The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) by Paul Halter

Paul Halter's L'Homme qui aimait les nuages (The Man Who Loved Clouds, 1999) is his fifteenth mystery novel to be translated by the inestimable John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, which is a magical, dreamy and fairy tale-like detective story with several impossible crimes – something of a cross between Gladys Mitchell (e.g. Death and the Maiden, 1947) and Carter Dickson's "The House in Goblin Wood" (1947). An uncommon combination that worked better than expected!

Mark Reeder is an absent-minded journalist with the habit of forgetting his car-keys, papers or "who-knows-what else" and his editor calls him a man with his head in the clouds. This is the literal truth. Reeder loves clouds and "could spend hours watching them."

So when he lost an article that was due to go to the printers, his editors told him to take his annual leave and he packed his bags, jumped in his car and followed the clouds – which brought him to the village of Pickering. Upon his arrival, Reeder laid eyes on "the most exquisite creature" he has ever seen, Stella, who's the daughter of the late lamented John Deverell. A local artist who committed suicide two years ago.

Reeder is told by one of the villages that Stella "a bit special" and appears to possesses the magical abilities of a real-life fairy!

Stella was born in "a house haunted by moaning winds," which was build on top of a hill overlooking "the sea-lashed reefs" below, where the never-ending winds play like "the mournful screeching of a demented violin." The wind blows there all the time and has taken many lives over the centuries. However, Stella emerged from that haunted, wind-blown place with the ability to become invisible, as is she was carried away by the wind – something that often happens when she enters a small copse called the Fairy Wood. At first, the villagers assumed there was hiding place in the copse, but nobody has been able to find it.

The village policemen even set a trap for her by staking out the copse and she managed to completely disappear from "inside a guarded perimeter," but these are not the only miracles she performed. Stella can turn stones into gold simply rubbing them and predict the future. She predicted the deaths of three villagers.

So, having heard all of these stories, Reeder decides to enlist the help of Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst, who witness first-hand how Stella turns ordinary stones into cold and accurately predicts the death of three men. One of these men died in front of Reeder under baffling, seemingly impossible circumstances. Reeder saw with his own eyes how this man began to fight with the wind, which was blowing furiously, when he was suddenly plucked from the ground by "a violent gust" – simply disappeared into the darkness. As enticing as all these miraculous events are, they do not represent the best aspects of the plot. And they have very simplistic answers. You might be surprised to learn that I didn't care about that at all here.

The Man Who Loved Clouds is a superbly imagined and wonderfully executed detective story, in which the splendid who-and why of the plot were marvelously intertwined with the more wondrous plot-threads of the story. Plot-wise, this is easily one of Halter's best mystery novels on par with La septième hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991), Le diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993) and La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005). But the dreamy, fairy tale-like story-telling is what turned this book into something truly great and memorable.

One of Halter's compatriots and fellow mystery writer, Pierre Véry, once commented that "what counts for an author (and for a person) is to save what has been able to remain in us as the child that we were." A child "full of flaws, of changes of heart, of shadows and mystery," but "so pure, so pure." Halter did exactly that and The Man Who Loved Clouds is, what Véry would call, "a fairy tale for grown-ups."

I believe Véry would have liked The Man Who Loved Clouds and Halter's story-telling here is, in spirit, very close to the only detective novel I have read from Véry's own hands, namely L'assassinat du Père Noël (The Murder of Father Christmas, 1934), which is also a (minor) impossible crime story with that wondrous, fairy tale-like atmosphere. Now I want to re-read it more than ever before. And, hey, just look at the time of the year! ;)

My sole complaint, which is a very minor one, is that the book-title is a bit of a misnomer and a better title was suggested in the story. Reeder described Stella as "the daughter of the wind" and that would been a more fitting book-title, but, other than that, this was an excellent, imaginative and memorable detective story. I have struggled with Halter in the past, but it's detective stories like these that makes it perfectly understandable why JJ feverishly rants and raves about his work. 

The Man Who Loved Clouds is recommended without reservations.


  1. I'm thrilled that you're starting to evince a bit more love for Halter, even if we do slightly disagree about this one. And it seems we get a brand new novel from him in 2019, so you've come to the party just in time!

    1. Starting to love Halter? Where have you been, JJ? I've liked Halter for years and even stand with you, as one of the few, who likes The Invisible Circle! I only really disliked The Lord of Misrule and The Vampire Tree.

      And if there's one complaint I have about the Halter translations today, it's that Pugmire keeps dodging the titles I want to read the most (Penelope's Web, The Traveller from the Past, The Twelve Crimes of Hercules and The One-Eyed Tiger). Still looking forward to The Golden Watch.

    2. Incidentally, I have read all the Halter titles you want to read and my ratings are as follows:
      The Twelve Crimes of Hercules: 3 stars
      Penelope's Web: 4 stars
      The Traveller from the past: 4 stars
      The One-eyed Tiger: 5 stars

    3. Thanks for your ratings, Santosh. I fully expect The Twelve Crimes of Hercules to rank right alongside The Seven Wonders of Crime (i.e. not one of Halter's top titles), but the idea of half a dozen, mythological-themed impossible murders fascinates me. What can I say? I'm a locked room fanboy.

      Well, I just have to be patient for another year or two, three... Pugmire will get around to them eventually.

  2. By the way, La Montre En Or (The Golden Watch) will be published in 3 translations: English, Chinese and Japanese .