Paul Halter : The Fourth Door (La Quatriéme Porte, 1987) – Part Two

And now we talk about theplot.

One of therecurring themesin the novels ofPaulHalter (we could say, one of his fixations)is thelost youth (whom someone could want destroy): once again we find ourselvesstruggling withcharacters, little more than boys.We had foundthe boysin LaMaledictiondeBarberousse, we find themhere, but also in othernovels,for example. inLeBrouillardRouge, orinSpiralorinL’ArbreauxDoigtsTordus.

The narrator isJames Stevens, Elizabeth Stevensishis sister,Henry Whiteisa neighborandfriend, as well asJohnDarnley: they are all young boys.. The familiesof some of themhavecommon characteristics:in factboth John andHenryaremotherless. Henry’s motherdiedin a car accident(due to recurringdisputes betweenHenryandhis father, Arthur), while that of Johnwas found deadin an atticof their home,locked from the inside, in apool of blood, covered in stab woundswith aknifenearhis deathwasruled a suicide, and the restwas enoughthatthe door wasfoundlocked from the inside,todispel anydoubt.

However, asVictorDarnley, the father of John, he needs to get money,after the warhe tries torent somerooms in hishouse, but always, after a shortstay, the tenats renters go awaybecause of thosestrange noisesthat they feelcomefrom the atticat night: the sound of footsteps, anda strange atmosphere, mysterious, unhealthy.Until onefine day, the fame of the house,hauntedby the spiritof thelate Mrs.Darnley, does not attract acouplea bit strange, theLatimer, Alice and Patrick. She is amedium,and soon this  thing will have consequences.

One fine day, indeed a beautiful night, the Henry’s father in the grovearound his housesees somesuspicious movements: someonecarryingwhat looks likea body.Then nothing, and when he was foundbleedingwitha very badhead wound, alreadymourning hisdeath.HoweverArthur lives. But in the meantime, Henry disappearsand we do notknow anything about him.

The Henry’s disappearance andthenear-fatalattackof Arthur, combining thestrange noisesbegin tofeelat homeDarnley, coming from the attic, despiteJohnandhis father (first suspected tobe the one toproduce, when he goesin the atticlooking for thespirithis wife) are togethernext to AliceLatimerand other actors, they form an explosive mixture.

In addition,the spiritof Mrs.Darnley, manifesting herself through themediumAliceLatimer,duringa seance, ragesagainst those whokilled her, saying that he will findpeaceonly when hismurdererwill befound.

One daythey combinean experimentinthe atticroomwhich is said tobehauntedby the spirit of Mrs. Darnley: PatrickLatimeroffers tobelocked up, to meet the spiritand be able toknow whokilled her, for greatersafety, every half hoursomeonewill ensurethat he isalive and he is well,until the endof the experiment.And to avoidthat the scene iscontaminated byother presences, the outside handleof the roomis sealedandthe sealis created usingan ancient coin, onethat ispressed into thehot wax.

Patrickcomesshortly after, wrapped in a coatandwithahat : evidently he believesneed it, becauseit’s coldin the attics. But whenthetime runs out,they do not feelresponsefrom within anddecide to openthe sealed door, they founddead Patrick ,witha daggerin his back.

The windowsare closed,the door had beensealedby them,in the roomthere is nobody: surelyif it wasmurder, ithadasupernaturalcause. Aliceat the sightof her husbandkilled, faints.The surprisesdo not end here: in fact, when you discover thedead man’s face, you know immediatelythis is notPatrickbut Henry, andthenthey rememberhow the figure, before entering theroomwastoo wellwrappedincloakandhatalmostto concealtheir identity.

Meanwhile, here’s Patrickmakeshis appearance: he says hewas attackedwhile he wasdownto put onhis coat. But then whyHenry, after beingpresumed deadordisappeared,after he wasseenby two different peoplein two different placesat the same time, did he come to die rightin that house?

No onecan explain, until comes the thirdsurprise:a few days later, the doorbell rings, and here ..Heny. Henry? Buthe was not dead?
TwoHenry, identical.What will bethe right one?A fewhintsof his history,and they understandthe realHenryis what theyare facing,live, while the falseHenrydied, is his friend,BobFarr, almost alook-alike.

Enters the Inspector Drew: however, while doing surveys, and interviewing the involved people, no one understands why this young man, Bob Farr, was killed instead of Heny. And, despite Drew skim anger, Henry refuses to talk and tell the truth.

The fact is that just Drew, during a family gathering, accuses Henry of murdering his friend, and hewill assume that Henry may be if not the reincarnation of Harry Houdini, at least one close relative, since Harry Weiss, the original name of Harry Houdini, is also of Arthur White, which also he resembles  as a drop of water. Henry, he would go mad, believing to be Harry and still believing to have ties of blood. The motive? Revenge, not against Farr, but against his father Arthur accused of being responsible for the death of his mother: his crime, should be connected to disagreements between him and his father, and then Arthur will be accused by the murder of his son, indeed Farr, Henry believed.

But how he may have been able to create a trick for locked room? Drew imagines an elaborate hoax: before, Henry would kill Bob Farr, stabbing him in the back, and leaving him in a nearby room, then showing up and being locked from the outside, he would have sprinkled his jacket of a red liquid and then he would be placed on the back a dagger from the scene, retractable. At eyes of those who had opened the door, it would have seemed a murder, then confirmed by the following trick: a rubber ball in the armpit, then narrow, so stop by for a few seconds artery blood flow radial, and determine the failure of the detection of the flow on the pulse. While the moment bystanders should come down to alert the police, he hastily would take the corpse of Bob Farr and would put in place: resulting the impossibility of the murder.

However, the Drew’s solution just disgruntles the accused who shows that just the night of the Farr’s murder, he was in America, providing an alibi bomb.

All over? No. Because time later, while friends are spending an evening together, and it is snowing, it consumes a second murder, just as impossible: in fact the father of Henry, Arthur, dies for a shot to the head. Mut meanwhile it snowed before, and then, if there was murder (on the phone Arthur begged the help of his son because he was shot), how did the murderer to escape, if he left a blanket of snow intact without his footsteps?

The subsequent investigationbyDrewdoes not lead toany useful results, except for the fact that the spousesLatimerseemdissolvedinto thin air.Itissuedthe order tosearch forthe fugitives,whoturn outto befrom the investigation , swindlers, crooks. It is thenconveneda meetingat the home ofHenryin which thesenior police officercommunicatesto the onlookersthe progressof the investigation:in the courseof it,while someof thesearesitting in the room, some on chairs, some on a large sofa,ElizabethStevenscomplainsthat her boyfriendhascold hand, but then sheunderstandsthe hand she is holding is not the theboyfriend’s handbutthatsticking out of theseatof the sofa: when he removethe bottom of sofa, they found, inside the bottom, the bodiesof the spousesLatimer, two daysold. The chapterends and the next chapter beginswith whatTodorovwould calla‘”hesitation”.

What happens? I do not say, as well asobviouslyI do not revealhow the story ends, and who in the endisframedas a murderer. Excepttosolve everythingis ex – InspectorAlanTwistcalledby a writerof thrillers, Ronald Bowers. Who is Ronald Bowers?I do not say.

But, dear reader, just in case you thought, at one point, you understood all, insteadyou will understandthat you didn’t understand anything.

And twofinal revelationsare taking place, the first false,the last true.
The last twowords of the book.
Extraordinary novel, a true masterpiece. I would say, withhand on your heart, one of the best novelsof the lasttwenty years, ever. For the rest, what can you say?Let’s start with the fact that the very first self-released novel, La Malediction de Barberousse, has, with this novel, a feature common Paul Halter pours all of himself, gives breath to all his overflowing imagination, but if in the very first novel, the good things are too, here instead, they are congenial to the success of the plot.

As the plot occurs and the action is stretched and is inserted a triumphal march which proceeds with increasing force, until the discovery of the bodies in the sofa and even more so to the end of Part II. In the transition from Part II to Part III, there is a very clear caesura, which manifests itself with dismay by the reader, and with what Todorov called “hesitation”, and others who called themselves “estrangement”, “astonishment”, “confusion.”

The triumphal march resumes in later chapters, with increasing voltage, up to the last two surprises, in a series of twists and turns. We can say that if the voltage is sensed from the beginning of the novel and does not seem to calm down, it proceeds essentially in two separate blocks: the first consists of Parts I and II, the second begins with Part III; between the two blocks , we repeat, there is a very clear caesura, which coincides with the arrival on the scene of Ronald Bowers. It is not only a detective novel but is also a fantastic novel. It is because there are at the plot many contrivances typical of fantasy’s literature: as rightly said Philippe Fooz, in the novel there are Lieux Hantes lieux ou maudits, cursed and haunted places; Réincarnation (“a reincarnation du célèbre magicien Harry Houdini”);

bilocation, which occurs when Henry is seen in two different places, by different people, at the same time; there is also the theme of the doubler, two Henry, the resurrection (Henry rings the doorbell, when believe in its death). It is a fantasy novel, not only because it has recognizable features, attributable to the fantastic novel, but also because it has the peculiarity that Todorov identified as the light that frames the novel as a fantasy, determine at the reader the occurrence of a certain factor X , a certain hesitation. The occurrence of this hesitation, the caesura, the transition from Part II to Part III, is real. Todorovcites twonovelsasexamples offantastic: The Murder ofRogerAckroyd,by AgathaChristieand TheBourningCourt, by John DicksonCarr,for various causes.

As it happens,themorecitations in thenovelHalter, are related to these twoauthors, and to these twonovels.It is nowa clearly establishedthingthatHalteralwaysprefersthese two authors, but I believe thatin this novel,he haswanted to mentionthese two authors, for anothermeaning:the factthat hisnovel isfantastic andalsoin a certain senseitis a synthesisof the twonovelsmentioned byTorov. La Quatriéme Porte, “The Fourth Door”is a tribute toCarrand Christie, as evidenced by the quotesscattered throughout thenovel.

First of all, the action is narrated in the firstperson, as in the masterpiece ofChristiementioned: the first two parts, by JamesStevens, the third, by RonaldBowers. Inthat book, is also linkedtoanother detailthatI do not reveal(but compared to the originalChristie’sit’s different in thepsychologica intent ). Then thereare at least fivequoteswho are related to Carr: the crime in any other placethan thatin which itwas held theclosed, comes fromThe CrimeinNobody’sRoom byCarterDickson, whoseearlierthanHalter, others inspired:from Appleby‘s Other Storyby Michael Innes to The Problemof the PhantomParlor by EdwardD.Hoch, and so on. A secondcarrian quoteis obviously thediscovery of the bodiesin the sofa: the reference ishere at TheRedWidowMurdersby CarterDickson, a novel in which acorpse isfoundfoldedto formthe backbone ofan armchair,onwhichis seateda character,thatis not themurderer. 

The corridor from the attic where there are four doors, including the one where she died Mrs. Darnley, is lined with oak paneling, as well as the doors, which are distinguished by having  white porcelain knobs: this is a carrian quote . In fact, in the famous story The Door To Doom, the room that kills, at which staying Maynard, it is lined with oak paneling, and the door is different from the rest, just because it stucks a white porcelain knobThe entrance of Alan Twist forwarded to the novel, can safely refer to The Plague Court Murders, always by Carter Dickson, in which H.M. enters at the scene a later time, as well as on a novel by Noel Vindry, Le Piège aux diamants, in which the judge Allou, intervenes in time to find the culprit. Finally, even the reincarnation of Henry White / Harry Houdini is comparable to that of Marie D’Aubray /Mary Stevens/Marquise de Brinvilliers in The Bourning Court by John Dickson Carr. Because that, if Todorov had written his essay a few years later, after readingThe Fourth Door”, perhaps he could insert it, among the examples of fantastic literature.

However,there aren’t only these obvious quotesthere is also someone who is not. I am referring to the reverse quotw, another feature in the novels of Halter (the original citation is transformed and often upside down), at the beginning of the part III, Intermezzo”. It a quote that has eluded those who reviewed already this novel “A guy breaks into an old armor … the man is still inside the armor but he lost his head his head was cut off and disappeared”. The quote refers to Death of Jezebel, spectacular novel with Locked Room by Christianna Brand, already reviewed in this blog, in which at the medieval rodeo, there is a knight in armor riding a horse, inside which there is no body, but only the severed head.  And then many others, which can easily refer to other points in the novel: the theme of the double, may have been taken from Ellen McCloy as well as from Ellery Queen; the false seance, from Abbot or Talbot, and the same bilocation from Ellen McCloyNot to mention thelocked room, the first: it is ararespectaclein its effectiveness.

A corpsethat thereshould have been not and it there is, andadoorwho isn’t locked from the insidebut from the outside: the particularity of thisstaging,isthesubtlety thatthe action is notthe result ofan action donewithinbutoutside the room,in which who is insidethe roomplays only apassive role: the sealon the handle, excludes him from the action,which is rathera prerogativeof those who areoutside. In a wayby analyzingthe twoproposed solutions,the simplest is the first, the wrong solution,but onlybecause it identifiesthe culpritin a subjectthatis not.Instead, theright solution ismore difficult,basedofa modulationof the proportionsof the rooms; the first solution is arevival of thetrickalreadystagedin LamaledictiondeBarberousse: the body which is believeddeadat first sight,it is not.However, the trick stagedto set up theroomandthat is explainedlater,is simply magnificent, because, as the largeLockedRooms, those spectacular, almost always,themurdererhasa coverof an accomplice: the accomplicecreatesconfusion,and supports theactionof the murderer. The trick hereis, to createan illusion, which rests on theremodelingof spaces andobjects: afinal curtain, doorknobs, a corridor lined withoak panelingallthe same color asthe doors,a corridor thatis shortenedorstretches, without bystandersnoticing, exceptvariabilityof the proportionsof the corridor. 
In short, anabsolute masterpiece. 
Let’s read thenovel:you will beamazed !

                                                                        THE  END                                                    
Pietro De Palma

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