Let us consider the vampire.
What other monster is simultaneously so alluring and so repellent? Immortal, eternally youthful, a creature whose method of attack has been compared in centuries of fiction as something akin to kinky sex! And yet it dwells in darkness, sleeps in a coffin, subsists on human blood, and is a close friend to the vermin of the world.
The first fictional vampire, Lord Ruthven in John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), is said to have been modeled on that true romantic figure, Lord Byron. Then there was Sir Francis Varney, Varney the Vampire, created in serial form between 1845 – 1847, who may be the first sympathetic vampire as he hated his condition. (My friend Penny Dreadful of the podcast Terror at Collinwood, gives much credit to Varney for the creation of Barnabus Collins, the anti-hero of Dark Shadows). Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla (whose real name is Mircalla but who also goes by Malarky, er, Millarca – vampires are very fond of anagrams, eh, Count Alucard??) deals with a young, beautiful and very lesbian vampire.
Of course, the great vampire novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which took the literary world by storm in 1897. Count Dracula perfectly embodies that dichotomy of the vampire as someone who both suffers and relishes his condition. “To die . . . to be really dead . . . that must be glorious,” says Bela Lugosi’s tragic Count in the 1931 film. But the impish monster also says, “I never drink . . . wine,” before turning a hapless real estate agent into his drooling, fly-eating slave.
How you feel about vampires may have something to do with how they look. F.W. Murnau, in his 1922 adaptation of Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu, posited that they looked like this:
And then, for many years after Lugosi struck a more attractive pose, the vampire was essentially looked upon with favor:
It took someone like Stephen King to reassert the monstrousness of the vampire in one of his best novels, Salem’s Lot, and when the TV-movie came out, the producers brought the Vision of the Vampire round full circle:
French mystery author Paul Halter has ignored this redefinition and focused his interests on the vampire on that combination villain and romantic figure in not one, but two novels. His 1996 Dr. Twist novel L’arbre aux doigts tordus (The Vampire Tree) did not serve the legend well. Still, he returned to the classic monster in 2014 and cast his alternate sleuth, Owen Burns, as its adversary in Le Masque du vampire (The Mask of the Vampire). This is the 19th of Halter’s forty-two mystery novels to be translated by John Pugmire, the Fearless Leader of Locked Room International, who has been providing Halter’s work to English-speaking readers since 2006. We owe him a large debt of gratitude for this, even those like me who have a complex relationship with the author.
The big question on my mind as I turned the pages of this latest book was: “Did Halter do a better job here with the vampire legend?” The quick answer is, “Mais oui, c’est vrai.” First of all, the story takes place in 1902, five years after Stoker’s novel had debuted to great acclaim. And then there’s the setting, the decrepit English village of Cleverley, where children have been attacked, women have seemingly died and then been seen on the road, and a tall, attractive guy in a cape named Count Radovic lives in the great house down the lane. Is Radovic (alias Civodar, alias Dovicar . . . no, I’m kidding!) a real vampire, as the villagers come to believe, or a more human form of monster? Or is he a scapegoat for someone else’s evil plans?
As Burns and his assistant, Achilles Stock seek the answer to the mystery behind Count Radovic, Halter throws all the tropes of the vampire at you: the murderer who disappears in a puff of smoke up a chimney, the batlike creature fluttering outside a child’s window, the bodies in coffins with stakes through their heart that seem not to have aged despite having died months ago, the guy in a cape roaming through a cemetery at night. In this sense, Halter is very clever, utilizing the miracles around the myth of the vampire to play with the more earthly “miracles” that are the impossible crime author’s stock in trade.
One of my criticisms of Halter in the past has been his tendency to “over-supply” material in his mysteries. A single killer might be operating in the same sphere as a homicidal maniac, or the setting might be home to a supernatural legend (sometimes more than one, as in The Demon of Dartmoor), or a past crime may figure in the present scheme of things. Or Halter might tell his story in multiple narratives, sometimes spanning many points of view and even more than one era of time. We know Halter can do small, and he can do it very well. Most recently, we read such an example: Penelope’s Web featured a small circle of suspects, a nice parallel to the voyage of Odysseus, and a baffling little impossibility involving a window – the only egress – blocked by a perfectly whole cobweb. It was neat, it was succinct, it was effective.
The Mask of the Vampire is not that kind of novel.
This is probably the longest Halter novel by far that we have yet been handed. In complexity of its set-up, it rivals The Gold Watch, one of my very favorites, which had multiple impossible crimes spanning dual narratives set decades apart in different countries. The Gold Watch was juicy. There’s so much juice in Vampire – much of it of the very red variety – that pretty quickly the book starts to slosh around. Halter stints on nothing: legends, monsters, past crimes, present crimes, locked rooms, impossible events, and quite a bit of kinky sex tossed in for effect.
To my mind, the complexity of Watch was earned, and its payoff is palpable. I didn’t feel that way about The Mask of the Vampire. For one thing, as much as I understand how Halter’s work is an homage to the Golden Age, particularly to the work of John Dickson Carr, one has to ask when does homage end and outright theft begin. Whole scenes of this novel are lifted from a certain classic Carr mystery; in fact, I believe Halter acknowledges this himself with a brief passage when Owen Burns takes his team to a crime scene: “A few minutes later we were in the fatal room, which was still being used as a salon. Owen treated us to a lecture on locked rooms; I will spare the reader the tedious details.”
It’s an amusing Easter egg for Halter readers who are passionate GAD fans, but it also underscores the debt he owes here to Carr. And to Christie, by the way: an early scene is wholly lifted from The Pale Horse, although admittedly it leads us in a different direction. The solution to one miracle copies another Carr stunt, although again it is used differently. The machinations of the criminal are similar to the backstory of another Carr villain.
All of this may not bother you, and in truth that wasn’t my big problem with The Mask of the Vampire. Ultimately, the quality of a mystery stands largely on its payoff, and there I’m torn. The solution is no doubt clever, but I found it hard to swallow and follow. I cannot believe that anybody here acted in a natural way or that the villain could proceed with their plans without carrying around a notebook filled with copious plans. The amount of effort expended to make certain effects happen is so work intensive that I can’t see it all going off without multiple hitches. (The murderer in Death on the Nile made several mistakes and had some bad luck with a far simpler plan.)
I’ll admit I may not have the brain power to comprehend how some of this was done, and that’s on me. But the human factor matters. I found Count Radovic and the effect he had on others hard to swallow. And I had a problem with the ostensible heroine of this story, mainly because her name was Ann Sheridan:
Nope, not that Ann Sheridan, but that’s who I kept seeing as events unspooled here. (I would advise all aspiring authors out there (and I know a few) not to name your characters after Hollywood stars. It distracts one from the vampires, ghouls and invisible killers upon whom we should be focusing.) The name Sheridan also features in The Vampire Tree, another distracting coincidence. In addition to her name, Ann’s actions and reactions were frankly puzzling to me; it seemed she behaved as she had to behave in order for the murderer’s plot to work, and the same can be said for several other characters.
I would venture to say that The Mask of the Vampire is one of Halter’s major works, in both its length and complexity. It has some wonderfully atmospheric scenes set in a very spooky village and multiple impossibilities to untangle (some with maps included!). Ultimately, however, it falls short of providing total satisfaction to this mystery fan. I would suggest that if you want complexity, go with The Demon of Dartmoor or The Gold Watch. If you want some satisfying Halter in more compact form, The Phantom Passage or The Lord of Misrule might satisfy, as would the short stories at which Halter excels. If vampires are your thing, though, this one is far better than The Vampire Tree, and I know of at least one other blogger who liked Mask very much indeed.
Or you could hang out with me and this guy . . .