The Fourth Door was Halter’s first published novel, yet many of its themes and obsession can be found within the other nine I have read, including his latest, The Gold Watch. Bless him, he’s still doing the same thing. It’s the promise of narrative trickery and (of course) impossible crime which makes me so happy to crack open the glossy noir cover and embark on a three-ton plot crammed into 160-180 pages. How does his first novel hold up?
The major impossibility here is the room that kills. (as opposed to the room that provides emotional support — God, are those novels boring!) Before the story begins, a woman is found dead inside the room. The door was bolted on the inside, so she must have slit her own wrists. She also must have stabbed herself multiple times. The room is through the fourth door of a darkened upstairs hallway.
As an experiment, a man will spend a few hours inside (with someone checking on him every thirty minutes) in the hope of making contact with her spirit. The man enters. The door is sealed with wax, and a rare coin is pressed into the wax. After the seal is broken, a corpse is found, but it ain’t the guy who walked in.
This element is the single best thing in TFD. It’s worth the price of purchase.
There are other mysteries: a no-footprints problem, a mysterious character lugging around a dead body, and a character appearing in two places at once. I’ve left out about twenty other things. It’s not as densely packed as The Madman’s Room, but it comes close.
Overall, the presentation here is good. He would go on to do much better, but the set-up captures our interest, and Halter deftly turns the plot’s gears while shifting suspicion from character to character.
Our detective, Inspector Drew is known for his expertise in psychology as much as his prowess in the field of criminology. His deductions, brilliant though not quite accurate, are thwarted by one surprise after another. I must say, the solution he provides to the sealed wax room is stunning, especially as it comes so close to the mid-point of the book. The fact that it turns out to be false is a testament to Halter’s imagination.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned most of the characters’ names. First novels tend to be compilations of every brilliant thing the author has ever wanted to see in a novel, thrown onto the page in a mad headlong rush of inspiration. The author’s voice, however, is not fully formed and characterization suffers. (I suppose in a perfect world the first book is content, the second form, and the third a happy marriage of the two.) The characters in this book are thinner than the ones in his other books, and, let’s face it, those characters aren’t much to write home about.
The solution to the sealed room is really good — though I could have used a line or two during the actual event to match a character’s later recollections. It’s a simple principle that’s easy to believe.
There are weaknesses. The no-footprints solution will rankle more than entertain, and one of the character’s puzzling actions require a motivation that is just flat-out hogwash-bathed hokum. I read it and said, “Whatever.” If you can accept these flaws, you’ll enjoy it.
This is not great Paul Halter, but it’s fascinating to see the embryos of his obsessions. I can point to a number of devices and tricks that he perfected in other novels; however, the passion responsible for those novels is well represented on these pages.