Dinner of the Dead

"Because... we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not."
- Dr. Gideon Fell (John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man, 1935)
Paul Halter's La mort vous invite (Death Invites You, 1988) is his twelfth detective novel to be translated into English by John Pugmire, a modern-day merchant of miracles, which marked the second appearance of Halter's primary series-characters, Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst – who made their first bow in the preceding book, La quatriéme porte (The Fourth Door, 1987). Well, Hurst was only mentioned in passing by Dr. Twist, but that is a mere trifle of a detail.

Pugmire published the English edition of Death Invites You early last year and it has earned the dubious honor of being liked by Halter's most persistent detractors. For example, Brad of the Ah, Sweet Mystery blog exclaimed, "EURAKA! Found a Halter I Like," which is a read he described as "a very enjoyable ride." 

So when even one of his most persistent critics managed to turn out a positive review, I decided to give a pass to the widely-panned L'arbre aux doigts tordus (The Vampire Tree, 1996) and move this particular item to the upper regions of the big pile. But does my take on the book concur with popular opinion? Let's find out!

The opening chapter of Death Invites You finds Dr. Twist and Hurst drinking a beer in a London pub, while the latter complains that "criminals aren't what they used to be" and laments the passing of "the age of the master criminal." Dr. Twist is not as pessimistic as his policeman friend, because "a particularly tricky case usually turns up" when the inspector talks like that and, as if on cue, they spot a police officer at the bar, Sergeant Simon Cunningham – a promising young man who played a vital role in capturing the "Lonely Hearts Killer." 

Cunningham is engaged to Valerie Vickers and she is the daughter of a famous mystery writer, Harold Vickers, who's the leading practitioner of the locked room mystery! Vickers is an eccentric man, stoic and prone to mood swings, and often locked himself in his study for days on end when working on a book. So Cunningham was more annoyed than surprised when he received an invitation from his future father-in-law to a very important dinner, which had to be kept secret even from Valerie. A dinner that forced him to cancel a date with a very disappointed Valerie.

A second invitation was dispatched to a newspaper reporter, Fred Springer, who's also "a renowned critic of crime fiction," but when they arrive at the home of Vickers they learn from Mrs. Vickers that her husband has one of his customary spells inside his locked office – where he has not emerged from for the better part of two days. The repeated knocks on the door are not answered and there's "an undeniable odour of chicken" emanating from the locked office. So they decide to charge the door, but when it gave way they tumbled into an otherworldly scene.

The body of Harold Vickers, seated on one of three chairs, is slumped over a table sumptuously prepared for three people. Silver plates are filled with salmon, vegetables, roasted chickens, cheese, grapes, bottles of Burgundy and stuffed pheasants flanked by silver candelabras – beautifully illuminating the macabre scene with their flickering flames. A bullet hole was visible in the right temple, but the rest of Vickers' head was submerged in a large frying pan of boiling oil, which disfigured both his face and hands.

The scene alone would pose a mind-bending challenge to Dr. Twist and Hurst, but there are other complicating factors. One of them is the inexplicable presence of a half-filled goblet of water standing beneath the window or how the crime-scene resembles the premise of both the victim's next book as well as an unsolved murder case from 1907.

Or what to think about the suspects: Vickers has a brother-in-law, Roger Sharpe, who's a stage magician and acted as a technical adviser on his locked room stories. He probably knows how to pull off such an elaborate and deadly illusion. There's a second daughter, Henriette, who can best be described as soft in the head and disliked her own father as much as she loved her late grandfather – whose lingering memory haunts the investigation. Vickers also has a twin brother, living in Australia (where else?), who went missing en route to England, which naturally adds yet another possibility to the complicated investigation. Finally, there's "a strange next door neighbor," Dr. Colin Hubbard.

And there you have it! All the ingredients necessary to write a first-rate detective story: a mouthwatering premise, a banquet of clues and a dinner table full of suspects, but what we got instead strongly resembled the plot of a relative well-known short story.

Robert Arthur's "The 51st Sealed Room," collected in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982), tells of the gruesome killing of a mystery novelist, specialized in locked room stories, whose headless body is found inside a sealed cabin, propped up in front of his typewriter, with his severed head placed on the topshelf of a bookcase – as if it overlooked the bizarre scene of his own murder. Unfortunately, all of the clues and the setting of the scene were revealed to be nothing more than red herrings planted in order to muddle the waters. The murderer staged an elaborate and bizarre crime-scene purely to mystify the investigators. Only the solution to the locked room proved to be relevant to the plot. Same is kind of true for Death Invites You.

The sumptuously prepared meal, the water-filled goblet and the burned features only served to mystify without rhyme or reason. You can't help but feel disappointed about that. Since you expect a John Dickson Carr fanboy, like Halter, to come up with at least a halfhearted attempt to provide a logical answer to all of these so-called clues. On top of that, the murderer was not particularly well-hidden, either, but (to be honest) neither was my identification of this character picture-perfect, because I assumed the obvious murderer was an obvious red herring and the obvious red herring the obvious murderer. 

In my defense, there was something in the narrative, early on, that put me on the wrong track and may not have been entirely fair. Anyhow, I switched to the correct murderer when the motive became clear to me, which was nicely worked into the overall plot. As a matter of the fact, the motive may very well be the best worked out aspect of the story.

Gratefully, the locked room situation was also not entirely without interest and the technical nature of the trick, alongside with the motive, placed the book closer to the works of S.S. van Dine than to Carr's – especially his locked room novels (e.g. The Kennel Murder Case, 1932). I know the mere mention of Van Dine will probably make some of you curl your upper lip in disgust, but The Kennel Murder Case is, in my experience, the best and most readable title in the Philo Vance series. So it should not be taken as a slight towards Halter.

Well, I feel very divided about Death Invites You. On the one hand, I feel disappointed, even cheated, by the sumptuous banquet of red herrings that only served to (unfairly) obfuscate a relatively simple and straightforward plot. You can argue it served as plot dressing, but when you present such a crime-scene in a classical-styled locked room mystery, I expect at least an attempt at a logical answer. On the other hand, the story moved along nicely and the murderer, in combination with the motive, fitted together logically with murders. And the locked room trick was not bad either.

The end result is a middling effort that is miles ahead of Le roi du desordre (The Lord of Misrule, 1994) and ranks roughly alongside Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996), but is left in the dust by Halter's best impossible crime novels – such as La septiéme hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991), Le diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993) and La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005).

Personally, I would not recommend the book, like "JJ" did, to people who are new to Halter, but readers who are already familiar with his flaws will probably be able to appreciate the story and forgive some of its short comings. After all, the book is a fun, quick read with the biggest flaw being that it did not delivered on all its promises. Since some of the criticism leveled at Halter is that he tries to deliver on the promises of a fantastic premise (e.g. Le brouillard rouge, 1988; The Crimson Fog), I can understand why readers like Brad liked Death Invites You

Well, I rambled on long enough in this slightly muddled blog-post and hope everyone can put up with a few more locked room reviews, but after the next three or four posts I will mix things up again.


  1. I can't disagree with your perspective even if I don't quite share your conclusions -- one of the things you dislike is one of the things I liked most about it, so clearly that quirk in our brains goes in opposite directions! I think the characters are a lot better here than Halter usually gets credit for -- Vickers' daughters in particular are well-drawn -- and that goes a long way for me, too.

    The impossibility in The Vampire Tree is something I loved, incidentally, but the plot around it is...a sort of oddly gothic mix. I can see what he was trying to do, and maybe there's a tradition it works well inside of (or in homage to, perhaps), but it's in now way like the Halter books we've seen prior to it. Good to see him diversifying, but possibly better as a short story featuring just the (somewhat in the background) impossible death.

    1. We often shoot in opposite directions when it comes to our likes and dislikes. Funnily enough, our diverging opinions bump into each other again with The Invisible Circle and we're pretty much the only ones who appreciated what Halter tried to achieve in that story. So there's that.

      I'll eventually get around to The Vampire Tree, but still remember a detailed and condemning review posted on the now defunct JDC forum in the 2000s. One of the few that was really negative. And the reviews of the English edition have not exactly been glowing. I think Kevin Killian was the only reviewer has been unreservedly positive about the book.

      So who knows. Maybe with a strongly adjusted expectation, the book will prove itself to be impossible to disappoint. But that's for another time!

  2. I confess I liked this one, and I liked it only less than 'Seventh Hypothesis'. Then again, I haven't read some of Halter's purportedly strongest works: leaving 'Demon of Dartmoor' and 'Phantom Passage' to the last. However, I latched onto the solution to the locked-room conundrum quite quickly, as certain details made me think of a certain episode in 'Death in Paradise'.

    Regarding 'Vampire Tree', I think I had a diametrically opposite reaction to JJ's. I didn't mind the story quite as much as he did, as I read it as a sort of horror-thriller - but I didn't like the resolution to the impossibility. It fell into the category of solutions that tends to rub me the wrong way, I guess...

    1. You'll love Halter's explanation for the vanishing street in The Phantom Passage (one of his best impossible crime plots) and The Demon of Dartmoor has a stronger than usual sense of time and place, which is usually a weak spot in Halter's writing. And the plot is also pretty good. So a fan of neo-orthodox detective stories will find a lot to enjoy in those two titles!

  3. Thanks for the endorsements - I love saving the best for the last... :D

  4. What is it with Halter and receptacles with water at the scene of the crime? That turned up in THE MADMAN'S ROOM too (or rather after, it was published in 1990). I will probably wait a while before getting this one as I suspect the aspects that irritated you TC would have the same effect on me.

    1. Allow me to, once again, recommend The Phantom Passage, because you'll definitely appreciate how Halter handled the impossibility of a vanishing street. The visions of the past murders were more hacky in nature, but this weakness is almost completely overshadowed by stronger elements. Such as the vanishing street.

      Seriously, the more I think back The Phantom Passage, the more I like it.

  5. Read this a few days ago, and I liked it, barring the ending and the fact that the killer's plan makes little sense when rethinking it. But maybe I just need to look at the explanation again.

    I admit I'm a little dismayed that I'm the only person surprised by the killer! If I hadn't been spoiled I probably wouldn't have figured it out (well, I might have by process of elimination).

    The Dark One

    1. There's some logic and method to the murderer's core plan, standing on a solid motive, but the murderer made the whole scheme more difficult for the sake of being difficult (e.g. the surfeit of red herrings).