I want to make it clear right from the start. I have nothing against ambition.
They called the Wright Brothers foolhardy for imagining they could fly. Yet this real-life Daedalus and Icarus gave vent to their ambition, and because of them I can now relax in my cramped seat on Jet Blue, hoping against hope that the passenger in the seat next to mine is not wearing that mask because he has the plague or that the flight attendant won’t run out of tomato juice.
Ironically, the first section of Paul Halter’s 1997 mystery novel The Seven Wonders of Crime is called “Icarus,” a name synonymous with ambition giving way to folly. Since Halter provides only a tenuous connection to Greek mythology in the novel, with detective Owen Burns’ constant pleas to the Nine Muses for inspiration, this section title must be a Freudian slip on the author’s part.
I knew going in that this might be a problematic read for me. I am always wary with Halter, but I try to ignore the ludicrous dialogue and cardboard characters in the hopes that this modern author of impossible crime mysteries in the classic style will play nice with his miracles (The Demon of Dartmoor, The Madman’s Room) and won’t jump the shark (The Invisible Circle, The Vampire Tree) or go all meta-fictional on me (The Picture from the Past, The Fourth Door).
So, like I said, I was wary. Even huge fans of Halter had warned that Seven Wonders wasn’t Halter at his best. Still, I had hope: I had recently discovered while reading The Phantom Passage that I preferred the Victorian sleuthing team of Owen Burns and Achilles Stock to Halter’s 30’s detective Dr. Alan Twist, so I thought: what the hell?
What the hell indeed?
The London police are confronted with a serial killer who is patterning his – or her – crimes after the Seven Wonders of the World. As Burns remarks again and again – and again – these aren’t just ordinary murders! They are works of art, each of them an impossible crime: a man is burned alive in a secluded lighthouse with no access in or out; the victim of an arrow could not have been shot by anyone in his vicinity; a woman is crushed to death by a falling flower pot (purportedly representing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon!) that nobody was present to push. There are crimes without footprints, and crimes in locked rooms, and . . . you get the picture. The killer is running through the “greatest hits” of Golden Age impossible crime situations as if he – well, as if he had devoured John Dickson Carr books. The fiend prefaces each event by sending a painting with a message to Scotland Yard, and the cops turn to Owen Burns for inspiration. Burns sees through these messages in a snap and just as quickly establishes the pattern for the crimes. Now it’s up to Burns and Stock to stop this maniac before an insane – or is it? – plot reaches fruition.
This was Halter’s 13th novel, and I wondered if this is a problematical number for prolific mystery writers. So I checked on some of the greats. Agatha Christie’s 13th novel was Peril at End House, the first of fifteen Poirot novels written over ten years that comprise Christie’s own Golden Age. Check! John Dickson Carr, Halter’s hero, wrote his 13th mystery in 1935, the year he penned three books: Death Watch, The Red Widow Murders and The Unicorn Murders. No need to worry about him. Ellery Queen was in the midst of growing pains: this was the year he wrote The Four of Hearts, which is . . . not great.
I’ll bet you can tell by now that I’m not going to surprise you and say I found this novel riveting. But here’s the thing – and I cannot say this about any other Halter novel that I’ve read, no matter how infuriated I sometimes get with the guy: I found this one really boring. Seven impossible crimes in one hundred and eighty pages suggests a mystery jam-packed with action and, well, mystery! But it doesn’t work out that way. As miracle after miracle occurs and painting after painting arrives at the Yard, I found myself becoming restless and devoid of curiosity or wonder, like kids at a movie filled with too many special effects. (Remember when we went “Oooohhh” as the spaceship landed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?) And, despite holding off any revelations about the manner of the killings until a massive info dump at the end, Halter all too quickly allows Burns to find connections between the victims and to narrow down the canvas to four suspects contained in one household, rendering much of the text mere filler between each murder.
I couldn’t help comparing this one to Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, an infinitely superior novel about a serial killer. The random selection of victims from every social strata, the placement of so mundane an object as a railway timetable under each body, the direct taunts by the murderer to Hercule Poirot, all played against sections of the novel that take us into the mind of Mr. Cust. The combination of mystery and adventure culminating in a movie theatre in Doncaster that leads Poirot to flip the whole thing around satisfactorily in the end! Now that’s a good book!
Halter gives Owen Burns plenty of time to talk but little time to make sense. In customary fashion, the author crams way too much into a small space: Egyptian sun cults, romantic rivalries, meditations on the power of art, Burns’ own infatuation with a prime suspect, and murder after murder after murder, none of which inspire a jot of feeling in the surviving characters – or this reader. There’s hardly time to take in the horror of any individual crime and no opportunity to bear witness to the effect any of the deaths have on loved ones. In The A.B.C. Murders, we never meet any of the victims alive either, but at least we get to know their kith and kin. The victims in Seven Wonders remain ciphers throughout, pieces in a jigsaw puzzle waiting with the reader to be placed in the correct shape.
At some point, each member of the household is granted the status of Suspect #1, which at least ramps up the suspense a little bit, as there’s no chance for a sucker punch in terms of the killer’s identity. Each character is accorded at least one trait that casts doubt on his – or her – innocence. Burns and Stock interview these people repeatedly, but with dialogue like the following, there’s not much forward motion in the action during these sequences:
- “Anyway,” (Burns) added, “it’s not from scratching our heads curiously that the answer will come. Lady Memory likes to be treated with consideration, at which she will show herself as bountiful as the nine ravishing muses – who seem to have deserted us today. Actually, it’s quite a while since I sensed the warm caress of their inspiration.”
- “Supposing you were to let drop Greek mythology in favor of an Egyptian god: Aten for example?” Amelia suggested with an ironic smile.
- “I could also attend the Helios club meetings regularly, perhaps?”
- “Why not? Attempt to enter into contact with Aten and I’ll wager you’ll recover your flair. And perhaps he’ll plant a clue which will lead you to the path of light.”
- “The light,” repeated Owen, amused but also pensive.
- “Don’t you like the sun, Mr. Burns?” asked Amelia, with the trepidation of one who fears a negative response.
- “ Where’s the Englishman who doesn’t?”
- “Close your eyes and think of the soft diffuse clarity of its light.” She put words into action. “Think of the gentle warmth of its caresses on your body. Your spirit becomes enriched by its contact. Isn’t it the best way to clear your mind? And to concentrate only what’s essential: truly important? With an intellect such as yours, you should be able to penetrate the mystery of these murders.”
- For several seconds, while the young woman held her inspirational pose, it dawned on me that Owen was seized by doubt. He leaned towards her and asked, hesitantly: “Are you serious or in jest?”
- “A bit of both, as someone once said,” retorted Amelia gaily, opening her hazel eyes wide. “But, seriously, you should try it even so. Put yourself at ease, lie down in the sun, and think. Some time soon, one afternoon, I’d be happy to give you some advice on how best to profit from the technique. Then, perhaps, you’ll experience the great illumination which will reveal the secrets of the enigma!”
What the hell does any of this mean, and what does it have to do with the case at hand? This sort of dialogue frequently drives me crazy in all of Halter’s books, yet it’s something his fans ignore, so long as the impossible element passes muster. So, with seven impossible crimes to deal with, how does Halter do here? The murder in the lighthouse is clever, and the one with the killer flowerpot is, I think, my favorite in its combination of simplicity and audaciousness. The rest rely in varying degrees too much on luck, on having the victims react to certain things in certain ways. It doesn’t pay to think too hard about this plot, about the selection of victims and the amount of preparation required. But when Burns finally confronts the killer and puts together the rambling mess of a motivation for these crimes . . . well, all I can say is that I was sorry I had ordered this on my Kindle and thus couldn’t throw the damn thing across the room.
I have to admit I’m disappointed. I wanted perversely to love this one and thus confound my blogging friends who have come to expect me to dump on Halter. I’m not sure there is any rhyme or reason to which titles are released to LRI for translation and publication. I can only imagine that John Pugmire would jump at the chance to release a book under the auspices of Locked Room International that contained seven locked room puzzles. I don’t care if the next selection has one teeny tiny impossible crime; I just want it to be good!
30 thoughts on “THE SEVEN BLUNDERS OF THE SEVEN WONDERS OF CRIME”
There is a similar book also involving Owen Burns: Les douze crimes d’Hercules, consisting of 12 crimes imitating the 12 labours of Hercules ! This has not yet been translated to English (mercifully !)
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That sounds ominous, Santosh!! That good, eh?
Les 12 crimes d’Hercule actually isn’t bad; I remember liking it a lot more than this!
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Well… This isn’t one of Halter’s best, so it wouldn’t have been likely to be the title that you could use to confound the blogging world. I didn’t like it very much, though I think I liked it more than I did ‘Lord of Misrule’.
Guess what other Halter title is sitting on my Kindle?
What can I say… Oh dear. 😦 It feels like the only way left is to sink down…
But I’ll say this – I probably liked this more than I did ‘Plague Court Murders’… *dodges multiple bullets*
Wow, Jonathan…I mean…wow. That is an interesting response.
In a way, I do ask myself if I have been overly prejudiced with regard to ‘Plague Court’ – but I was struggling to give it more than 2 stars the first time I read it. But I was willing to give ‘Seven Wonders’ somewhere between 2 and 3? Then again, I should re-read ‘Plague Court’ and see how it goes the second time round. Especially since I’m currently on ‘Waxwork Murders’ and I’m quite enjoying it – a title most, if not all, reviewers would rank below ‘Plague Court’. I suspect what happened was that I took some time getting used to Carr, and I’m much more lenient with his writing now.
Hey, to each their own, I’m just surprised to hear someone come out and say it…! For my tastes Plague Court is one of the truly essential Carrs, but not everyone sees the same book despite reading the same words…
I would indeed rank Waxworks below Plague Court, although it does have its strengths. The puzzle itself isn’t that compelling, but the second half of the book has an excellent pace. The clue that Carr dangles in front of the user regarding the identity of the killer is absolutely brazen. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.
As I believe I’ve said elsewhere, this would be so much better if it was about twice as long — there’s so much introduced and then ignored (the paintings, for one) and it all ends up being rather a rush to the finish. I can’t completely disagree with all of the above — I think it’s one of the two weakest Halters translated — and the sudden rush of inspiration come the end is…odd, but I go for ambition in a big way and think this falls down because Halter’s trying to do too much in too little space (the thing with the tree always bothered me…).
I do love the no footprints solution, though, it’s nicely classical, and the lighthouse murder is a brilliantly updated sort of psychology that modern impossible crimes need more of (unlike a certain story I read somewhere recently, of which more on Tuesday).
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SPOILER HERE!!! One of the biggest problems I have with this is that the killer is a real nut job cuckoo bird, and yet not only does nobody see it (I did) but three of the victims die because the killer is so damned beautiful and tempting and . . . oh my GOD! Even Owen is CRUSHED that the girl of his dreams . . . spare me, please!
By tree you mean the one struck by lightning? If so, I agree. By footprints . . . well, there are two. The one where the victim gives his fully grown ward a piggyback ride is so stupid that I feel he earns a knife in the back just for that. She can’t be a seductress, a goddess and a psychopath and still be daddy’s little girl. Come on now! END SPOILERS
Well, I really enjoyed this one when I read it – https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/the-seven-wonders-of-crime-by-paul-halter/ – although when I say it was the best so far, there had only been a couple of others at that point, Lord Of Misrule and Fourth Door, iirc. It’s been a while, but I recall being impressed with the motive, certainly by its originality. I don’t know which ones you have yet to read, Brad, but maybe you need to give Halter a miss. But people keep giving me the same advice about Ngaio Marsh and yet I keep coming back…
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“I recall being impressed with the motive, certainly by its originality.”
But the main motive for the serial killing is copied from a novel by Agatha Christie.
If it is, I don’t recall it.
I don’t remember that one either! And yes – the motive was original, I guess. And yet the whole thing felt ludicrous to me.
Too late, PD, i’ve read all but one – The Lord of Misrule – and it’s sitting on my Kindle! Halter is like the scab that you pick at: I know I should leave it alone, but something keeps drawing me back. I think Marsh was the much better writer, if not the most interesting plotter.
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Interesting, isn’t it, Brad, how a book can be very ‘busy,’ but not be particularly gripping. Having lots of murders, or clues, or actions, etc., does not guarantee that a book will keep the reader engaged…
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I had heard that this title wasn’t very strong, so I’m not surprised by your review.
With that said, conceptually this book sounds like a dream come true. With seven impossibilities to be presented, puzzled over, and then solved, how can this book not have an amazing pace? Well, I think the passage that you included above hints at that.
I suspect that an author like Carr would have maintained pace by having the detectives actually solve several of the crimes throughout the story. That constant sensation of revelation is what kept many of his books (Till Death Do Us Part, The Red Widow Murders, The Corpse in the Waxworks, etc) moving and the reader engaged.
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I totally agree with you! One of my favorite parts of Rim of the Pit was when Talbot blasted through all the illusions of the seance . . . way before the murders even started! Halter saves it for the end when all is revealed in a series of embarrassing idylls that are meant to lead to an astounding ending – which did not astound.
What I meant was this:
WARNING ! MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT !
In Agatha Christie’s novel regarding a serial killer, 4 murders are committed to hide a single murder. The theme linking the 4 murders is the alphabets.
In this Paul Halter novel, 7 murders are committed to hide 2 murders. The theme linking the 7 murders is the 7 wonders of the world.
I know you were saying this for JJ’s benefit, Santosh. I certainly did spot the parallel plot, but I decided not to comment on it in my post for fear of spoiling a much better book by Agatha Christie.
So it was this. This was already my idea simply by reading Brad’s summary. Though to be fair, it is a good idea, and it’s very hard to find anything new, after the Golden Age authors used basically every trick. And I have no idea, if Christie was the first to use that particular one.
The idea was previously used by G.K. Chesterton in a Father Brown story.
The culprit is much too obvious here. Even my grandmother, the first to admit that she’s not that good at mysteries, was able to spot them. Disappointing, since there are a few good ideas in this (such as the third murder, as you mention. Not the fourth, too much suspension of disbelief there.)
I’m also still convinced that there’s a typo or error around the second murder, but that’s spoilers. 😛
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I agree. I had this murderer spotted from the get-go, but then that is my usual fate with Halter. I had the “surprise” killer of Death Invites You spotted the moment they walked onto the page.
“I’m also still convinced that there’s a typo or error around the second murder, but that’s spoilers”
Could you be more explicit with a spoiler alert warning ?
Sure. I admit I could be misremembering, but I recall double checking and noticing it.
The second victim is being described as being shot “in the back” and the book cover above matches that. But during the summation, it says he was shot “in the back of *the neck*” That makes the second murder impossible to solve, since the solution doesn’t work if it’s in the back. I had the solution, but I dimissed it because I thought that the shot had been in the back.
I admit, I could be misremembering it, since it’s been a while.
SPOILER ALERT !
Yes, for the solution to work, the bolt should be embedded in the back of neck. However, in the beginning, when the crime is being described, it is wrongly mentioned as being embedded in the back.
Since, I do not have the original French version, I can’t say whether it is the mistake of the author or the translator !