One of the most classic of all locked room mystery tropes is the room that kills. A secret chamber or commonplace study marred by a history of sudden deaths and strange happenings, event’s only seemingly possible due to the work of a curse or supernatural being. It is a type of puzzle that inevitably intrigues almost any fan of the mystery genre, causing a burning desire to learn why a certain room is the chosen place for these mysteries and how they occurred. John Dickson Carr did it wonderfully in The Red Widow Murders, along with a variety of others from the earliest days of detective fiction to the modern era. Naturally, when a author of locked room mysteries who is well known for creating incredibly bizarre and abnormal situations tries his hand with the trope, you expect – magnificence and that is something The Madman’s Room delivers in droves.
A very ( may I repeat – very) condensed version of the plot is as follows: Sarah Hilton marries the wealthy industrialist Harris Thorne and promptly moves to his ancestral home with most of her family. Currently in residence at the manor is Harris’s brother Brian who claims to have the gift of clairvoyance and predicts a menagerie of events that range from being about wealth and love to predicting death. Of course this leads to a very strange atmosphere in the home that culminates in Harris telling the tale of a certain room in Hatton Manor, where his brilliant relative went mad and wrote a book so dark and nauseating that it lead to his isolation from the rest of the family in his small study. He however was soon found inside of the room, dying of a heart attack and cursing the family, though, curiously, a damp patch was found in front of the fireplace. The family home soon caught fire and only the wife of one of the brothers, Rosemary, survived and she sealed the room immediately. However, Harris decides to test fate and reopens the room, leading to his death being predicted by his own brother. That prophecy soon comes to pass as after a huge argument, Sarah goes up to the study and faints from fright with nothing in there except for a wet patch in front of the fireplace. Harris Thorne is found dead afterwards, having fallen from the study window, a new victim of the madman’s room.
So much more happens besides that, but trying to say it all would bloat this post way too much while presenting a large amount of barriers in the form of spoilers.
This is absolutely spectacular. Here we have a novel that creates a puzzle that is so complicated and yet so simple that it’s hard to imagine how someone could have possibly come up with all of this. This is in essence a barrage of pure misdirection. Halter constantly submerges you in it and you can hardly get a breath in before he places another twist or confounding occurrence onto you. He creates mysteries so infuriating mystifying that it’s hard to resist not rushing through the entire book in order to read about the killer’s plan and he covers the book in a thick atmosphere that grows in terms of horror and sheer stupefaction as the book progresses. Soon it becomes nearly impossible to imagine how Halter will explain away all of these mysteries and then, the denouement arrives.
And Halter does it. He begins unleashing explanation after explanation and reveals a web of misdirection that I had been completely trapped in. He proceeds to disclose solutions to the main puzzles that are so audacious and cunning that I put the book down three times in order to gain a grip on everything. All of the explanations work and each of them adds a little bit to the overarching mystery until a complete picture arises. We get four solutions for the wet stains on the carpet, and each is individual in concept while also providing reasoning that is jaw dropping in terms of simplicity and mechanics. The culprit is well hidden and not very obvious, though motive is very easy to figure out and though some of the solutions to Brian’s clairvoyance were disappointing, all in all they fit and were enjoyable. By the time I reached the end of the explanation, I was simply giggling in a fit of delight that came from reading such a clever and astonishing work, I had been played by a master of a genre.
The epilogue arrives and carries on as any epilogue should, before ending with another mind-numbing twist. Yes, some could call it cheap, but it adds something more to the story for me while also presenting a lot of food for thought. Sure, one could easily explain it away with a bit of work, but it ends the book on a note that feels, in a way, right.
Paul Halter also succeeds with his characters here, with me actually feeling genuine emotions for some of them instead of nondescript pondering. People are likable and dislikable, and the duo of Twist and Hurst is as delightful as ever, creating some of my favorite scenes.
Sure, there are a few flaws ( such as that shaky alibi and a certain point of view scene) but the end result erases all of those from my mind and gives me a new favorite from the pantheon of Locked Room International translations. A fairly obvious 5/5, go and get a copy right this moment!