THE LORD OF MISRULE
by Paul Halter
Translated from the French by John Pugmire
My favorite kind of traditional mystery is the “impossible crime” tale. You know, the story in which a crime is committed in a room later found to be locked from the inside, from which there is no apparent means of egress for the criminal. Or the one in which someone is murdered in a field of snow or on a sandy beach--killed in a manner that requires his assailant to be up close and personal--but the only footprints in evidence are the victim’s. Or any other kinds of seemingly impossible situations writers can invent and solve. Writers who specialized in impossible situations included Hake Talbot, Clayton Rawson, Herbert Brean, Joseph Commings, Edward D. Hoch, and the acknowledged all-time master, John Dickson Carr.
Many others have contributed impossible crime stories to the genre, but few outside of those mentioned above have specialized in them. One notable modern exception is Carr disciple Paul Halter, an award-winning French author whose work, thanks to translator John Pugmire, is starting to become available to those of us who don‘t read French. Having previously translated some of Halter’s short stories and brought them out in the collection The Night of the Wolf (Wildside Press, 2006), Pugmire has recently given us the novel The Lord of Misrule, available as a trade paperback and in Kindle format.
Although first published in France in 1994, it has all the trappings of a Golden Age detective novel: an English country estate at Christmastime full of people who are not necessarily what they seem to be; a family curse that stretches back through several centuries; multiple “impossible” murders and the ghastly-looking title character who purportedly commits them; and the idiosyncratic amateur sleuth who ultimately unravels the puzzles.
The story begins when, newly arrived in London from his native South Africa in the late 1890s, and believing that “Life is full of coincidences,” Achilles Stock makes the acquaintance of the quirky aesthete Owen Burns, after which his life is never quite the same. During the course of a year or so, the acquaintanceship burgeons into friendship.
Owen Burns, who has “been known to give the police a hand when they find themselves at a dead end,” and who is so smitten with an actress he has become involved with that he doesn’t want to leave London, inveigles Stock, whom he knows to be an adventurous sort, into assisting him with an investigation by functioning as his remote eyes and ears. He wants Stock to pose as the fiancé of Miss Catherine Piggott. Miss Piggott, along with her brother Samuel, for whose life she fears, will be staying at the country estate of Charles Mansfield over Christmas.
Mansfield has two attractive daughters, Sibyl and Daphne. His son Edwin was murdered in a seemingly impossible manner several years earlier, another in a long line of victims of the Lord of Misrule. The additional house guests are Edgar Forbes, Samuel Piggott’s business partner, and Professor Julius Morganstone, a medium brought in to contact the murderous spirit and put an end to its life-taking.
Charles Mansfield explains to Stock that several hundred years earlier, as part of the Christmastime celebration in the village and its environs, a “Lord of Misrule” was elected to preside over the usual revels and create new ones, “the more depraved the better.” The Mansfields chose a man named Peter Joke to serve as the Lord. “That Christmas,” Mansfield explains, “Peter Joke dressed up in a thick black cloak, tights decorated with tiny bells, and a grotesque mask on his face made from some kind of whitewashed dough which gave it a horribly leprous effect.” Behind the Mansfield house is a lake which was frozen over, and where the drunken revelers decided to play. Peter Joke drowned when the ice gave way beneath him. For years afterwards, every Christmas a member of the Mansfield family was murdered. The incidents became fewer with passing centuries, but resumed several years prior to the novel’s present. Several people in the Mansfield household have heard the tinkling of bells and seen the white-faced terror often enough to speak about him with a kind of jaded resignation.
As the story progresses, Stock learns about Edwin’s murder and is witness to the impossible murder of a house guest. Eerie incidents and seemingly impossible events follow one after another until Owen Burns finally arrives, learns what Stock has learned, and elucidates solutions.
Halter writes a leaner prose than John Dickson Carr, but he nonetheless manages to effectively create sinister events and atmospheres a la the master that will keep readers turning the pages. His weakness is characterization, and readers who demand well-fleshed-out characters who get up and walk off the pages will be disappointed. Halter distances himself from big emotional scenes as well, preferring to work up to them and then, in the next chapter, to retrospectively summarize the charged moments and their outcomes. He is almost exclusively concerned with moving his plot forward.
What differentiates Halter from Carr and the others, to my mind, is the way he piles on surprise after surprise when Owen Burns explains the whos and hows of the crimes. Almost nothing is what you think it is--and that includes the actors in the drama.
Despite its weaknesses, The Lord of Misrule will hurtle readers back into the Golden Age of the mystery story and leave them applauding its author’s skill. If you love “impossible” murders, you’ll chug through this novel and want to read more of Halter’s work. Let’s hope Mr. Pugmire plans to translate more of it.
***This review originally appeared at The American Culture website: http://stkarnick.com/
Barry Ergang © 2011
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