Paul Halter : The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993

You can say, without fail, the first production of Paul Halter has been the best. This does not mean that the novels of the 90s and the first decade of the twenty-first century have been a small thing (indeed, in some cases, the finished product was qualitatively very interesting!), but it is equally indubitable that the first 7-8 novels (except for La malediction de Barberousse, opera in my opinion still immature) were the best of his production: all, in a case or in another, have, without exception, great atmosphere and superb deductive problems. Moreover, with the exception of the very first novel already mentioned, set in France, all the others (at least the ones in the series with Dr. Twist) have locations in England.

Is no exception, Le demon de Dartmoor of 1993.
An evil presence is said to haunt the vicinity of the village of Stapleford in the wilderness of Dartmoor in Devon: someone thinks to have seen a headless horseman, riding a beheaded horse, gallop near the rock in the form of animal overlooking the river which flows through the village. The fact is that three girls, Eliza Gold, Constance Kent, and Annie Crook make a bad end: they climb the Wish Tor granite promontory, laughing as if they were dialoguing with someone (you can not see though!) and then they fall down in raging torrent as if they had been thrown: their bodies will be found (the first two, not the third, which is supposed to have done the same end) further downstream, trapped between the rocks, in the creek, massacred by the force of the current, that slammed the bodies several times causing multiple fractures and wounds.

For the period of 6 years, nothing happens, and you think nothing will happen; and life goes quiet on in the sleepy village. But one fine day, Nigel Manson, actor in sight, buys the Trentice castle, a manor in ruin restructuring completely, except for the left wing of the castle, where in the past there was a mysterious death.
Nigel’s wife, Helen, doesn’t want to go, because she suspects actress and colleague of her husband in the successful theatrical piece “The Invisible Man”, Nathalie Marvel, be her husband’s lover, and that her presence in their dwelling could coincide with the betrayal of Nigel.

If everything starts badly, ends worse then: in fact, Nigel, photography enthusiast and owner of various camera bodies, vain and lover of the poses more strange, would like to lay on the windowsill, in a pose very dangerous. The sill of the window is on the second floor, in the hall of the castle, overlooking the surrounding lawn: in the living room with him, are the wife Helen, close the fireplace, and Dr. Thomas Grant, doctor at Stapleford, sitting in armchair behind him. No one else. Too far away, or unable to have a part in what happens on the sill, at least to hear Franch Holloway, theatrical agent of Nathalie and her lover in the past, which enters in the hall a moment after Nigel falls from the window sill, his hands in forward, as if he had been pushed down, while Nathalie picks him up downstairs with the camera.

The invisible being who killed the three girls, did he kill also him? The fact is that other unexplainable things happen after: a red shadow that walks across the streets of the village, who manages to scare even Basil Hawkins, gardener, friend of Victor Sitwell, a professor of philosophy at the Lyceum of Tavistock; a photo that disappears from the inn where Frank Victor and other people go to get drunk one night, photo in which would be represented someone who would frighten Nigel, the night before he was killed (because Twist imagines there isn’t a spirit behind his death, but a wily murderer); the attempt to kill Victor, who owns another duplication of this photo. Someone even tells to have recognized in Nigel, one of two beautiful young people who years earlier had gone to bit interleaved parity in the inn, where they had drawn the interest of their three girls, then disappeared: possible that he was the lover of the girls, and someone thinks they were in love with him, and that for some obscure reason did he kill them? If he was their killer, the Nigel’s death could be not murder but almost capital justice: an executioner came from beyond? Or we are faced with a far-fetched hypothesis and Nigel was killed for other facts, maybe for what he would see in the disappear picture?

Alan Twist will be to put a face to the mysterious killer and to explain the impossible deaths of the three girls and of Nigel, all four occurred under the gaze of reliable witnesses, without anyone could see their murderer.

Once again Paul, in this novel, demonstrates his own love toward Carr: there are indeed many references to his favorite author.

First, the impossible crime in front of witnesses: Nigel who dies falling from the window of the hall of the castle, immediately brings to mind a famous novel by Carr, the shortest of his: The Case of the Constant Suicides, of 1941, in which a man falls from the window of a tower, whose door was bolted from the inside. According to me, the novel by Paul, it is a very fascinating variation; then, it brings to Carr when at the 16th chapter, he talks about “The man who explained miracles” so appealing Inspector Hurst (but The Man Who Explained Miracles is not only the other title of the story All In A Maze, of the 1956 signed by Carter Dickson, the latest adventure of Merrivale, but also the famous biography written by Douglas Greene about Carr. And finally, there are other little things that, in my opinion, that approach this novel to Carr.

First, a quote from Carr could be the final step of the 19th chapter: “The light in the window, which it watched for a moment, created yellow reflections in eyes which were clearly not those of a balanced and stable individual.”(Paul Halter : The Demon of Dartmoor – translation: John Pugmire). To me, this step has drawn immediately for mental association, the look of the killer, hidden among the rooftops, at Death-Watch (1935).

But this might just be my obsession. Instead, I believe that there is another quote more important from Carr, indeed by Carter Dickson, which immediately brings to mind, the fall from the promontory of the girls: in fact, it remembered to me “She Died A Lady”, of 1943 in which two lovers fall from a cliff in the underlying ocean (but despite the tracks are only their, it is a murder: one of the most beautiful locked rooms by Carr and one of his masterpieces). And yet .. “The Invisible Man”: the title of the comedy starring on stage by Nigel and Nathalie, recall as well as the science fiction novel of 1881 by Herbert George Wells, also a collection of short stories by Carr entitled The New invisible Man (with Colonel March).

However it would be wrong to say that Paul has created his novel starting from Carr:

No!

Instead, I believe Paul has somehow tapped something by Carr (perhaps even subconsciously), creating an original work, I would say one of his most fascinating.
First, the two novelists have a different idea of their stories: while Carr creates intense and dramatic stories, Halter creates fairy “black”tales, that have a great atmosphere, with false supernatural elements: the atmosphere is magical, because magical are the descriptions of the places (a similar process can be seen in L’arbre aux doigts tordus or La malediction de Barberousse), and there are supernatural references (an invisible man, a headless horseman, a deck of diabolical cards, a flying horse). Moreover Carr creates stories suited to adults, in which lack drastically almost very young subjects, because the story is told through the eyes of an adult, unlike Halter where instead these subjects are often present (La malédiction de Barberousse, Le diable de Dartmoor, Spiral) because the story is told through the eyes of a boy. I quote an important step of interview done by me to Paul, 1 year ago, and that had an echo quite significant, even abroad:

Le gros problème, pour un roman policier, est que la magie du mystère cesse d’opérer à la fin, lorsque tout est expliqué par le menu. Il faut donc trouver un truc pour que le charme opère toujours. Le meilleur exemple reste à mes yeux la fin de La Chambre ardente de Carr. Autrement dit, trouver un truc pour accréditer le fantastique après les explications finales. Comme définition du roman policier, Pierre Véry parlait de “conte de fées pour adultes” et je sourscris à cette affirmation sans la moindre réserve. Pour les petits enfants que nous étions, ces histoires de sorcières, de fées et de dragons étaient une véritable école de préparation au roman policier ! Et inconsciemment, je crois que j’essaye de retrouver ces premièrs frissons en écrivant mes histoires. Le thème du conte de fées est toujours au moins sous-jacent. Dand “L’homme qui aimait les nuages”, c’est même manifeste. L’héroine semble être une fée, tandis que le coupable est le “vent”. Pour ce qui est de l’atmosphère, je ne sais pas si c’est inné, en tout cas, ce me semble indispensable pour écrire une bonne histoire. Et tant que je ne la “sens” pas, pas question pour moi de commencer mon récit.    

( http://deathcanread.blogspot.it/2013/08/entretien-avec-paul-halter-interview.html ).

In addition, while in the case of Carr’s novels the culprit almost never is a victim of fate and almost always he is a being who killed maybe pushed by necessity, or for cold and calculated skill, but not for madness, in the novels of Halter (and also in Le diable de Dartmoor) peeps insistent the theme of madness:

Oui, j’aime le thème de la folie. Cela permet de présenter des mobiles variés et surprenants. Les problèmes psychologiques liés à l’enfance (en évitant le sacro-saint viol de l’oncle si possible !) sont également intéressants. Je dirais que mes criminels sont souvent “obsédés”, par une passion, une phobie, etc. Pour être plus précis, il faudrait que je détaille chacune des mes histoires, mais je laisserais au lecteur le soin de les découvrir par lui-même. 

( http://deathcanread.blogspot.it/2013/08/entretien-avec-paul-halter-interview.html ).

Another difference between Carr and Halter concerns the construction of the plot: while Carr reserves importance both to the “How” and “Who”, Halter is mainly concerned to explain how an event took place: not at random, except La quatriéme porte and Le brouillard rouge , and some other novel among the first issued, such as La mort vous invite or La lettre qui tue, it is not so difficult to frame the guilty, which instead doesn’t happen in the case of Carr. This because Halter inherits the tradition of the French enigma novel in which the enigma has prevalence respect to the identification of the culprit.

Other difference between the two relates to the details of the story: while in Carr, and generally in the case of Anglo-Saxon novelists of the 30s (E.Queen, Van Dine, CDKing, etc. ..), the details, the particular have a significant and are extremely complex in their explanation, and each contributes to the final solution, in Halter this is not always the case, as the microstructure of the novel does not care him far as the macrostructure: interests him the problem and not its outward expressions instead. If the difficulty in La Quatrième Porte has a very high level of complexity, almost pure virtuosity, in many of his novels, the difficulty is only apparent.

Not surprisingly, in a history of Halter, if you understand how he thinks, and what is his “modus agendi et procedendi” (which are often repeated in the novels), it is not difficult to spot the culprit, unlike in Carr. Carr, has the ability to explain in the minutest details the solution of a certain fact, even after you have stretched the plot of the novel. And in this it differs from other contemporary novelist: for example Talbot, that in Rim of the Pit creates a sum of impossible situations insomuch to fatigue then, in the final solution, to explain realistically them, climbing often on the mirrors. Hi because Halter, in my opinion, very intelligently, knowing he isn’t on the same level of Carr, does not try to emulate him failing in the attempt, but instead he creates very attractive narrative buildings, but easy to explain, because they have no real complexity (except in some of the early work): it is also reflected in the length of his novels, which often stands on 200 pages or less, unlike the carrian novels.

In the novel, however, there are also other interesting things, that relate to the quotes submitted. For example, the beginning of Chapter 8, presents us Frank, in a dingy hotel room, who caters to his lover Nathalie and says:
“Couvrez ce sein que je ne saurais voir”
The complete period would be: “Couvrez ce sein que je ne voir saurais voir. Par de pareils objets les âmes sont blessées, et cela fait venir de coupables pensées.”(Molière: Tartuffe, Act III, Scene II, verses 860-862). Nathalie and Frank are lovers and her nakedness, is the prologue to an embrace. However, he turns to her, mentioning a step away from Molière’s Tartuffe: Tartuffe wants to seduce Elmira, with his moralizing maxims, expressed in a manner that, not too subtly, she understands how he wants to possess her. In essence, the advances of Truffle / Frank is the soul of hypocrisy, duplicity, the dichotomy between being and appearance: in fact even Frank, like Tartuffe, is a hypocrite, which manifests ihimelf in a certain way to win the next , i.e. starlets and showgirls in search of success (as Nathalie).

Yet the pace, in my opinion, could be the soul of the whole novel, and it would not be entirely accidental that Paul had entered it: a novel about the duplicity and falsehood. In fact, if we analyze the behavior of the various characters in the novel, you will see that several of them, it is as if they recited a part, and so in essence they are the hypocrites: Nathalie is false, false is Frank, Nigel is false, false is Helen, Victor is false, false is Annie, and could also be false Basil also.

In conclusion, another very beautiful novel by Paul Halter.

Pietro De Palma

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