Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Helm of Hades (2019) by Paul Halter (translated by John Pugmire)

After taking a slight break from short stories (beyond a couple of collections that I won’t be reviewing),
I decided to get back into them via Paul Halter’s The Helm of Hades. For some time now, I’ve held that Halter’s The Night of the Wolf, a short story collection, was his best work, as the short story played to his strengths while downplaying his weaknesses. As a result, I’ve eagerly awaited the next collection of his short work. But can it match up to (my memories of) The Night of the Wolf?

We open with an honestly quite lovely preface from Ronald Lacourbe before the first story, which provides us with Halter’s take on Carr’s The Judas Window: “The Gong of Doom.” Philip is a young man looking to marry Rose Strange, but her uncle/guardian opposes it. Philip goes to have words with him in his study, and Rose and her uncle’s manservant hear a vicious argument from within, which is interrupted by “a booming, resonant sound.” And the colonel has in his office a gong that is said to ring without being struck, and that foreshadows “someone’s imminent death” when it does…and indeed, when a terrified Philip opens the locked study door, the colonel is found dead on the floor with an arrow in his neck. And while the window is open, it leads out to “an unbroken brick wall without a single nook or cranny,” and to a street covered with unmarked snow…While there is one aspect of this solution that I don’t like, after letting the story settle for a bit, I’ve come to like it more on the whole. The solution is good, although this story demanded a map; I’m always terrible at solving mysteries that hinge on visualizing a scene, especially when there’s no map.

I’ve already reviewed “Jacob’s Ladder,” so let’s move on to “The Man with the Face of Clay,” the first Owen Burns story of the collection. Determined to knock Burns down a peg, Achilles Stock invites a young woman, the maid of archeologist Sir Jeremy Canvendish, to tell Burns about the man’s inexplicable murder. After a controversial expedition that ended in a fire, the deaths of two native workers, and a curse put on Sir Cavendish, multiple attempts were made on his life. One night, these efforts reach a climax. The maid lets in a man who wishes to meet with Sir Cavendish, a man whose face looks like it’s been made of brown clay. He leaves and Sir Cavenfish seems unharmed, but the next morning, the household is roused by “the sound of an explosion,” and Sir Cavendish is found shot to death in his study. The door is locked, and the open window leads out on to carefully raked flower beds that were turned to mud by a rainstorm. In other words, “If Sir Jeremy was murdered, it could only have been by someone or something with wings!” Of course, there’s a natural explanation for this, but I wasn’t overly satisfied with it. There’s enough of a twist to it so that it isn’t disappointing (although I would have liked there to be more to it), but it’s still not my favorite solution.

I’d read “The Scarecrow’s Revenge” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine before, but I reread it for this collection. Antoine Dupuis was a jealous rake who treated his wife so terribly that she has nightmares about him even after his death. The day after one visceral nightmare, where Dupuis appears in the form of the scarecrow outside and stabs her father with a pitchfork, her father is found dead in front of it, no footprints besides his own and that of the man who discovered the body in the mud, straw scattered around as if the two fought. And yes, he’s been stabbed with a pitchfork! This one is slightly more whodunit focused than some of Halter’s other works, since you have a good handful of suspects to pick through. On the whole, it’s a good story with a good solution, although there is one aspect that seems off to me, though I might have missed something. (ROT13: Fubhyqa’g gurer unir orra sbbgcevagf yrnqvat gb gur jryy, be jnf gung fheebhaqrq ol fbyvq tebhaq?)

“The Fires of Hell” is another reread. A colonel tells Dr. Twist the tale of Charles-Alexandre Villemore, a taciturn man who claimed to be a clairvoyant, specifically one who predicted multiple fires. The fires he predicted continued to come to pass, even though Villemore had a perfect alibi for some of the fires and the locations he predicted were carefully guarded. I didn’t care much for this story, mostly because the problems are too vague. We’re told that the locations were under guard, but we get so little detail about those precautions that we really don’t have a good grasp on what solutions are and are not possible. I suspect that most will hit on the “how” of this story.

Burns recounts to Stock the tale of “The Wolf of Fenrir,” which occurred during a stay at the home of a friend, Marcellus Blanchard, a jockey. One of the guests at the lodge is Frida Prince, a beautiful woman who boasts of having tamed a local beast, a half-breed wolf. During the first night, she goes out to her cabin…and is found dead the next morning, her hand mangled as if it had been bitten, and only her footprints and those of the wolf in the snow. The explanation of what happened is quite clever, with some good cluing. I was a little unclear (ROT13: ba jung gur ivpgvz qvq qvssreragyl gung avtug, fvapr fur srq gur ornfg erthyneyl. Oheaf fnlf fur cebibxrq vg, ohg V’z abg fher ubj.) I also felt that (ROT13: gur rknpg zrgubq bs zheqre yrsg n ybg gb punapr.) Finally, I didn’t care for how Frida’s husband’s pain gets dismissed because he’s ugly and a bit of a snob. Still, it’s a very good impossible crime.

“Nausicaa’s Ball” is a Christe-style tale, complete with tropical setting and love triangle. Dr. Twist is staying at a hotel on the beautiful island of Corfu, but “the beauty of the landscape and the purity of the blue sky” give the place an eerie vibe, belaying the “gathering storm.” Soon, a crime takes place at the side of the “Blue Lagoon,” a cove with a diving board at the end of a slippery path. Needless to say, the husband of a famous actress is found dead on the rocks, apparently having slipped…but it turns out that he was bludgeoned to death. This is technically an impossible crime; as the time and circumstances of the crime are tightened, it seems impossible that anyone beyond the main suspect could have done it, although Halter doesn’t exactly play it as one. This is another story that needed a map, as where things are play a role in the crime.

Ever since I read Patrick Ohl’s review of “The Robber’s Grave,” it’s been one of my most anticipated Halter stories. Dr. Twist is staying in a village inn and inquires about a gravestone surrounded by an empty plot. About a hundred years ago, a man was hanged for robbery and murder, protesting his innocence, and cried out to God to prove it by “never allowing a blade of grass to grow over his grave.” He was buried outside of the village…and “the grass first turned yellow and then disappeared. And it has never grown there since!” A few years ago, a property developer bought the land to build a golf course and resort hotel, and saw the dead land as a challenge…a challenge he could not overcome, as grass refused to grow in spite of him replacing the dirt multiple times over several months and surrounding the gravesite with a wall, dogs, and guards. I admit that I found the solution to be slightly disappointing on my first readthrough. I skimmed over the solution for this review and understood it a little better; it’s just slightly over-long and (ROT13: onfrq ba na bowrpg V xarj abguvat nobhg jura ernqvat guvf fgbel.) So on the whole, a good story that was improved on the reread.

Next is “The Yellow Book,” which is stuffed to the brim with mysterious events. A séance that predicts a man’s death! A man stabbed to death in a bolted house surrounded by unbroken snow! The murder is committed with a dagger that was elsewhere mere minutes ago! The King in Yellow is found on the floor! I wasn’t very fond of this on the first-go-round, but I warmed up to it after thinking about it. Like most of Halter’s short stories, this is mainly an account told to Dr. Twist, so the suspects don’t stand out too much. And one of the answers to those dramatic statements above is a bit disappointing. But the solution is good; I was disappointed at first, but came around to it.

We wrap up with the titular story, an account to Owen Burns about the bizarre murder of Conrad Berry, an archeologist who claimed to have found the Helm of Hades, rumored to turn its wearer invisible. He promises a demonstration to show off the helm’s power, but an unknown party hijacks it. Four witnesses sit in the salon outside of Berry’s study, when one notices a curtain leading to the salon move, and footsteps are heard in the corridor. Soon after, the door to Berry’s office opens, and ten minutes later, a tremendous crash is heard. More footsteps follow, and a vase in the salon is knocked over…and the intruder is never seen! When the witnesses go inside the office, they find Berry bludgeoned to death, and they soon find themselves targeted by the helm’s wielder. This is another story that I wasn’t too keen on at first, but I suspect that I just read it too quickly. The later attacks after the murder are a bit perfunctory, but the central crime itself is well-done, although one part (ROT13: gur infr orvat gbccyrq bire) felt a bit simple.

I admit, when I sat down to write this review, I thought I’d be giving a pretty low score to it. But, as I’ve chewed on the stories, I find that I enjoyed them more than I thought I did. They show Halter’s ability to come up with unique impossible crimes, and while I didn’t like all the solutions, and noticed more keenly how little Halter characterizes his suspects, I did enjoy them. Recommended.

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Beneath the Stains of Time (interestingly, it looks like our views on Halter's short fiction underwent the same transformation), The Invisible Event (not a review of the full collection, but if you scroll to the bottom, you'll see links to individual reviews of the stories)