Oh Halter, Oh Halter. An author that frequently inspires hate as well as incredible admiration.
Paul Halter is considered to be the modern day successor to John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room mystery and impossible crime on the whole. I however feel that Halter himself is a distinct author on his own with a different writing style, method of plotting, and way of creating impossible crimes. Halter frequently creates situations too bizarre for even such greats as Carr, with those sorts of situations piled up in most of his books (i.e the headless horseman, invisible man, and witch in The Demon of Dartmoor). The Man Who Loved Clouds is a prime example of that feature – with no less than five impossible crimes with six different solutions, something I’ll get too later.
After becoming an obsessive Halter fanboy, I happily translated any material in French that I could find about his work through the magical appliance known as Google Translate. The result of that labor was a wishlist of books that had The Man Who Loved Clouds at the top, and that item was soon crossed off when I received joyous news of the book’s imminent translation and as soon as it arrived I instantly began reading it.
The Man Who Loved Clouds starts off with Mark Reeder, a journalist whose head is constantly in the clouds, visiting the small seaside village of Pickering. While there, he meets the fairy-like Stella Deverell, a girl raised in a large manor nestled at the piek of a large cliff where the winds constantly blow. He is promptly infatuated with her (as all young men in detective stories would be) but soon learns an incredible thing. Stella Deverell can do the impossible. She can create gold out of thin air, can vanish magically in a little copse, and can even predict the future and deaths; having predicted her own father’s three years before. She claims that she is able to accomplish thanks to the wind, which whispers to her and carries her off at random moments. Mark is naturally amazed when all of this is confirmed true, but Stella has even more up her sleeve. While her and Mark’s romance blooms, she claims that someone will die, and even though Mark voices his concerns to Dr. Twist, someone is found at the base of a cliff, having fallen from a towering height. Along with that there is also the mystery of the new inhabitant of Stella’s old home, one Mr. Usher, who is basically a hermit and rarely leaves the manor, and is the man who Stella blames for her father’s suicide. Twist is naturally intrigued and promptly begins an investigation, uncovering a very, very twisty plot.
The Man Who Loved Clouds is a gorgeous book. It’s full of atmosphere that is both whimsical and creepy which simultaneously give shiver’s and delight. Places like The Fairy Wood and Stella’s old home are beautifully described and almost feel like character’s in the book due to the large roles they play. The book really does feel like a fairytale, something that holds throughout the book even as the death’s increase and the haze of mystery grows.
The character’s are successful, probably the best I’ve encountered from Halter, that’s not really saying much but you take what you can get. Stella Deverell is perhaps the best character in the book. She has a deep aura of mystery and switches between suspicion and innocence at a whim, and her state at the edge of child and adulthood creating captivating dialogue and fascinating developments. Mark Reeder and Mr. Usher are also decently drawn, but one of the two is drawn much better than the other.
The impossibilities themselves aren’t very good. They mostly have bland and uninspired solutions (except for one of the death’s caused by the wind) which do not do justice to the scenario’s they must dispel. But the brilliance of the impossibilities doesn’t lie in the how, it lies in the why. The reason why impossibilities occur is just as important as how the impossibilities were done and Halter finds an ingenious way to connect them. The why is closely linked to the culprit and it’s safe to say that if the culprit wasn’t the culprit, then the crimes themselves wouldn’t make sense.
The culprit is a huge shock just by themselves. It’s a simple trick that is perfectly used to mislead the reader until Halter can drop this bomb on you during the reveal. I was put down the wrong path by Halter and had my potential solution dismissed near the end, leaving me bare of any way out of the convoluted plot he had created. But then – Halter seemingly pulls a rabbit out of a hat and reveals the true solution, one that made so much sense and was so painfully obvious in retrospect making me feel like a fool for not seeing it.
I didn’t feel like there were any major flaws with the book, it feels rushed at times and some of Twist’s conclusions come from nowhere, especially some of the solutions to the impossibilities. However, they are comparably minor quibbles and do not detract from my enjoyment in any way.
Overall, this is a very good mystery novel and is the best Halter I’ve read so far. A full 5/5 from me and hopes of many more translations to come from the doors of Locked Room International.