Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Barry Reviews: "THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR" (1993) by Paul Halter

THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR (1993) by Paul Halter

English translation by John Pugmire, 2012

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

Over a period of several years, mysterious deaths have occurred in the English village of Stapleford—deaths apparently caused by an invisible man. Three of them involving teenaged girls occurred on Wish Tor, "the favorite spot for local lovers....A massive granite spur, at the foot of which a rushing stream splashed noisily against the rocks on its way to the village a mile below, some found its shape reminiscent of the Sphinx." The fourth occurred in Trerice Manor when the woman of the house was pushed down a flight of stairs by an invisible entity. Witnesses to a couple of the events on Wish Tor saw the victims thrust out their arms, as if they'd been shoved from behind, to try to prevent themselves from falling a moment before they plunged to their deaths into the stream far below. At midnight on the day after Eliza Gold vanished, Basil Hawkins beheld a headless horseman ride into the sky.   

Spring forward several chapters and a few years later to the story's present, the mid-1930s. Actor and playwright Nigel Manson has a hit on his hands with the play he's written and co-stars in with Nathalie Marvel, a comedy titled The Invisible Man, inspired by his past visit to Stapleford and, in particular, by a visit to Trerice Manor where he heard the story of the village's invisible killer. Nigel surprises his wife Helen with the news that he has purchased and renovated Trerice Manor, and that they will be spending a couple of weeks there. Joining them the first weekend, he tells her, are Nathalie Marvel and Frank Holloway, the man who promoted Nathalie to stardom.

When the invisible murderer strikes yet again, claiming another victim in front of several witnesses, chief constable Superintendent Weston requests help from an old friend, the head of  Scotland Yard, who in turn assigns Inspector Archibald Hurst to investigate the crime. "He had a knack—all his colleagues were unanimous on this point—for being stuck with all the most complex cases." Hurst calls upon his friend Dr. Alan Twist, criminologist, who "often lent a hand in the investigations," to accompany him to Stapleford.

The solutions to a couple of the murders struck me as a bit of a stretch, although they weren't entirely implausible.

Thanks to John Pugmire's translations, I've now read four of Paul Halter's exceptional novels—two starring Alan Twist, two starring Owen Burns—and a collection of his short stories. I am certain the great John Dickson Carr, were he alive and thus able to read Halter, would not only admire him but also conceivably envy him for his inventiveness in concocting and solving seemingly impossible crimes. Halter's oeuvre is invariably compared to Carr's, and this is as it should be because Halter has readily admitted in interviews that impossible crime stories are his favorite kinds of detective stories and that Carr was his inspiration. 

But there are significant differences between the two. Carr's prose was richer—lusher, if you will—undoubtedly a product of the era in which he was raised, and influenced by the stories he read growing up. Halter's narrative style is much leaner, and he has a fondness for using dialogue as much as possible to advance the story. Although Halter succeeds in creating an eerie or sinister atmosphere when one is called for, he's no match for Carr, who was probably as good at atmospherics as anyone who has ever written. Carr has sometimes been criticized for weak characterization, but in that aspect he is definitely superior to Halter. The latter's characters often have traits or interests that are vital to the story, but otherwise they are rendered in the sketchiest manner imaginable. Halter is more  purely concerned with the puzzle elements in his work than any other mystery writer I can think of, and some of the puzzles he devises are very original.

My criticisms of Halter's weaker qualities are not intended to dissuade readers. I have enjoyed every one of the novels and stories of his I've read, and I look forward to reading more of them if Mr. Pugmire continues to translate them. His work is eminently worth the time of any fan of Golden Age-style impossible crime stories, and should in fact be considered essential reading. And with that, The Demon of Dartmoor is strongly recommended.   


Barry Ergang ©2012

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