Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999/2018) by Paul Halter (translated by John Pugmire)

The Man Who Loved Clouds is yet another novel from Paul Halter, this time presenting his take on the fairy tale. The book almost reminded me of the earlier Halter novel The Vampire Tree. Both books, as Nick Fuller notes, are more reactionary, as the detectives are more responding to events rather than actively investigating. However, while The Vampire Tree was almost more of a horror novel than a mystery, The Man Who Loved Clouds aims more to be “charming.” Also, it’s much better than The Vampire Tree.

The first half of The Man Who Loved Clouds focuses on Mark Reeder, a reporter who is forced to go on vacation. A lover of clouds, Reeder follows them to the small village of Pickering, a quiet, peaceful seaside town whose only real feature is the constant wind. On the mountain roads, the winds can easily send someone over the edge, and eventually shift from “light music” to “the mournful screeching of a demented violin.” The winds are already considered responsible for various tragedies at a house at the top of the hill, ranging from mental breakdown to suicides, including that of John Deverell, a well-liked local. However, Pickering also has another little secret that Reeder is much more interested in.

Stella Deverell is John’s daughter and a young, fairy-like woman who wins Reeder’s affections after retrieving his blown-away hat. Stella proves to have more abilities than retrieving hats, she has more abilities than your average X-Men team. Stella spends much of her time in a copse called Fairy Wood, where she seems to be able to disappear at will, even when followed by a witness or when the wood is surrounded by police. She also seems to be able to turn rocks into gold and to predict the future, whether that be madness for one man or a good catch for the fisherman. The first half of the book is about Reeder attempting to find out more about Stella’s abilities, and this part admittedly drags a bit. As JJ notes, there’s a lot of “telling” and not much “showing.” We only hear about Stella’s feats off-page, and this means that the opening lacks a certain energy. It’s not until she successfully predicts the death of a local citizen that the police get involved.

The second half of the book moves at a faster pace, with Halter’s trademark rapid-fire twists and impossible crimes, such as a man who is pushed from a path while walking alone in high winds, implying that the wind itself was responsible. However, the impossibilities in this book aren’t among Halter’s best.

I don’t think that I’ll shock anyone when I say that a mystery is dependent on detail. In many mysteries, the whole thing turns on some seemingly minor or insignificant point. This is especially applicable in impossible crimes stories, where the solutions can also easily be hinted at by some small detail. In my opinion, the issue is that Halter doesn’t give the reader the detail they need. I’ve already mentioned how we don’t get to see Stella’s feats, we’re almost always told about them in retrospect, but this also applies to the “present day” crimes as well. For example, I liked the idea behind the second murder in theory (in fact in my original draft of this review I said it was the only one I really liked), but you don’t get the needed detail about what the witness saw to really know what happened. I had a similar issue with the final death, since it was hard for me to get a grasp of where everything was in relation to each other. Said final crime was also what led me to re-reading the book. I didn’t like it the first time I read it, but when I skimmed it while working on this review and saw that I misunderstood what happened, I decided to give the book itself another chance. I still don’t think that the final murder works, but now I understand what Halter thought would happen.

All of this is disappointing, since the setting and atmosphere of the book are some of Halter’s best. The village is sparse, but I found the idea of Stella being a personal secret of this isolated village believable and interesting. The descriptions of the howling wind that seems to be killing at will create an atmosphere of unease. As someone who likes the sound of the wind myself, I found myself imagining Halter listening to wind, thinking about how it could be used in a mystery. The explanation Halter gives for how the house at the top of the village mountain is “cursed” is a good example of setting in my opinion, tying in the “supernatural” in a way that doesn’t take away from the mystery plot, instead serving as a backdrop to it.

The same can’t be said for the suspects in the book, who are pretty two-dimensional. Beyond Reeder and Stella (and Stella is quite well done, walking the tightrope between naivete and cunning), only Usher, the man who owns the old Deverell home, gets any real development. The village reverend, the jolly fisherman, the village eccentric…they just don’t stand out that well. Only the Fishes, a tense couple, stayed in my mind when the story closed. This results in a rather weak whodunit aspect, and I have to question how fairly clued it is. It’s hard to discuss without spoilers, but while there are some clues pointing at the killer, one piece of information is never really given, or if it is it’s given so indirectly that it’s easy to miss (ROT13: Anzryl, gur onggrerq pbaqvgvba bs gur obql gung nyybjf Wbua gb xvyy Hfure naq gnxr uvf cynpr. Nf sne nf V xabj jr trg bayl gur inthrfg zragvba bs gur onggrerq pbaqvgvbaf bs obqvrf, naq nobhg rirel gvzr jr qb jr’er gbyq, “Bu ohg jr pbhyq vqragvsl vg.”).

There’s another clue given near the end, (ROT13: gur pbagragf bs gur yrggre) but again, the clue itself is so vague that it’s hard to draw conclusions from it. It works as one of those clues that make sense once you know the solution, but you can’t really use it to reach the solution, in my opinion. Finally, the motive for one of the crimes is either wrong, or I badly misunderstood something. (ROT13: Qe. Gjvfg fnlf gung Jvyqre jnf xvyyrq orpnhfr ur ernq Gerag’f yrggre naq gevrq gb oynpxznvy “Hfure”...ohg gur aneengvba jura Jvyqre cnffrf gur yrggre gb vgf erpvcvrag vf irel pyrne gung Jvyqre qvqa’g ernq gur yrggre! Lbh pbhyq nethr, naq guvf vf jung V nffhzrq jura V ernq guvf, gung Gjvfg jnf whfg nffhzvat gung Jvyqre ernq vg. Ubjrire, frrvat nf Jvyqre’f orunivbe ba gur avtug bs gur zheqre vf nggevohgrq gb zrrgvat jvgu “Hfure”, V’z thrffvat gung ur neenatrq gb zrrg Jvyqre va fbzr bgure pbagrkg. Vg fgvyy ohtf zr n ovg, fvapr V’z abg fher vs guvf jnf jung Unygre jnf tbvat sbe.)

All in all, I find this book hard to recommend. On the one hand, the cluing is imperfect, the solutions don’t really impress, and there are some honestly sloppy flaws in it, such as John’s death being described as a “disappearance” part of the time. On the other hand, the atmosphere is good, the book is charming, and the story is honestly unique. I’m not sure that that’s enough of a selling point, for me at least. I can’t say that this should be anyone’s introduction to Halter, but someone with a few books under their belt would get some enjoyment out of this. On the whole, the flaws don’t quite outweigh the benefits for me. I enjoyed some elements of this, but the plotting was just a bit too loose for my sake. Not Recommended.

That being said, check out these positive reviews from TomCat, JJ, the Puzzle Doctor, and Suddenly at His Residence. They might convince you to check this out.