After I recently acquired copies of Helen McCloy’s Through a Glass, Darkly and Paul Gallico’s Too Many Ghosts, I had fully expected to read and review one of the two. But fate works in mysterious ways, and while I was at the library picking up TMG, I noticed that they had recently bought The Lord of Misrule, and so I succumbed to temptation and checked it out, knowing full well that the slim volume would be completed before any other book on my TBR pile would get a chance to plead their case.
The Mansfields are seemingly cursed. For years they have been haunted by the apparition of a spirit known as the Lord of Misrule and several previous deaths in the family, along with the fact that their fortune has been slowly declining. All is not lost however, as the patriarch of the family has managed to arrange the marriage of his daughter Sibyl to a wealthy businessman by the name of Samuel Pigott. As Christmas draws near, the haunting of their ancestral manor begins to increase, and Catherine Pigott decides to hire Owen Burns as a private detective who can sniff out who’s behind all of the strange happenings. He however sends a friend by the name of Achilles Stock in his place and Stock will soon bare witness to a series of extraordinary events. The Lord of Misrule starts appearing and fleeing more frequently, séances are held that announce the presence of an avenging spirit, and a impossible murder occurs outdoors that starkly contrasts the indoor impossible death of one of the Mansfields.
The main fallacy of The Lord of Misrule is it’s over reliance on coincidence. Nearly every aspect of the solution needs a good dosage of it to work in combination with unbelievable amounts of luck. The second impossible murder has a brilliant solution, but the fact that it relies on the witnesses deciding to descend at such a exact moment in order for it to be impossible harms its overall construction and execution. The first murder is inundated in ridiculous actions on the part of the victim, actions that really make no sense in the context of the solution, actions that make the victim in The Problem of the Wire Cage seem just a little bit less, well, stupid. The other murders in the past also derive several parts of their solutions from coincidence or misunderstanding, and though one is still good, the other is a miserable flop. The motivations and threading behind the plot are also obscured by all of these different characters dipping their grubby hands into the honey pot, making certain fascinating events end up having mundane or unsatisfactory solutions. However, the core elements behind the impossibilities and culprit (or culprits) are very good, and though some parts of both are very see through, they come together in the end to form a coherent and entertaining resolution. However, as pointed out by others, you can’t figure out the full picture on your own. Too much of this either relies on coincidence or is too convoluted for a normal person to solve, something that isn’t exactly fair play.
The most disappointing feature of the story was the secret (or rather secrets) behind the titular Lord of Misrule. The core idea is genuinely bad in execution and presentation and it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. It is fairly clued, but Halter could have easily improved the conceit with a little bit of time and effort. The explanations behind the lord’s appearance and struggle during the first murder are the worst in the book, relying on strange psychology that doesn’t gratify the original situations while also being a cheat. It’s something that I’ve encountered in Halter’s works in the past (creating fascinating side mysteries that don’t live up to their premises), and it feels like Halter only added it in order to have another impossibility on top of all the others.
The characters here are more paper thin than usual, with the woman being objects of desire for the leading men and the men being literal human props created simply because they were needed to furnish the plot. Even Owen Burns doesn’t come to life. He’s really just cardboard thats characterized by his eccentricities and he brings nothing interesting to the table besides the solution. Halter would improve on him in later books, but in his debut he fails to make a impression at all. Achilles isn’t any better, with him fawning over most of the woman in the story instead of doing much real sleuthing.
In terms of the positives, Halter doesn’t suffocate or strangle you with the atmosphere here. He delicately sprinkles it evenly throughout the novel and uses it as a mechanism to concentrate horror and tension, creating some of the best moments in the story. The tinkling of bells soon becomes a sinister omen and the legend of the Lord of Misrule slowly grows and grows, with his spirit entrapping all of the residents in the manor, who may be next on his growing list of killings. The seances defy expectation and don’t give much atmosphere, instead providing interesting scenes that help drive the story to its inevitable conclusion, helping set up murders and solutions to puzzles and not inducing any chills.
The story is a fantastic homage to a the Golden Age. Its filled to the brim with classic tropes like séances, references to famous sleuths, and has situations and solutions inspired by classics of the genre like The Hollow Man (it is in fact heavily inspired by THM, with the first impossible murder clearly showing this). It still maintains that whimsical atmosphere that I’m accustomed to in Halter’s mysteries and it fully invests the reader, even if some of the sections would have put you off if it was by any other author.
Like all of his stories, it flies by when placed into the hands of the hungry reader. Halter doesn’t focus on the characters and instead stuffs the book with developments in the plot, making it have no filler whatsoever. Everything has its place in the narrative, and while the end result isn’t perfect, Halter still manages to tie nearly everything together with a solution that at the very least fulfills one’s need for resolution. Halter doesn’t always clue fairly here, but those he does give us are usually gorgeous, with the clue about the whistling noise being a favorite as it’s so obviously see through and yet so opaque. Halter also ends off the story with one of his best tricks, the last line that reveals all, and it truly is haunting, adding a spark of emotion that ends off the book in a incredibly saddening and competent way.
This is an interesting Halter, and is the most polarizing one that I’ve read. It has it’s ups, it has it’s downs, but it still retains the classic elements that I’ve come to adore from Paul Halter. Not a classic, but a decent work from a author whose works I love. A 3.5/5 rating, accompanied with the sad news that I won’t be reading Halter for a few more months (Rationing always occurs in times of scarcity!).