Monday, July 2, 2018

Death Invites You (1988) by Paul Halter

Death likes pizza.

A few years ago I reviewed Paul Halter’s The Night of the Wolf, a very good short story collection that I still think is worth your time. I planned to look at the novels, but whoops, that took a while. Since I’ve read most of LRI’s Halter translations (barring The Madman's Room), I figured I might as well do this long overdue review.
Death Invites You is Halter’s third novel, and the first to feature Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Hurst in the same book. The book opens with these two sitting in a pub, musing on how good criminals are just so hard to find these days. Hurst is particular is feeling smug and boasting about the police need a new, meaty case, unaware that one is beginning just a few feet away.

Simon Cunningham was the officer who helped to bring an end to the Lonely Hearts Killer, who targeted and seduced widows, spinsters, and the like before killing them and taking their money. Cunningham’s pursuit led to the killer’s suicide, as well as the officer himself rising up in the ranks and prestige. Now he’s facing a task that made even Spider-Man struggle: telling his fiancĂ© that he can’t make it to her show. What he doesn’t say is that this is because her father, Harold Vickers, a writer of locked room mysteries, has invited him over for reasons unknown (as well as telling him not to inform anyone.)

Cunningham arrives, only to find that Vickers has invited another man, a famous crime reviewer, as well. Also, according to his wife, Diane, Vickers hasn’t left his study in two days, as he sometimes does. A quick check confirms that the shutters are latched, and when the smell of roasting chicken is smelled within the choice is made to force open the bolted door, revealing one of the stranger crime scenes in fiction.

Harold Vickers is found shot to death at a large table with freshly cooked food on it. His hands and face have been dunked into boiling oil. A pair of gloves are found at the scene. A bowl of water sits beneath one of the windows. The scene suggests a bizarre suicide, but it's soon clear that this is a case of murder… And more than that, it’s a scene straight out of Vicker’s latest in production novel.
Death Invites You shows Halter’s greatest strength: He keeps the plot moving. There’s rarely a dull or unexciting moment, and almost every chapter has some form of complication or resolution, which combined with the short length makes for a quick read. The novel presents an interesting set-up, but doesn’t fully deliver. For example, the water in the bowl. There is an explanation for it, and it works, but everyone else is facepalming and going “How could I have been so blind!” over something that isn’t obvious in retrospect. The set-up is amazing, but it’s all hand waved to fit in with the killer’s over complicated scheme, which feels unneeded. Why not just kill who needs to be killed instead of complicating the issue? I understand that this is a mystery novel and every killer has to be Machiavelli, but at least have everything be relevant to what the killer actually wants.

I also have to question how fair this book is. It’s mentioned in the denountment that one of the things that tipped Dr. Twist off to the killer was their reaction to an event. We see this event, but never get the killer’s reaction, not even disguised. Admittedly, the killer isn’t hard to pin down, if just due to the limited number of suspects, but it feels less like a well-reasoned deduction and more like Twist going, “Well, they probably did it.” Even during the denountement, we get no real evidence of the killer’s guilt. It’s plausible, yes, but so was the case Twist made ten pages ago against someone else entirely!
That being said, Halter does do a good job working with a limited cast and managing to bounce suspicion between them all. He even does a good job playing with the "relative from Australia/twin" ideas in good, non-obvious way. I still think it ends up being a tad too tangled by the end, but fair points for making it workable in the first place!
Still, for all my griping, I found myself enjoying the book. Halter creates a maze of mirrors and quite successfully leads the reader down it, piling on complication after complication, and while the resolution isn’t near as grand as it should be, it’s far from a dud, and the locked room itself is simple and neat--leaving me annoyed that I missed it. I’m not sure I’d go with JJ’s suggestion that this be new people’s introduction to Halter, but fans will enjoy. Recommended.

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