Friday, February 22, 2013

FFB: "The Seventh Hypothesis" by Paul Halter -- Double-Take

This week for Fridays Forgotten Books and in honor of Patti Abbott once again collecting links, we have a double take for you. First Patrick and then Barry consider THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS by Paul Halter. Their takes are a bit different on the novel as you see below…..

On a night in August of 1938, police constable Edward Watkins is walking his beat when he comes across some strange sights. It seems that somebody is walking around the streets of London in the garb of a seventeenth-century plague doctor. Soon afterwards, Watkins has a conversation with an odd character calling himself Doctor Marcus, a doctor of crime. Suspicious, the officer is convinced that the doctor has hidden a body inside a nearby trash can—a suspicion that Doctor Marcus confirms! Watkins looks into them and finds they are all empty, much to Marcus’ apparent surprise. So the mad doctor skips off, but as a parting shot he tells the officer to look into the trash cans once again just in case. When Watkins does this, he discovers to his horror that there’s a dead body inside after all.

But how did it get there? And where did Doctor Marcus disappear to? All this seems like it is nonsense, but a few months later, Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst are visited by a man named Peter Moore, secretary to Sir Gordon Miller, a prolific author of mystery plays. According to Moore, Sir Gordon received a visitor in his study and the two men had a verbal duel of sorts, which ended in a murder challenge. The two men toss a coin, and the result will determine which man will commit a murder. That man must try and pin the blame on the other, and under no circumstances are the two players allowed to refer to the “game”. Unfortunately, Moore could not see how the coin landed...

Before long, Peter Moore is found dead, shot during an attempted burglary inside the home of his own employer. Dr. Twist and Inspector Hurst hurry to the scene of the crime, and they attempt to solve this complex mystery. Hurst instantly comes up with six hypotheses, but Dr. Twist isn’t entirely convinced, and postulates that there must be a seventh hypothesis to explain everything. This is the plot of Paul Halter’s La Septi√®me Hypoth√®se (The Seventh Hypothesis), a book that has been translated into English by John Pugmire.

The Seventh Hypothesis is quite possibly Paul Halter’s masterpiece. This is a book with such complexity that it leaves The Fourth Door, The One-Eyed Tiger, and The Demon of Dartmoor straggling behind as though they were padded by extensive social commentary. There is so much meat to this story and you’re never quite certain what on earth is going on until the end… even if by some chance you tumble to the secret behind a trick or two before the end. There are at least two impossibilities in this novel. The first has an excellent and simple solution. The second is a bit more complex and harder to guess, but I liked the solution to the first one a little more. Just as much fun as the impossibilities are the verbal duels, which seem like they were inspired by the verbal duels in Sleuth, with revelation after revelation further complicating the plot despite there being only two principal actors.

The most notable achievement is that Paul Halter effectively gives you a mystery with only two suspects and challenges you to guess which one has committed the crimes. You have a 50:50 chance, right? And yet Halter manages to calculate just how your brain will work. Hmm… you say to yourself. It seems impossible for X to have done it, so he’s got an elaborate alibi that will get busted wide open, but if that’s the case it means Y must have done it to frame X, but if that’s the case, it must be an elaborate double-bluff designed to get you to think Y has done it when it was really X, but if that’s the case… I made my official guess near the start of the novel, but must have changed it a good five or six times before I got to the end. This is quite simply a diabolically ingenious detective story, a masterpiece of plotting at its finest! In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this one of the best detective stories I’ve read all year long.

To write this review, I read both versions of the novel. My French edition is found in an omnibus released by Le Masque, and I bought the English translation in Kindle form. I can highly recommend both of these editions. John Pugmire has done an excellent job of getting to the heart of Halter’s writing style. I can’t define it in technical terms, but I performed the only litmus test I can offer: I read one chapter of the book in French, read the next in English, then switched back into French. All three chapters felt like they were part of the same book: an accomplishment for which John Pugmire must be lauded. He finds that sense of play: Halter challenges his readers to solve the crime and then leads them on a merry chase down several garden paths simultaneously. He doesn’t propose to give you an insight into the human condition: this is merely another installment in what John Dickson Carr called “the grandest game in the world”.

Overall, The Seventh Hypothesis comes highly recommended for fans of complex Golden-Age-style plots. This is one of Halter’s best efforts and one of Dr. Twist’s most complex cases. It ends on a wholly satisfactory note, and the solution is diabolically ingenious. The writing is most agreeable, with a sense that the whole thing is a challenge to the reader: a challenge Halter won hands-down. This is plotting at its finest, and is not to be missed under any circumstances!

Patrick Ohl ©2013
The nineteen-year-old Patrick Ohl writes reviews of the books he reads on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime. In his spare time he plots a takeover of the world, being careful to factor everything except for Bruce Willis into his equations.

THE SEVENTH HYPOTHESIS (1991) by Paul Halter

English translation 2012 by John Pugmire

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

I'm a huge fan of French mystery novelist Paul Halter and have been ever since John Pugmire began translating his works into English. Halter can devise complex plots as well as any writer from the Golden Age, including his inspiration, the great John Dickson Carr, and is unequivocally a genius at formulating "impossible crimes," often surpassing acknowledged masters like the aforementioned Carr, Hake Talbot, Clayton Rawson, and Edward D. Hoch.

Having read the short story collection The Night of the Wolf and the novels The Fourth Door, The Lord of Misrule, The Seven Wonders of Crime, and The Demon of Dartmoor, I approached The Seventh Hypothesis anticipating another wild ride through the realm of the impossible.

Its opening chapters did not disappoint. They begin on the night of August 31, 1938. Police constable Edward Watkins is making his rounds when he hears footsteps, looks around, and sees the odd-looking shadow of a pedestrian. He goes after the latter, gets a look at the actual person, and is stunned by what he sees:

"...his senses had not betrayed him and the extraordinary image was still burned into his mind: the ankle-length coat; the gloved hands; the wide-rimmed hat; and, instead of a face, a white mask in the middle of which was a beak at least a foot long. Even though he had never seen such an individual in the flesh, he had seen enough illustrations for there to be no doubt in his mind: the man he had seen was a plague doctor."

Still later, Watkins comes upon a formally-dressed man looking through the contents of a dustbin. A doctor's bag is on the ground beside him. When Watkins asks him his name, he says he's Dr. Marcus—"Doctor of Crime." He claims to have put a body into the dustbin, but Watkins quickly determines that it's empty. There are two other such containers, both of which also prove to be full of everything but bodies. The constable is pretty certain he's dealing with a mental case. As the latter departs, he recommends that Watkins have another look in the first dustbin.

"The man was even madder than he'd suspected," the policeman thinks. "He'd hoped to make him believe there was now a body inside the dustbin which had been empty mere moments ago. It was not only absurd, it was manifestly impossible. With a smile, he lifted the lid.

"He could not believe his eyes: there really was a corpse inside."

In pursuit of Dr. Marcus, he encounters a colleague, Constable Harvey, to whom he explains what has happened. When Harvey goes off in search of "reinforcements," as he puts it, Watkins continues walking along the residential block when a window opens behind him and a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Minden, ask if he's found their lodger, a young man named David Cohen. Watkins, of course, has no idea what they're talking about, and thus asks for an explanation. They add to the bizarre nature of his evening when they explain that they run a boarding house and that Cohen had taken sick earlier in the evening. He had evidently summoned medical assistance because three doctors—one of whom was Dr. Marcus, who told the Mindens Cohen had the plague—tried to carry the lodger out on a stretcher. Something happened and Cohen bolted, literally vanishing into thin air. Watkins describes the body in the dustbin and the Mindens say the description fits Cohen.

A few days later, Scotland Yard Inspector Archibald Hurst relates the incidents to his friend Dr. Alan Twist, the eminent criminologist. The two discuss them at length, each speculating about what might have occurred and how but not getting anywhere definitive.

A few months later, a man named Peter Moore calls on Twist and Hurst. Moore is the secretary and sometime chauffeur for Sir Gordon Miller, a renowned writer who specializes in mystery scenarios. "Theater and cinema producers fell over themselves to get each new production. His name alone was a guarantee of success...His assessments on matters of mystery fiction carried enormous authority, and many were the authors secretly jealous of his fertile imagination." The story Moore relates involves Sir Gordon and Donald Ransome, a gifted  American actor who has been in England for the past five years and who has appeared in most of Sir Gordon's productions. He once also proved himself to be a skilled improviser during one such production when another cast member fell ill during the performance by "supply[ing] a completely different resolution to one of Gordon Miller's most complex plots by extemporizing an entirely new ending. It was a prodigious tour de force which caused many to believe the author had found the perfect interpreter of his plays."

The outlandish episode Moore reports, which reminds the detectives of a fatal event in Sir Gordon Miller's past, suggests a potential link to the crime Constable Watkins discovered. Not long after this meeting another crime occurs, this one in Sir Gordon's home, and Hurst and Twist earnestly begin their investigations into a case that involves a bizarre and dangerous wager and as elaborate a cat-and-mouse game as any in mystery fiction.

There are moments in the novel that might remind some readers of Anthony Shaffer's brilliant drama Sleuth, but they lack the kind of scintillating dialogue that delineates Shaffer's characters in addition to advancing his plot. And therein lies my biggest problem and greatest disappointment with The Seventh Hypothesis. I've pointed out in reviews of other Paul Halter works that his efforts at characterization are extremely slight, that plot is everything. Nevertheless, he usually manages to provide enough basic information to enable the reader to differentiate one character from another. But except for Sir Gordon's habit of rolling some steel balls around in his hand in a manner reminiscent of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, nobody's behavior stands out in The Seventh Hypothesis. Compounding the problem, everyone sounds alike; more than a few times I found myself paging back through the book (not as easy in an electronic edition as in a physical book) to identify who someone was who'd appeared earlier because nothing about his or her speeches or comportment had made a lasting impression. Halter is fond of the old-fashioned device of narrative within narrative—i.e., having a character relate events that he or she witnessed, including actions and dialogue, in a formal bookish manner rather than in a realistic conversational style that reflects the character's unique speech patterns and idioms. Therefore in this story, Louis Minden sounds exactly like Peter Moore. 

Readers for whom the puzzle and detection aspects of mystery stories are paramount will not only be more forgiving than I of The Seventh Hypothesis, they'll probably applaud it, because as always Halter does a stellar job in those areas. Those for whom even a modicum of characterization is indispensable might share my disappointment, impatience and, frankly, eagerness to get to the last page so as to start reading something else. But even John Dickson Carr had his lapses, so I look forward to reading more novels by Paul Halter—and other French "impossible crime" writers—as John Pugmire translates them into English. Keep 'em coming, Mr. Pugmire!

Finally, in the realm of trivial passing thoughts, let me mention that as soon as I came upon the name Gordon Miller in the novel, it struck me as familiar, but I couldn't recall where I'd heard it. During the course of writing this review something clicked, and I went to the Internet Movie Data Base to determine if my recollection was right or wrong. It turns out I was right. In the Marx Brothers' movie "Room Service," Groucho plays an impecunious producer named Gordon Miller who is trying to avoid eviction from a hotel and find backing for his latest production. Did Paul Halter know this and use the name deliberately? Or is it purely a coincidence?

Hmm, mystery writers and their detectives seldom believe in coincidence....

Barry Ergang © 2013

 Barry Ergang has numerous books from his personal library available for sale at  He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists. Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award for the best flash fiction story of 2006, his written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, and fiction available for e-readers, see Barry’s webpages.

1 comment:

bloodymurder said...

Great to have a double review - I just read my first Halter and was a bit underwhelmed but look forward to tracking down what sounds like his magnum opus.