Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Madman's Room (1990/2017) by Paul Halter

That cover is- I mean, it looks like a horror B-movie poster; a movie about Satanic manuscripts, evil rooms, and psychics. Actually, that describes this book pretty well.

Paul Halter hasn’t had a good time on this blog! It’s a shame, because I enjoy the man. I think he’s certainly imaginative, and personally I’d rather have someone who aims big and fails than someone just churning out average dreck (the former, for one, makes for more entertaining reviews). But usually there’s a false note in his books that make it hard for me to rec them for non-mystery fans. Which is why The Madman’s Room pleases me greatly.

There’s a bit more build up this time around. The first two chapters introduce us to Patrick Nolan and Paula Lyle two young would-be lovers, except for the slight complication that Paula is getting married to Francis Hilton...whose sister Sarah is also getting married to Harris Thorne. Obviously, Patrick and Paula only realized they’re in love right as it’s too late, and the romance (and relevant dialogue) doesn’t get any better from here.

Thankfully, the focus is instead on the plot, and it’s a twisty one. The story goes down at Hatton Manor, the Thorne ancestral home, which has a cursed room that is associated with death and insanity. The original inhabitant was Harvey Thorne, a quiet man who preferred to spend his days in his study writing his manuscript. But when he finally showed it to his father, the man soon fell ill and died (an experience I subject my proofreader to with every post!). Harvey’s response was to further isolate himself, and his room started to give visitors a strange sense of unease. Eventually things reached a climax when Harvey died of a heart attack, apparently in front of an inexplicable water stain in front of his fireplace, proclaiming that his family would pay for their sins in fire. And indeed, the house caught fire and the sole survivor ordered the room sealed.

Back in the modern day, Harris wants to unseal the room to make it his personal study, but the project is opposed by his brother Brian, a supposed psychic who is well-known for his uncanny ability to predict the future. This time he predicts doom when Harris unseals the room, and indeed, doom comes some months later. Harris takes a plunge out the window, and while the evidence seems to indicate it was a jealously-induced suicide, suspicious behavior at the time of the death makes Inspector Hurst suspicious. Not to mention the minor matter of the water stain on the floor…

The Madman’s Room differs from Halter’s normal fare. Normally, a Halter novel has a seemingly endless load of twists and turns that don’t always end somewhere good. This time, the flow is more focused and the tone slightly more somber. We really don’t start getting the usual Halter twists until near the end, and there they come off forced, like Halter realized that things weren’t bizarre enough. The first part of the book is a little slower, due to the needed set-up, but once Harris dies things begin to move at a steadier pace, as the cursed room continues to cause people to become terrified when they pass the threshold. Halter’s explanation for this, as well as the water stains that keep popping up, are excellent.

I enjoyed the character of Brian. Most psychics in mysteries tend to be almost self-consciously fake and malicious, so it was interesting to see one who seemed to not only believe in his own powers but is actually treated with a level of respect. I admit, the explanation for his “predictions” is a little weak, but he was actually my favorite character in the book, although spoilers prevent me from saying if my respect was misplaced.

I remain unsure if this is totally fair-play. I enjoyed the final summing up, but I admit there are few firm clues. It is more an example of “this is the only chain of events that makes sense.” But it’s a complex chain, and I’d be surprised if anyone figured this out all the way. Some of the explanations are slightly weak, but the central murder plot is ingenious, a near-perfect and honestly creepy crime that I can see John Dickson Carr grinning at. There is one alibi that I have seen a couple of reviewers (Sergio and TomCat, whose link I cannot grab at this moment) note was done poorly, but I wasn't bothered by it (probably because I had spotted the clue and drawn the completely wrong conclusion from it so it was in my head!)

The atmosphere of dread is much better than in The Vampire Tree. Halter's actual writing remains dry, but having read two other works that felt so dry the books cracked when I opened them, this is refreshing by contrast. There are a few clunky lines of exposition, including this (paraphrased) bombshell:

“I looked forward and saw them. Doing that! Clearly, before my eyes was that person doing that thing. I fell back in horror as I saw sights unimaginable. Why were they doing that? Could it mean that...Yes. It did. All was clear now. The entire case made perfect sense. What I had seen...but no, I shuddered to think about it. It was very clear to me that I should say nothing about it on-page until that pompous windbag of a detective wore himself out jabbering.”

But I exaggerate. This is honestly a very good book, and I was surprised to learn that it was written so early in Halter’s career. It read like a Halter that had been around the block a few times, had gotten some of the excesses out, learned a little bit more about pacing and cluing, etc. But I’m not objecting. If it weren’t for the lack of a “true” locked room (only an assault later in the book qualifies, as the attacker seems to vanish into thin air, but it is a minor part of the plot) I would probably say it was the most Halter-like Halter. But as it is, it’s just a very good mystery. Recommended, particularly for those new to Halter.

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