book review

The Fourth Door — Paul Halter

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 PROBLEM

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.

THE INVESTIGATION

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(S)

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.

6 thoughts on “The Fourth Door — Paul Halter”

  1. I really enjoyed this book, one of his most complex plot with “The Tiger’s Head”. The principle of the locked room is simple but ingenious. There is a certain connection with “The Gold Watch” in terms of trick, based on an illusion.
    Halter is a great writer, but his main problem, in my opinion, is that he puts in his novels too many riddles or impossible crimes. The central murder is usually the best, but the others were often far-fetched or not so clever. When you add too many things, it’s difficult to control them in a convincing and satisfactory. As the latin poet Horatius said: “in media stat virtus”.

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    1. I imagine two schools of thought on this. There’s definitely something to be said for one or two impossible crimes to be thoroughly (and obsessively) examined for the length of an entire novel. Indeed, there is too much going on in TFD. A lot of the ‘filler’ riddles don’t have much power to them. The attacks that happen off-page barely register–in general way too many people are knocked unconscious. But…
      ‘The Madman’s Room’ is Exhibit A in the argument against that theory. It too is stuffed to the brim with impossibilities and riddles, yet pulls off the explanations magnificently. I didn’t feel short-changed at any point in the summation, and the progression of events is never hampered by a loss of control.

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      1. Yes, “The Madman’s Room” has a well constructed plot till the end. But in general Halter tends to put in his novels too much material. I read over 20 of his novels and I noted that tendency. But Halter is still one of my favourite contemporary authors. You should try “Tiger’s Head” and “The Demon of Dartmoor”, which are his best in my opinion.

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  2. Well, James, while The Gold Watch is classic Halter, you’d be surprised to learn that from 2000 onwards he changed his style and setting. He released lots of international adventure novels about myths and legends of the ancient world, and exotic places. Sometimes he would drop a “monster of the week” like the minotaur or a guy dressed as Hercules. Great fun, but mind you, those tend to be longer and more character-driven. Well, you’re a Brand fan, so no problem there.

    I’d say The Fourth Door is a pretty good novel. Won’t make my “Top ten Halter”, but it’s pretty close. The main impossibility is rather great.

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      1. Yeah. There are other post-2000 traditional mysteries LRI could release as well. But it will be interesting to see what the English speaking world thinks about these as of yet untranslated adventure novels. Le Tigre Borgne, for instance, is top Halter.

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