The Night of the Wolf - Paul Halter

After some thinking during the weekend, I came to the conclusion that it becomes rather cumbersome to keep a chronological order of all the stories included in my huge project, especially since the project isn't finished and I cannot say if any earlier stories will be added.

So, instead it might be easier to go through the different story collections and anthologies I've used to gather all these stories. A blogger is allowed to change his mind, no?

So instead we'll begin with Paul Halter's collection "The Night of the Wolf" - so far the only one in English by this author. Halter is frequently hailed as the modern equivalent of John Dickson Carr, the impossible mystery master.

Halter likes to pile impossibilities upon impossibilities in his stories, but his style of writing can sometimes feel a bit dry. If that is due to the translations or because he writes that way in French as well I cannot really say, as I've only read the translations. However, I'd hazard a guess that it's a mixture of both.

"The Night of the Wolf" is a collection of 10 short stories by Halter. The French edition of the same title contains an additional story, and in the English one, two stories have been added.

The collection begins with "The Abominable Snowman" which is a very clever story of the "murder in snow" variation. It is also one of the two stories added to the English edition. The chief suspect witnesses the victim struggling with what looks like a snowman, whereafter he runs to try to aid the victim. However, he finds there is nothing he can do, and after an exchange of words with the victim's brother-in-law he runs to fetch the police. When they return they find that only the suspect's footprints are visible next to the victim...

I really enjoyed this story. The explanation is fairly plausible, and the detective of the story, Irving Farrell - who returns in a later story - is an engaging character. The setup is very elaborate, and one has to wonder whether the victim really would have trusted the killer the way he had to in order for the plan to work. Halter adds a touch of the supernatural at the end, but that bit has more or less no bearing on the main case, so it's really a bit unnecessary. Still, it is kind of effective...

Next is "The Dead Dance at Night". Another winner with a premise that Carr used in "The Sleeping Sphinx" and "The Burning Court" - a number of coffins inside a tomb turn out to have moved during the night even though no one had opportunity to be inside that very tomb at that time. Then there follows a suspicious death...

This story features Halter's main detective dr Alan Twist, a fairly obvious homage to Carr's Gideon Fell. The way the story is set up - Twist is out travelling in the English countryside in his car and has a breakdown - has been used by Halter in numerous stories by now. One wonders if he doesn't have another trick in his bag...?

However, the solution is very good. It also differs from both those offered by Carr in his novels, and thus offers a good surprise to the reader. The overarching plot is perhaps somewhat hard to take - why on earth go through all that rigmarole in order to kill someone, especially since it wasn't certain at all that death would be the result of it all? - but the clever explanation of the impossibility remedies that.

"The Call of the Lorelei" is yet another good story featuring Alan Twist. A young man contends that he has heard the famous siren calling to him several times, and one night after leaving his engagement party he is found dead in a frozen pond after having walked some distance from his intended way home.

Again, Halter stretches credulity somewhat by the explanation to why the young man heard the siren's call. Still, the murder motive in this story is more plausible than most which gives the story a boost. And the explanation for why the victim was found in the pond instead of going straight home really works.

The second story added to the English edition is "The Golden Ghost", which is a story of the supernatural, and unfortunately not very good at all. The less said the better. It's rather unfortunate that this story was added - there are several other Halter short stories that could have been added instead.

Moving on to "The Tunnel of Death", which revolves around an impossible murder on an escalator. A man is challenged to ride on the escalator where two deaths have already occurred. He travels with family, guards and police. Of course he is murdered on the escalator and yet none of the witnesses are able to see how it was done.

This was the first story of Halter's I ever read (in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) and I remember being a bit surprised at how similar Halter's impossibilities are to Carr's. I couldn't imagine a "modern" writer being so "classical" in his writing as Halter was. The main thing here is the setting and the set-up. I'm still not as sure about the solution, though. I think the police would have to be fairly stupid not to understand how the murder was committed at the time.

At this point I realise that Halter has a thing that returns in most of his stories - there is often a background history (the siren's call in "Call of the Lorelei", the challenge of the "killing escalator" in "Tunnel of Death", the centuries old orgy in "The Dead Dance at Night" and so on) that are fairly unrelated to the main story, but is used by the killer in order to stage his impossible murders.

Halter's second main detective Owen Burns features in the following story, "The Cleaver". This story is set in the mid 1800s. A man has a nightmare of a friend being killed by a meat cleaver, and when the lawmen investigate, it turns out that the friend is indeed dead, and the scene of the crime looks exactly as the man described it in his dream...

Burns is an acquired taste. I'm not overly fond of his type of character - self-aggrandizing, self-important and with a huge ego (cf. Carr's Patrick Butler). But the story itself is good. The explanation of the murder is another variation of the setup I just discussed - taking advantage of some background story in order to kill.

I don't really see this as an impossible murder, though. Or rather, in the end the impossibility is never explained. Which is a bit of a disappointment, of course. Still, the rest of the story makes up for that.

Owen Burns returns in "The Flower Girl" which is another lovely story. A variation of Dickens's "A Christmas Tale", the story revolves around a Scrooge-like character who is murdered at winter after having seen Father Christmas and a mysterious flying sleigh.

I'll have to admit that the story felt a little bit too convoluted when I read it the first time, but upon re-reading it, I think it just clicked better with me. The explanation really worked for me, and I think Halter gets in some of his better story ideas here.

"Rippermania" is the second clunker of the collection. There's no impossibility here, and the story is very derivative. It's a riff on an idea used by several other authors. Perhaps "The Hands of Mr Ottermole" by Thomas Burke was the first? We've also seen it in one Jonathan Creek episode.

"Murder in Cognac" is better and longer. It features a reclusive writer who has taken to hide in a guarded tower because he has been receiving threats. And yet, of course he is found murdered by poison.

Halter pokes a little bit of fun on some of France's better known mystery critics by naming his characters after them (well, the names are thinly veiled). He also manages to craft a good impossible mystery, which is only let down that it's fairly obvious who will turn out to be the killer - the curse of having too few characters in a story. Otherwise, the explanation works well and feels satisfying.

The final story is "The Night of the Wolf", wherein a certain Mr. Wolf has been violently murdered in his house with not a single footprint seen in the snow outside the building. The explanation (which is proposed by our old acquaintance Irving Farrell) is elegant and workable.

The main drawback of the story is the beginning and the end, which really are not needed at all. They just add a supernatural slant to the whole thing which feels rather unnecessary. So, the story itself is good, but let down a bit by these extraneous bits.


For my project, I've decided to add all stories except the two stories I found boring - "Rippermania" and "The Golden Ghost". It can be argued that "The Cleaver" should not be added to a collection of impossible stories, since the impossibility is never explained, but that's just a quibble. I like it enough to include it...

Fellow blogger Brad discusses this collection here: https://ahsweetmysteryblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/going-through-paul-halters-shorts/

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