Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Paul Halter : Meurtre dans un manoir anglais, 1997

 "Reader Beware: SPOILERS"

Meurtre dans un manoir anglais, is a 1997 novel. 
Paul Halter wrote it after L'arbre aux doigts tordus, from 1996 and before Le cri de la sirène from 1998, in the Twist cycle. Actually in 1996, he had written another novel, Le cercle invisible, with a subject in its own right.
First of all this is not a novel. I have sometimes said, in my analysis of Halter's novels, that in my opinion, except for some well-identified cases (obviously among the most important novels, Le cercle invisible, La quatrième porte, La mort vous invite, La mort derrière les rideaux, La chambre du fou, La septième hypothèse, A 139 pas de la mort, La toile de Penelope, Le brouillard rouge, Le fleurs de Satan, La tête du tigre), Halter often builds his books by joining separate stories and then joining them directly arrival: e.g. Le géant de pierre or L’image trouble (in which a story in the distant past is linked to one in the present), Le cri de la sirène (in which the stories of two people are linked together), and various others. In this case even, the novel becomes a container that brings together seven stories and then unites them in what is the origin of a famous board game, the Cluedo, and in which Twist and Hurst appear in the beginning, and in the end that explains everything.
Basically something has happened that is not known whether to explain as an accident, murder or suicide. Hurst gropes in the dark, and Twist to whom he turned, advises him to read the seven stories of those who were invited one evening, to Dr. Lenoir's home, to participate in a new game invented by their host: each of them, involved in a fact of blood, either as a spectator or as an interpreter, he would have to tell his story, in front of the others, together with the landlord, or in the absence of the same to a representative. Then they would play together with the target shooting, they would have dinner together, and then at the end of the evening the landlord would give them a sensational surprise. So Hurst reads the seven stories involving seven guests: Miss Rose, Colonel Moutarde, Dr. Lenoir, Professor Violette, Mrs. Leblanc, Dr. Olive, Mrs. Pervenche. Among them, according to Twist, the murderer is hiding, because what they are involved in, in his opinion, is a premeditated murder.
The seven stories are:
Rose: Locked Room. Rose's boyfriend Philip, while in the company of his uncle, in a library closed from the inside, does not know how to explain how Rose's uncle behind him was killed by an arrow, with the window wide open, but in front of a high wall and an immaculate snow in which the footprints of those who should have fired the mortal arrow are not noticed
Doctor Lenoir: disappearance of his wife and reappeared in the bench chest of a tenant from the same building. The fact that a key opens two apartments of the building, gives rise to two antithetical hypotheses, in the context of a machiavellic murderous plan, in which a candlestick stained with blood enters, two chests, one per apartment, and a key that opens two different apartments and therefore allow not only the condemned to kill but also Lenoir to enter the apartment of others and use it for the same purposes.
Colonel Moutarde: premonition of arson, blackmail, and murder. The Colonel would have discovered that at the time he served in the police, a colleague of his had blackmailed the owners of the properties where a psychic predicted that fires would break out, so that they would pay if they didn't want them to really burn their property.
Professor Violette: premonition, murder of a woman when a friend of hers dreams that it will happen. The psychic is suspected of having hatched a trap to mask his guilt, but is then recognized innocent, except to discover that when he was a child he had witnessed the same scene, in which his mother had been killed by the same murderer of his friend.
Mrs. Leblanc: impossible crime and not suicide of Sir Jerry Cadosh, archaeologist. Apparition of a golem in his home before suicide, in the kitchen closed from the inside. A mysterious statuette depicting a winged bull suggests a curse. In a second time, the fingerprints of the dead are not found on the gun, and therefore the hypothesis of an impossible murder, made by a winged bull, makes its way, given that beyond the window ajar in an expanse of dried mud beyond it, no fingerprints are found.
Doctor Olive: crime of a famous entomologist and exchange of person at the basis of the murder. There is a large hourglass, and a pitted box from which it came out is not known if a large butterfly or a large spider.
Mrs. Pervenche: impossible suicide of a friend of hers, of which she is accused, while it turns out that it was another person who had faked a bomb alibi with the help of a double.
The evening had ended, after the opening of two chests, one of which was set up for a buffet dinner, and the finding of cushions, and then under a sofa, a bottle of Veronal, and a dartboard, as well as numerous objects concerning the single stories, with a criminal hypothesis concerning Dr. Lenoir, who is found beyond the target, slumped in a chair and hit by the bullets of the seven guests.
Among them a murderer who would have left in his story an important clue, first discovered by Lenoir that would have blackmailed the suspect to support his whims and his board games, and then by the police many years later, after a bombing by the Germans of a Palace of London, where the killer lived undisturbed, having found a very important clue that would have revealed a hidden truth. In the epilogue, Twist, without knowing this clue, frames the killer and which clue would have escaped the killer and present in his story, would have given the possibility alone to unmask him.
The novel, as we said, begins where it ends.
It is a way of writing that we find other times in Halter: we find it for example in Le brouillard rouge, where in the prologue we see a man painting a room red and then in the epilogue we understand that ... ; here as the novel begins, it ends: with Twist and Hurst busy identifying the edge of the skein.
It is not easy to guess, as has happened to me before, who the killer might be, because on this occasion there is not a single fact, a single story that winds from start to finish (and Halter's endings are so to speak almost always pyrotechnics, for which there is almost always a reversal), but more stories, more events that intersect, but distinct in themselves, and finding the misleading clue is very difficult. Nonetheless, the ability to narrate, to enchant the reader is unchanged and always very high: Halter is comparable to Carr not so much in the locked rooms, but in the ability to evoke atmospheres, to tell stories. With these premises, we must abandon the ambition to compete with the writer (this is one of the limits of the novel, however, because the clue is very subtle and weak, not so flashy, like a bottle without a label and containing iodine tincture, in one of Ellery Queen's first novels, The Egyptian Cross Mystery: writer and reader should fight on equal terms, which is not the case here) and read the book abandoning ourselves to history
All the stories are well written, and the proposed solutions are also plausible: in particular that of the first Locked Room is remarkable. In spite of this, we still and always find in this novel a whole series of references and remembrances, not only of other people's novels, but also by the Alsatian author himself: the chest in which Lenoir's corpse would be found and is not there, and that in which his wife is actually found, recalls the chest in La mort vous invite where a corpse is kept for some time: after all a chest or trunk used for this purpose, are used in many other novels and stories, by Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert in The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest by Agatha Christie, in Le Tueur N.2 by Pierre Mac Orlan; and moreover a chest set for a buffet, recalls the trunk set for a buffet in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (and the coincidence seems to me by no means casual). The obsession with the corpse inside a sofa derives from Carter Dickson's The Red Widow (there was an armchair) and stabilized in Halter in the previous La Quatrieme Porte. The corpse with an arrow stuck in the neck, closed in a room, immediately recalls Carter Dickson's The Judas Window; not only that: a corpse and an innocent person inside a locked room from the inside, also recall Helen Reilly's Dead Man Control. And the huge spider of Olive's story recalls other spiders, first of all that of Halter's novel, La toile de Penelope. In short, looking for references, they are found galore. Another interesting and recurrent reference in Halter's works is a murderous teenager, already found in La malédiction de Barberousse, and then also in Le diable de Dartmoor, and Spiral. And wanting to look for the number seven is already present in Les sept merveilles du crime, 1997.
The same form used by Halter and original for him, finds a historical correspondence in Agatha Christie's The Big Four.
On the back cover, it alludes to Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers, as a comparison of the setting in which it rattles off the story, but in reality 10 little Indians has to do here as a snack cabbage
What puzzles me, is what it feels like after reading the book: a kind of final flop, not the usual highly spectacular Halter ending (exceptional for example in Le Brouillard Rouge, or The image trouble), almost a personal dissatisfaction; which is so much bigger, if you think about other Halter’s novels more spectacular than this one.
However it is a highly enjoyable product.
Presenting her as an invented origin of Cluedo, Halter intelligently refers to the historical version invented by an employee of a lawyer, in the very last lines of the novel: this, by Anthony Pratt is a real historical reference, as well as of the seven suspects, the only one present in the version of the game Cluedo, and in the literary version of Halter, is Colonel Mustard (here Moutard), like some of the weapons mentioned in the board game and in the novel: the wrench, the candelabrum, the poison, the revolver, the rope .
For me Halter manifests himself once again, a splendid chiseller of tales, losing instead in the construction of large narrative cathedrals, where it is necessary not only to explain the solution but also to keep at bay the different personalities of the suspects and to know how to make them interact within a multi textual container. Except of course some wonderful examples.
But the comparison between the Halter writer of short stories and the Halter writer of novels, for me, makes the balance move sharply towards the first term of comparison.

Pietro De Palma

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