etc.  In my view primary research in this field is just as important as it is in the history of the American South, for example, and I approach the subject of mystery genre writing the same way I did my Ph.D. dissertation.  Too many academic studies, in my opinion, are too little interested in the facts on the ground.  I’m interested in theory too, but I have a passion for research in original sources.  Good research in primary source material should inform the theory. 

3) Before writing the book, did you write other book (yet published)?

My Ph.D. revised dissertation was published, in 2001.  It’s called The Conquest of Labor: Daniel Pratt and Southern Industrialization.  It won the Bennett H. Wall Award from the Southern Historical Association.  Unfortunately Masters of the Humdrum Mystery was passed over by the Mystery Writers of America, which was a great disappointment to me.  Of course Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes are hotter subjects, no doubt.  And it’s simply hard to break through a hardened mindset with new ideas.

4) You never wrote stories or novels or plays, with subject detective? Or did you write only critical works?

When I was writing my dissertation I kept thinking how it might make a great mystery.  Daniel Pratt founded the factory town of Prattville, Alabama back in the 1830s, and there was a family crisis when his daughter and heiress eloped during the Civil War with a young man named Henry DeBardeleben (he was later important in the development of Birmingham, Alabama).  I imagined this as the basis for, say, a book called The Cotton Mill Murder!  Sadly, I just don’t believe my creative ability runs to fiction writing.

5) Let's talk about your book. You have treated the “Humdrum Mystery”: tell us something about it?

It’s a study of three once popular but today unjustly neglected, in my opinion, British Golden Age detective novelists: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart (J. J. Connington).  Besides studying their work, I also go into great detail on British Golden Age mystery writing in general and the evolution of the view of the “puzzle mystery.”  For their sin of heavy emphasis on the puzzle and detection, Street, Crofts and Connington have been dubbed “Humdrums” in modern times.  The lofty crowd finds emphasis on the puzzle lowly, in contrast with the modern crime novel, with its admirable emphasis on psychology and realism; however plenty of intellectuals during the Golden age loved the pure puzzle mystery, as I show in Masters and other work.

6) I was struck by your division of the writers of the Golden Age into two main areas:The Crime Queen (Sayers, Christie, Allingham, Marsh) and The Humdrum Mystery (Wade, Connington, Crofts, Rhode). It is, as we see, divided at two areas  for sex: female first, the second male. Would you talk about?

The predominant view of British Golden Age mystery writing is that the genre was “feminized” in Britain.  Often the Crime Queens are the only authors people talk about in reference to British mystery writing from the period.  I argue this is an ahistorical view.  If one goes back to the years usually seen as comprising the Golden Age (roughly 1920-1940), the “Crime Queens” did not dominate the period as they are portrayed as having done.  Christie and Sayers certainly were at the very top of English mystery writing in the 1930s, but Allingham’s real rise was in the late 1930s and Marsh’s more in the 1940s.  The Crime Queens were not crowned overnight.

In fact, the 1920s was the great age of the Humdrum, so to speak.  Street, Crofts and Connington represent the scientific/technical school of British detection really founded by the great crime writer R. Austin Freeman early in the twentieth century.  For people impressed with the science in the Sherlock Holmes tales, they need to read Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke tales for the real thing. 

Austin Freeman and the Humdrums also have some very different detectives from what we see with the Crime Queens.  Crofts with his plain cop sleuths, especially his once famous Inspector French, and his emphasis on detailed investigation was very highly-regarded.  Connington had a policeman detective as well, of a distinctly unromantic sort.  How many time are we given the impression that all British Golden age detectives were these suave, quotation-spouting gentleman detectives?  Under his Miles Burton pseudonym, Street had one of these, Desmond Merrion, though drawn more mildly; but his most famous detective, Dr. Priestley, was a prickly, elderly scientist (originally a mathematician).  We are told Priestley was once married but it’s pretty hard to imagine his ever having had intimate physical contact with another human being!

The Crime Queens represent one strain of mystery fiction, a very significant one.  Christie of course is almost a category unto herself, with her sales that became so huge with the rise of the paperback market after World War Two, and her unique brilliance at puzzle construction and misdirection.  And the “novel of manners” style of Sayers, Allingham and Marsh is very important in the mystery genre.  But there was much more going on in the mystery genre in the 1920s and 1930s than many people seem to realize.

7) Another thing that struck me is that it is only formed by British authorsThere is a categorization also effective for American authors?As an alternative to hardboiled school, what would be the alternative to the two British groups (Humdrum Mystery and Crime Queens) in American crime fiction of the twenties?

Certainly.  The emphasis on Chandler and Hammett and the hard-boiled school has led writers to neglect really important American mystery writers like Rex Stout and Ellery Queen.  Those two writers are amazingly ignored by academia today.  And there were a tremendous number of additional interesting American writers of classical detective fiction who are extremely neglected today: Helen McCloy, for example, and Rufus King.  Some attention has been paid to the neo-gothic writing of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart, but there’s still much that needs to be redressed.

8) At The Humdrum Mystery, you've analyzed the work of three authors in particular: Connington, Rhode and Crofts. Why only these and no other authors of the '20s, such as Kitchin, Henry Holt, Berkeley?

Because they were a discrete school of writers and an important one, that I feel has been much maligned over the years for its emphasis on the puzzle and ratiocinative process.  I’ve written nearly 200 pages of wider survey that will deal with many more writers in a broader, if briefer, way.

9) In my opinion your essay could have had better luck and be chosen for the final five dell'Edgar. Perhaps, the only challenge that the reader can make is not having reserved equal attention to all three authors, but to have privileged Rhode than the other two. It 's just a matter of written works? Or you could have had better luck if you had chosen to write an essay about more famous writers?

I doubt that was the operative factor with the Edgars.  The two academic books nominated dealt with Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle.  I suspect looking at my book, the main question was, who the hell are these people he’s writing about?!!  It’s tough to get people to get past the same tried-and-true names.  It’s a long, detailed book (though I believe entertainingly and accessibly written) and people have to be open and willing to commit to it.

Incidentally, even though I think Masters is an important work of genre scholarship, I was unable to get a single English academic press even to read it, because they couldn’t get past the idea that these weren't famous authors.  One reason we get books almost exclusively about the Crime Queens, is that is what publishers will publish.  I feel fortunate I found a good publisher for the book--though it is an American one, McFarland, and currently my book about the British mystery genre is in only one library in the United Kingdom, in Scotland.

Street is my personal favorite of the three and he wrote over 140 mystery novels.  He’s probably the most prolific true detective novelist in the history of the genre.  He had two major pseudonyms.  Crofts and Connington together wrote less than half what Street did.  I just wrote what came naturally.  At some 150,000 words, the book seemed long enough to my publisher!

10) When you examine the work of an author who has written extensively, normally we tend to underestimate its consistency and quality, highlighting how much of its production is done by minor works. This judgment in a manner that can be applied to John Rhode (Miles Burton)?

 Street wrote more than he should have, no question, and many of his books in the 1950s even I find routine and dull.  But I find his books from around 1926 to 1945 to be quite consistently good.  I wanted to talk about them in depth, as many as I could, because there is a tendency for people to feel overwhelmed by such a prolific author.  They don’t know where to start.  The same problem occurs with the incredibly prolific (and underappreciated) mystery thriller writer Edgar Wallace. Some one needs to write a serious book on him!

11) I really enjoyed the respect you have for the readers of your book,because unlike other authors who, in dealing with the matter and analyzing certain securities,
 have talked extensively about the stories and revealed too much of the plot, when you talked about certain works, you always felt the need to warn the reader with "Spoiler"What do you think?

I’m afraid a lot of people who write about mystery writers don’t really care too much about the plots or the people who want to read them for entertainment.  I felt with writers like Street, Crofts and Connington, I had to talk a lot about plotting, not only to pay tribute to their skill with the mechanics--one of my most challenging pieces of writing was writing about the labyrinthine plot of John Rhode’s The Davidson Case in an intelligible way--but for what they tell us about the writers’ handling of such issues as those concerning class, race and gender.  But I’m a mystery fan too, and I didn’t want to ruin plots for the readers. 

Books by these three authors are very popular on the collectors market, sometimes selling for hundred of dollars.  I also have hope they eventually all will be reprinted.  Orion Books will have all the Conningtons reprinted in e-Book form this year.

12) In my opinion, the greatest mystery author was John Dickson Carr, not only for creativity but also for the quality of his descriptions and his atmosphere, for that is the innate ability to write novels and write well them.  In your opinion, which of the three writers you analyzed, had the greatest influence on Carr and for what reasons? One would think Rhode, since they wrote a book together.'s really so?

Street and Carr were great drinking buddies--Street loved pub settings in his books--and as Doug Greene briefly discussed in his John Dickson Carr biography and I show in Masters they had a close relationship in the 1930s, after Carr joined the Detection Club.  Street did write some locked room mysteries--one a locked house, for example, another a locked bathroom--but he’s a much plainer writer than Carr, both in writing style and milieu.  Street wrote a couple detective novels involving ghost stories, The Hanging Woman and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge, yet there’s never any attempt to make us believe the ghosts might be real or to really induce shudders.

Carr also believed very strongly in the idea of the detective novel as a game of wits between the reader and the writer.  This idea appeals very strongly to Carr’s fans.  I think Street was less concerned with fooling the reader to the end of the novel than with constructing an involved yet technically sound plot and criminal investigation.  Many of his plot are extremely ingenious and complex, like, say, Dorothy L. Sayers’ plot in her Have His Carcase, with which Street assisted Sayers, by the way. 

The same is true of Connington and Crofts, although Connington has more literary than Crofts and, on the whole, Street.  Carr highly praised the hedge maze murder setting of Connington’s Murder in the Maze, as did T. S. Eliot.

13) If one day you thought to take up this essay, which other writers you would analyze and why?

My sections on Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole were cut by my publisher because it was felt the manuscript was too long and because I argue that they aren’t truly Humdrums.  Henry Wade is one of the more literary Golden Age writers in my opinion, and the Coles really were more farceurs, who didn’t have the technical patience of the Humdrums.  Certainly I will be publishing these chapters separately as a short book.  I would also like to publish something on Rupert Croft-Cooke and his Leo Bruce mysteries.  Rufus King would be fun too, to mention an American.  I think he’s really very good.

14) You believe that Rufus King was or was not homosexual? Whether he was or not, I do not think is important in itself, because the value of the person goes beyond sex, age, race, religion, but as in his novels there are hints ambiguous, and you're an estimator of Rufus King's novels, you know that I am too, I would like to have your opinion.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that he was, given his books and background history.  And it definitely influenced his books in some ways.You know he was a pal of Cole Porter’s in the Yale Dramatic Society and was the go-to guy for women’s (drag) parts in the production of their stage musicals.I don’t believe there’s any indication he an intimate relationship with Cole Porter.  Also at that time on the Yale “Dramat” as it was called was Monty Woolley, the Oscar-nominated actor.  He was gay as well and a lifelong friend of King’s. 

15) A short time ago you published another essay about Todd Downing, a very little known author, whom I know very well. Tell us why you have so much interested to write a novel about his own figure?

Well, for one thing, I think that Downing’s Hugh Rennert detective novels, all published in the 1930s, are very good books.  Working with Coachwhip Publications and the heir to Todd’s literary estate, I was able to get all nine Downing’s detective novels--seven of which are Hugh Rennerts--reprinted and it seemed like it would be a good time to get out a book about Downing as well.  I was able to visit his home town of Atoka, Oklahoma, and work with his surviving correspondence, courtesy of Professor Charles Rzepka of Boston University, who owns the original copies.  Downing was a Choctaw Indian and University of Oklahoma Spanish  instructor who set his detective novels primarily in Mexico.  His mysteries are very well-written, with good fair play plots.  In the 1930s Downing also reviewed detective novels and these reviews are included in my book, Clues and Corpses, The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing, available through both and, as well as other internet outlets.

16) Before you leave, tell us if you're already working with some other wise?

I have been asked to edit a collection of essays in honor of Douglas Greene, the biographer of John Dickson Carr and  head of the short story publisher, Crippen & Landru.  This book will be out in 2014.  As indicated earlier, I also plan to publish a short book this year on the British mystery writers Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole.  Additionally, this year I expect to complete a manuscript on the Golden Age English fair play puzzle mystery, a broader study that will address a lot of issues of interest to me and I hope others.  I hope that will be out by 2015.  I view it as my “grand summation” on the mystery genre.

Thanks Curt of your availability.
I wish you luck and success in increasing your labors editorial ..
See you soon.

Pietro De Palma

Monday, July 15, 2013

Paul Halter : The Fourth Door (La Quatriéme Porte, 1987) - Part Two

 Paul  Halter

"Reader Beware: SPOILERS"

And now we talk about the plot.

One of the recurring themes in the novels of Paul Halter (we could say, one of his fixations) is the lost youth (whom someone could want destroy): once again we find ourselves struggling with characters, little more than boys. We had found the boys in La Malediction de Barberousse, we find them here, but also in other novels, for example. in Le Brouillard Rouge, or in Spiral or in L'Arbre aux Doigts Tordus.

The narrator is James Stevens, Elizabeth Stevens is his sister, Henry White is a neighbor and friend, as well as John Darnley: they are all young boys.. The families of some of them have common characteristics: in fact both John and Henry are motherless. Henry's mother died in a car accident (due to recurring disputes between Henry and his father, Arthur), while that of John was found dead in an attic of their home, locked from the inside, in a pool of blood, covered in stab wounds with a knife near his death was ruled a suicide, and the rest was enough that the door was found locked from the inside, to dispel any doubt.

However, as Victor Darnley, the father of John, he needs to get money, after the war he tries to rent some rooms in his house, but always, after a short stay, the tenats renters go away because of those strange noises that they feel come from the attic at night: the sound of footsteps, and a strange atmosphere, mysterious, unhealthy. Until one fine day, the fame of the house, haunted by the spirit of the late Mrs. Darnley, does not attract a couple a bit strange, the Latimer, Alice and Patrick. She is a medium, and soon this  thing will have consequences.

One fine day, indeed a beautiful night, the Henry’s father in the grove around his house sees some suspicious movements: someone carrying what looks like a body. Then nothing, and when he was found bleeding with a very bad head wound, already mourning his death. However Arthur lives. But in the meantime, Henry disappears and we do not know anything about him.

The Henry’s disappearance and the near-fatal attack of Arthur, combining the strange noises begin to feel at home Darnley, coming from the attic, despite John and his father (first suspected to be the one to produce, when he goes in the attic looking for the spirit his wife) are together next to Alice Latimer and other actors, they form an explosive mixture.
In addition, the spirit of Mrs. Darnley, manifesting herself through the medium Alice Latimer, during a seance, rages against those who killed her, saying that he will find peace only when his murderer will be found.

One day they combine an experiment in the attic room which is said to be haunted by the spirit of Mrs. Darnley: Patrick Latimer offers to be locked up, to meet the spirit and be able to know who killed her, for greater safety, every half hour someone will ensure that he is alive and he is well, until the end of the experiment. And to avoid that the scene is contaminated by other presences, the outside handle of the room is sealed and the seal is created using an ancient coin, one that is pressed into the hot wax.
Patrick comes shortly after, wrapped in a coat and with a hat : evidently he believes need it, because it's cold in the attics. But when the time runs out, they do not feel response from within and decide to open the sealed door, they found dead Patrick , with a dagger in his back.

The windows are closed, the door had been sealed by them, in the room there is nobody: surely if it was murder, it had a supernatural cause. Alice at the sight of her husband killed, faints. The surprises do not end here: in fact, when you discover the dead man's face, you know immediately this is not Patrick but Henry, and then they remember how the figure, before entering the room was too well wrapped in cloak and hat almost to conceal their identity.

Meanwhile, here's Patrick makes his appearance: he says he was attacked while he was down to put on his coat. But then why Henry, after being presumed dead or disappeared, after he was seen by two different people in two different places at the same time, did he come to die right in that house?

No one can explain, until comes the third surprise: a few days later, the doorbell rings, and here .. Heny. Henry? But he was not dead?
Two Henry, identical. What will be the right one? A few hints of his history, and they understand the real Henry is what they are facing, live, while the false Henry died, is his friend, Bob Farr, almost a look-alike.

Enters the Inspector Drew: however, while doing surveys, and interviewing the involved people, no one understands why this young man, Bob Farr, was killed instead of Heny. And, despite Drew skim anger, Henry refuses to talk and tell the truth.

The fact is that just Drew, during a family gathering, accuses Henry of murdering his friend, and hewill assume that Henry may be if not the reincarnation of Harry Houdini, at least one close relative, since Harry Weiss, the original name of Harry Houdini, is also of Arthur White, which also he resembles  as a drop of water. Henry, he would go mad, believing to be Harry and still believing to have ties of blood. The motive? Revenge, not against Farr, but against his father Arthur accused of being responsible for the death of his mother: his crime, should be connected to disagreements between him and his father, and then Arthur will be accused by the murder of his son, indeed Farr, Henry believed.

But how he may have been able to create a trick for locked room? Drew imagines an elaborate hoax: before, Henry would kill Bob Farr, stabbing him in the back, and leaving him in a nearby room, then showing up and being locked from the outside, he would have sprinkled his jacket of a red liquid and then he would be placed on the back a dagger from the scene, retractable. At eyes of those who had opened the door, it would have seemed a murder, then confirmed by the following trick: a rubber ball in the armpit, then narrow, so stop by for a few seconds artery blood flow radial, and determine the failure of the detection of the flow on the pulse. While the moment bystanders should come down to alert the police, he hastily would take the corpse of Bob Farr and would put in place: resulting the impossibility of the murder.
However, the Drew’s solution just disgruntles the accused who shows that just the night of the Farr’s murder, he was in America, providing an alibi bomb.

All over? No. Because time later, while friends are spending an evening together, and it is snowing, it consumes a second murder, just as impossible: in fact the father of Henry, Arthur, dies for a shot to the head. Mut meanwhile it snowed before, and then, if there was murder (on the phone Arthur begged the help of his son because he was shot), how did the murderer to escape, if he left a blanket of snow intact without his footsteps?

The subsequent investigation by Drew does not lead to any useful results, except for the fact that the spouses Latimer seem dissolved into thin air. It issued the order to search for the fugitives, who turn out to be from the investigation , swindlers, crooks. It is then convened a meeting at the home of Henry in which the senior police officer communicates to the onlookers the progress of the investigation: in the course of it, while some of these are sitting in the room, some on chairs, some on a large sofa, Elizabeth Stevens complains that her boyfriend has cold hand, but then she understands the hand she is holding is not the the boyfriend’s hand but that sticking out of the seat of the sofa: when he remove the bottom of sofa, they found, inside the bottom, the bodies of the spouses Latimer, two days old. The chapter ends and the next chapter begins with what Todorov would call a '"hesitation".

What happens? I do not say, as well as obviously I do not reveal how the story ends, and who in the end is framed as a murderer. Except to solve everything is ex - Inspector Alan Twist called by a writer of thrillers, Ronald Bowers. Who is Ronald Bowers? I do not say.

But, dear reader, just in case you thought, at one point, you understood all, instead you will understand that you didn’t understand anything.

And two final revelations are taking place, the first false, the last true.
The last two words of the book.
Extraordinary novel, a true masterpiece. I would say, with hand on your heart, one of the best novels of the last twenty years, ever. For the rest, what can you say?

Let's start with the fact that the very first self-released novel, La Malediction de Barberousse, has, with this novel, a feature common Paul Halter pours all of himself, gives breath to all his overflowing imagination, but if in the very first novel, the good things are too, here instead, they are congenial to the success of the plot.

As the plot occurs and the action is stretched and is inserted a triumphal march which proceeds with increasing force, until the discovery of the bodies in the sofa and even more so to the end of Part II. In the transition from Part II to Part III, there is a very clear caesura, which manifests itself with dismay by the reader, and with what Todorov called "hesitation", and others who called themselves "estrangement", "astonishment", "confusion."

The triumphal march resumes in later chapters, with increasing voltage, up to the last two surprises, in a series of twists and turns. We can say that if the voltage is sensed from the beginning of the novel and does not seem to calm down, it proceeds essentially in two separate blocks: the first consists of Parts I and II, the second begins with Part III; between the two blocks , we repeat, there is a very clear caesura, which coincides with the arrival on the scene of Ronald Bowers. It is not only a detective novel but is also a fantastic novel. It is because there are at the plot many contrivances typical of fantasy’s literature: as rightly said Philippe Fooz, in the novel there are Lieux Hantes lieux ou maudits, cursed and haunted places; Réincarnation ("a reincarnation du célèbre magicien Harry Houdini");
bilocation, which occurs when Henry is seen in two different places, by different people, at the same time; there is also the theme of the doubler, two Henry, the resurrection (Henry rings the doorbell, when believe in its death). It is a fantasy novel, not only because it has recognizable features, attributable to the fantastic novel, but also because it has the peculiarity that Todorov identified as the light that frames the novel as a fantasy, determine at the reader the occurrence of a certain factor X , a certain hesitation. The occurrence of this hesitation, the caesura, the transition from Part II to Part III, is real. Todorov cites two novels as examples of fantastic: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie and The Bourning Court, by John Dickson Carr, for various causes.

As it happens, the more citations in the novel Halter, are related to these two authors, and to these two novels. It is now a clearly established thing that Halter always prefers these two authors, but I believe that in this novel, he has wanted to mention these two authors, for another meaning: the fact that his novel is fantastic and also in a certain sense it is a synthesis of the two novels mentioned by Torov. La Quatriéme Porte, “The Fourth Door” is a tribute to Carr and Christie, as evidenced by the quotes scattered throughout the novel.

First of all, the action is narrated in the first person, as in the masterpiece of Christie mentioned: the first two parts, by James Stevens, the third, by Ronald Bowers. In that book, is also linked to another detail that I do not reveal (but compared to the original Christie's it’s different in the psychologica intent ). Then there are at least five quotes who are related to Carr: the crime in any other place than that in which it was held the closed, comes from The Crime in Nobody's Room by Carter Dickson, whose earlier than Halter, others inspired: from Appleby's Other Story by Michael Innes to The Problem of the Phantom Parlor by Edward D. Hoch, and so on. A second carrian quote is obviously the discovery of the bodies in the sofa: the reference is here at The Red Widow Murders by Carter Dickson, a novel in which a corpse is found folded to form the backbone of an armchair, on which is seated a character, that is not the murderer. 
The corridor from the attic where there are four doors, including the one where she died Mrs. Darnley, is lined with oak paneling, as well as the doors, which are distinguished by having  white porcelain knobs: this is a carrian quote . In fact, in the famous story The Door To Doom, the room that kills, at which staying Maynard, it is lined with oak paneling, and the door is different from the rest, just because it stucks a white porcelain knobThe entrance of Alan Twist forwarded to the novel, can safely refer to The Plague Court Murders, always by Carter Dickson, in which H.M. enters at the scene a later time, as well as on a novel by Noel Vindry, Le Piège aux diamants, in which the judge Allou, intervenes in time to find the culprit. Finally, even the reincarnation of Henry White / Harry Houdini is comparable to that of Marie D'Aubray /Mary Stevens/Marquise de Brinvilliers in The Bourning Court by John Dickson Carr. Because that, if Todorov had written his essay a few years later, after readingThe Fourth Door”, perhaps he could insert it, among the examples of fantastic literature.

However,there aren’t only these obvious quotesthere is also someone who is not. I am referring to the reverse quotw, another feature in the novels of Halter (the original citation is transformed and often upside down), at the beginning of the part III, "Intermezzo". It 'a quote that has eluded those who reviewed already this novel “A guy breaks into an old armor ... the man is still inside the armor but he lost his head ... his head was cut off and disappeared”. The quote refers to Death of Jezebel, spectacular novel with Locked Room by Christianna Brand, already reviewed in this blog, in which at the medieval rodeo, there is a knight in armor riding a horse, inside which there is no body, but only the severed head.  And then many others, which can easily refer to other points in the novel: the theme of the double, may have been taken from Ellen McCloy as well as from Ellery Queen; the false seance, from Abbot or Talbot, and the same bilocation from Ellen McCloyNot to mention the locked room, the first: it is a rare spectacle in its effectiveness.
A corpse that there should have been not and it there is, and a door who isn’t locked from the inside but from the outside: the particularity of this staging, is the subtlety that the action is not the result of an action done within but outside the room, in which who is inside the room plays only a passive role: the seal on the handle, excludes him from the action, which is rather a prerogative of those who are outside. In a way by analyzing the two proposed solutions, the simplest is the first, the wrong solution, but only because it identifies the culprit in a subject that is not. Instead, the right solution is more difficult, based of a modulation of the proportions of the rooms; the first solution is a revival of the trick already staged in La malediction de Barberousse: the body which is believed dead at first sight, it is not. However, the trick staged to set up the room and that is explained later, is simply magnificent, because, as the large Locked Rooms, those spectacular, almost always, the murderer has a cover of an accomplice: the accomplice creates confusion, and supports the action of the murderer. The trick here is, to create an illusion, which rests on the remodeling of spaces and objects: a final curtain, door knobs, a corridor lined with oak paneling all the same color as the doors, a corridor that is shortened or stretches, without bystanders noticing, except variability of the proportions of the corridor. 
In short, an absolute masterpiece. 
Let’s read the novel: you will be amazed !


Pietro De Palma