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The Seventh Hypothesis

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Halter, Paul -- The Seventh Hypothesis (1991)


English translation 2012 by John Pugmire


     I'm a huge fan of French mystery novelist Paul Halter and have been ever since John Pugmire began translating his works into English. Halter can devise complex plots as well as any writer from the Golden Age, including his inspiration, the great John Dickson Carr, and is unequivocally a genius at formulating "impossible crimes," often surpassing acknowledged masters like the aforementioned Carr, Hake Talbot, Clayton Rawson, and Edward D. Hoch.

     Having read the short story collection The Night of the Wolf and the novels The Fourth Door, The Lord of Misrule, The Seven Wonders of Crime, and The Demon of Dartmoor, I approached The Seventh Hypothesis anticipating another wild ride through the realm of the impossible.

     Its opening chapters did not disappoint. They begin on the night of August 31, 1938. Police constable Edward Watkins is making his rounds when he hears footsteps, looks around, and sees the odd-looking shadow of a pedestrian. He goes after the latter, gets a look at the actual person, and is stunned by what he sees:

     "...his senses had not betrayed him and the extraordinary image was still burned into his mind: the ankle-length coat; the gloved hands; the wide-rimmed hat; and, instead of a face, a white mask in the middle of which was a beak at least a foot long. Even though he had never seen such an individual in the flesh, he had seen enough illustrations for there to be no doubt in his mind: the man he had seen was a plague doctor."

     Still later, Watkins comes upon a formally-dressed man looking through the contents of a dustbin. A doctor's bag is on the ground beside him. When Watkins asks him his name, he says he's Dr. Marcus—"Doctor of Crime." He claims to have put a body into the dustbin, but Watkins quickly determines that it's empty. There are two other such containers, both of which also prove to be full of everything but bodies. The constable is pretty certain he's dealing with a mental case. As the latter departs, he recommends that Watkins have another look in the first dustbin.

     "The man was even madder than he'd suspected," the policeman thinks. "He'd hoped to make him believe there was now a body inside the dustbin which had been empty mere moments ago. It was not only absurd, it was manifestly impossible. With a smile, he lifted the lid.

     "He could not believe his eyes: there really was a corpse inside."

     In pursuit of Dr. Marcus, he encounters a colleague, Constable Harvey, to whom he explains what has happened. When Harvey goes off in search of "reinforcements," as he puts it, Watkins continues walking along the residential block when a window opens behind him and a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Minden, ask if he's found their lodger, a young man named David Cohen. Watkins, of course, has no idea what they're talking about, and thus asks for an explanation. They add to the bizarre nature of his evening when they explain that they run a boarding house and that Cohen had taken sick earlier in the evening. He had evidently summoned medical assistance because three doctors—one of whom was Dr. Marcus, who told the Mindens Cohen had the plague—tried to carry the lodger out on a stretcher. Something happened and Cohen bolted, literally vanishing into thin air. Watkins describes the body in the dustbin and the Mindens say the description fits Cohen.

     A few days later, Scotland Yard Inspector Archibald Hurst relates the incidents to his friend Dr. Alan Twist, the eminent criminologist. The two discuss them at length, each speculating about what might have occurred and how but not getting anywhere definitive.

     A few months later, a man named Peter Moore calls on Twist and Hurst. Moore is the secretary and sometime chauffeur for Sir Gordon Miller, a renowned writer who specializes in mystery scenarios. "Theater and cinema producers fell over themselves to get each new production. His name alone was a guarantee of success...His assessments on matters of mystery fiction carried enormous authority, and many were the authors secretly jealous of his fertile imagination." The story Moore relates involves Sir Gordon and Donald Ransome, a gifted  American actor who has been in England for the past five years and who has appeared in most of Sir Gordon's productions. He once also proved himself to be a skilled improviser during one such production when another cast member fell ill during the performance by "supply[ing] a completely different resolution to one of Gordon Miller's most complex plots by extemporizing an entirely new ending. It was a prodigious tour de force which caused many to believe the author had found the perfect interpreter of his plays."

     The outlandish episode Moore reports, which reminds the detectives of a fatal event in Sir Gordon Miller's past, suggests a potential link to the crime Constable Watkins discovered. Not long after this meeting another crime occurs, this one in Sir Gordon's home, and Hurst and Twist earnestly begin their investigations into a case that involves a bizarre and dangerous wager and as elaborate a cat-and-mouse game as any in mystery fiction.

     There are moments in the novel that might remind some readers of Anthony Shaffer's brilliant drama Sleuth, but they lack the kind of scintillating dialogue that delineates Shaffer's characters in addition to advancing his plot. And therein lies my biggest problem and greatest disappointment with The Seventh Hypothesis. I've pointed out in reviews of other Paul Halter works that his efforts at characterization are extremely slight, that plot is everything. Nevertheless, he usually manages to provide enough basic information to enable the reader to differentiate one character from another. But except for Sir Gordon's habit of rolling some steel balls around in his hand in a manner reminiscent of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, nobody's behavior stands out in The Seventh Hypothesis. Compounding the problem, everyone sounds alike; more than a few times I found myself paging back through the book (not as easy in an electronic edition as in a physical book) to identify who someone was who'd appeared earlier because nothing about his or her speeches or comportment had made a lasting impression. Halter is fond of the old-fashioned device of narrative within narrative—i.e., having a character relate events that he or she witnessed, including actions and dialogue, in a formal bookish manner rather than in a realistic conversational style that reflects the character's unique speech patterns and idioms. Therefore in this story, Louis Minden sounds exactly like Peter Moore.  

     Readers for whom the puzzle and detection aspects of mystery stories are paramount will not only be more forgiving than I of The Seventh Hypothesis, they'll probably applaud it, because as always Halter does a stellar job in those areas. Those for whom even a modicum of characterization is indispensable might share my disappointment, impatience and, frankly, eagerness to get to the last page so as to start reading something else. But even John Dickson Carr had his lapses, so I look forward to reading more novels by Paul Halter—and other French "impossible crime" writers—as John Pugmire translates them into English. Keep 'em coming, Mr. Pugmire!

     Finally, in the realm of trivial passing thoughts, let me mention that as soon as I came upon the name Gordon Miller in the novel, it struck me as familiar, but I couldn't recall where I'd heard it. During the course of writing this review something clicked, and I went to the Internet Movie Data Base to determine if my recollection was right or wrong. It turns out I was right. In the Marx Brothers' movie "Room Service," Groucho plays an impecunious producer named Gordon Miller who is trying to avoid eviction from a hotel and find backing for his latest production. Did Paul Halter know this and use the name deliberately? Or is it purely a coincidence?

     Hmm, mystery writers and their detectives seldom believe in coincidence....


—Barry Ergang, February 2013


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