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

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