"The devil's agent may be of flesh and blood, may they not?"- Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)
I have to 'fess up that I dreaded reading Paul Halter's Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993) after a laudatory review, left by armchair critic Patrick At the Scene of the Crime, praising it's impossible crime element as "simple" and "dazzling effective," was followed up with a sobering notice posted on the GADWiki by Barry Ergang – saying that the solutions to a couple of the murders struck him "as a bit of a stretch" although "they weren't entirely implausible." I carefully began to tread the pages, afraid that Patrick had overenthusiastically cheered on one of his pet mystery writers, but I ended up leaning more to his opinion. However, I share Barry's reserve regarding the explanation for the invisible entity responsible for flinging a number of people from a rocky protrusion and out of an open window.
The backdrop of this book is the same as Conan Doyle used for one of the most celebrated stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Dartmoor, England, where a ghostly hound lurks on the moors before snatching one of the local gentry's down to Hell, and The Demon of Dartmoor was apparently written after Halter went down to England to soak up the atmosphere for himself. Whether it was the trip or not, but there was one visible improvement in one of his greatest weaknesses: creating a sense of time and place that I felt was lacking in the previous books. He made me believe this time that Stapleford was a small village instead of a clutter of three or four houses where the suspects live (e.g. The Fourth Door, 1987). The outdoors scenes were also very well done.
Stapleford is one of those sleepy and homely hamlets dotting the countryside that imbued Sherlock Holmes with untold horrors, "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside," with more than enough dirty linen spilling over the laundry basket to fill one of Dr. Watson's notebooks with untold cases. In one of Sherlock Holmes' Dartmoor cases, "The Adventure of the Winged Menace," he teamed-up with Dr. John Thorndyke to investigate a series of impossible disappearances from the Moor. Evidence points to a pterodactyl as the culprit and they meet a strange bearded man, looking like a caveman in modern clothing, who threatens them bodily harm if they hurt his pterodactyl. But let's return to Halter's flight of fancies.
The Demon of Dartmoor takes off with a retrospective look at the tragic deaths of a few of Stapleford's inhabitants, three innocent teenage girls, who were flung from the top of Wish Tor, a granite spur frequently haunted by lovers, into the rushing stream below. One of the murders was witnessed and they described how the girl thrust out her arms, as if she were pushed in the back, before plummeting to her death, however, they saw nobody near the girl. Basil Hawkins even claims he saw a headless horseman riding into the sky on the day one of the girls disappeared. Skip forward a few sunsets and Stapleford welcomes actor and playwright Nigel Manson as the new owner of Trerice Manor, where a pair of invisible hands pushed a woman down a flight of stairs fifty years previously, inspiring the playwright for the inspiration for a successful stageplay entitled The Invisible Man. An impossible murder that lurks in the past is a staple of Halter's mystery fiction.
As the be expected, the unseen murderer strikes again, this time in full view of a number of people who witness Nigel Manson being shoved out of a window by an invisible force. The local police call-in Scotland Yard, who send Inspector Archibald Hurst with Dr. Alan Twist in tow and they do an admirable job at making sense out of this nightmarish sequence of events.
The method for murdering three girls unseen after they made the climb to the top of the precipice were
disappointing disenchanting, but was nonetheless thrown
off the scent here like I was balancing on the edge of a cliff myself. When I
learned that the victims were heard talking to an invisible companion minutes
before their fatal plunge and that one of the suspects is a two-bit promoter
who loves young aspiring actresses, I simply assumed that the girls were
overheard rehearsing the lines he had fed them. Luring the hopeful girls to that desolate
spot for a very private audition and while they took their pose on the top to
begin, they got a rock flung to their heads with a slingshot (or something) and
thus you have an explanation for the invisible push. Needless to say, I was
wrong and didn't like any of the solutions for this portion of the story.
Nigel Manson's impossible tumble from one of the top-floor windows was a lot better explained and the solution, risky and no-success guaranteed, may impress some readers as implausible and impractical, but Halter convinced me with its deadly simplicity and even provides the murderer with a backup plan in case anything goes wrong. I had to go with Halter on this one.
On a whole, Halter did a craftsman's job of forging an engaging plot from links that rattled like a good yarn and that chain of baffling events, stretching back years, made for a satisfactory read regardless of a few weak links. I think Patrick over praised the impossible crime element of the book, but otherwise I agree with his overall opinion. Paul Halter is a problematic writer, but he was better here, as a writer, than in the previous books I have read and his commitment to the keep the cerebral detective story alive is something I really admire.
An inordinate amount of praise should also be bestowed on his translator, John Pugmire, who set-up shop for himself under the name Locked Room International and has been delivering a steady stream of content never before published on this side of the language barrier. A fifth translation, Le Cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996), is planed for late 2012 and the plot is "Halter's And Then There Were None, with a very clever impossible crime thrown in." Henri Cauvin's The Killing Needle (????) is also planned for a late 2012 release and features the French precursor to Sherlock Holmes. You can support John Pugmire to continue doing this by simply buying the books, as ebooks or paperback, and enjoy reading them. That's all.