Since the beginning of my affair with detective novels, I’ve thought of them as interactive. That is the attraction which separates them from other forms. The allegory of science fiction, the plot (not the plotting— AKA what will happen? not what happened?) of a thriller, the sensory assault of the horror novel, et al.—all of these strike me as external worlds that I choose to enter. The detective novel (the good ones anyway) speak directly to me. No other genre has at its core the active participation of a reader matching wits with the author. I love Flannery O’Connor’s work, but I’ve never spent any time with her. It’s a distant relationship. I feel like I’ve had tea with Christianna Brand.
Detective fiction offers a challenging, invigorating game with a gratifying prize in the form of a solution to all the sweet sweet madness that came before. There are different styles and techniques to be sure, but all I really care about in the end is the game. Are they playing with me? Are they playing fair? Does the game have an interesting premise? Am I going to lose? (I hope so)
Some authors have the messed-up notion that the game is not enough. Perhaps they want to lecture (don’t listen to us pontificate about life, we have no idea what we’re talking about) or show off their talents in sketching characters or (God help us) they want to create art—as if art cannot be a thing functioning the exact way it’s supposed to.
I’ve rarely come across anyone more determined to play with the reader than Paul Halter. Over the weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading The Madman’s Room, a pitch-perfect mystery with nothing on its mind but the reader’s pleasure.
Halter often employs the mystery of legends, presenting their impossibilities as imperfectly documented tales which somehow inspire a modern murderer to recreate them. TMR is no exception, but the tale it uses is strikingly odd. We get the room that kills, but we also get…the wet spot on the carpet? (The dog dunnit!) The solutions to these and other mysteries are so natural, borne from such impeccable logic that you finish the book in stunned reverie. How far halter pushed the narrative toward insanity only to rope them back to the ordered realm of logic. I’ve thought a lot about the pleasure-of-the-problem/disappointment-of-the-solution ratio. There is also the inasnity-of-the-problem/lucidity-of-the-solution ratio. The latter is much more difficult (I know from experience). Halter is masterful at both.
It’s not my favorite of his books (that honor still goes to The Demon of Dartmoor), but TMR is essential reading.
The epilogue might rankle a few readers as much as the last bit of The Burning Court rankled me. I didn’t consider TMR’s ending as a meta. It seemed to me more like an author’s parting shot to his vanquished foe. Thanks for playing. Sucker.