The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

The Phantom Passage
Paul Halter
Originally Published 2005
Owen Burns #4
Preceded by Les douze crimes d’Hercule
Followed by La chambre d’Horus

What if there was an alleyway that could not be found on any recent maps, that appeared from nowhere and seemed to disappear the moment those who found it have left?

American diplomat Ralph Tierney turns up at Owen Burns’ room, seeking out his old friend with such a tale. He tells Owen and Achilles Stock that he had stumbled upon the passage and witnessed a strange vision in a room on the second floor of a house there. When he fled the passage and tried to find his way back it, and the landmarks that guided him to it, seemed to have vanished completely.

When Owen and Achilles start to look into this they discover previous accounts of similar experiences and that the visions experienced in that room have either happened in the past or will happen in the future. Could this passage really be showing people events from the past or future or is there some sinister design behind it?

The Phantom Passage is, for much of its duration, a truly inventive and bewildering read. Halter skillfully introduces and plays with the concept of a supernatural occurrence. The idea of this passageway into the past and future is so fantastical and its physical presence seems to be so clearly disproved that at times it seems the only possible explanation.

As Owen and Achilles investigate the stories of those who have encountered this passageway before we are introduced to a few striking characters and get to hear of further seemingly bizarre events. By the time we get to the point of revelation I was aching to know how Halter would explain away some of those strange little points of interest in the case and make sense of what seems a truly bizarre set of events.

Unfortunately when that time comes, Halter’s explanation struck me as unconvincing. I did not find it at all credible that anybody who had the motive given in this novel would devise this convoluted method to execute their plans. There seemed to be too much coincidence and too many moments in which those plans might go wrong to make any sense of those choices.

The problem, for me, is that even in that resolution there are individual elements that I think work really well. Ideas that, taken in isolation, make sense and which can be quite effective but that never stitch together to make a convincing whole psychologically, even if they mechanically make sense.

This is particularly frustrating because the book up until the final two chapters is highly enjoyable. While it is quite a short read in terms of its page count, I stretched it out taking regular breaks to consider just how the effects may have been achieved. For all that thought and concentration, I don’t think I ever achieved the full explanation.

I also have to say that I really like Owen Burns and Achilles Stock as a detective pairing and how distinct they feel from his other series pairing of Twist and Hurst. Both characters get some strong moments but I particularly appreciated a lengthy sequence featuring Stock towards the end of the novel and its repercussions. I certainly look forward to trying some other stories with this pairing.

I really enjoyed reading this book up until its final two chapters but because of my frustrations with its explanation I can’t recommend it and would likely place it lowest of the Halter novels that I have read so far. That is in spite of having enjoyed it more than Death Invites You and about as much as The Madman’s Room. I think the enjoyment of the ride probably makes up for its conclusion and so while I ultimately felt frustrated by the novel, I would suggest that you check out one of the more positive reviews out there such as JJ’s and check it out for yourself.

13 thoughts on “The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

  1. Oh, no doubt the motive for all this is hilariously insufficient for the efforts involved — we’ll absolutely agree on that. For sheer craziness, however, I clearly enjoyed this much more than you in the final instance. Originality goes along way for me, and Halter has it in spades here…hopefully you’ll enjoy your next encounter more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope so too. I have yet to encounter a Halter story I didn’t enjoy reading and while I didn’t like the ending of this, had that motive made more sense I could well have ranked this among the best!


      1. I lose track a little, but I seem to remember that thrust-and-parry of The Seventh Hypothesis being well-motivated. Not a story to go into for the impossibilities — you’re better off with The Tiger’s Head there — but for sheer plotting bravura and neck-breaking narrative reversals you’d struggle to match it in Halter’s transactions so far.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Originality goes along way for me, and Halter has it in spades here.
      For the umpteenth time this week, I have to agree with JJ. Particularly when it comes to the phantom passageway, which is arguably Halter’s greatest impossible problem. I was not as impressed by the visions from the past and future, but everything else was a treat for fans of the impossible crime story. Perhaps that’s why we appreciated it a little bit more than you did.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t get me wrong – I think the impossibility is superbly constructed. I just wish that the person who had arranged it didn’t do one thing – I think it would make the motive a little easier to understand, even if it would make the impossibility a little less impossible.


      1. I just remembered that I should have left my comments here after finishing it – which I did around two weeks ago…

        On the whole, I liked it quite a bit. Yeah, the scheme on the culprit’s part was a bit too far-out. Definitely not anything realistic. But it wasn’t bad enough to spoil my appreciation of the whole thing.

        It was certainly a better read than “The Crimson Fog”.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Glad you enjoyed it overall. I did feel that it would have been more interesting had a murder not been part of the culprit’s plan but I did appreciate the scope of the scheme.

        The Crimson Fog is one of the Halters I have on my kindle atm so I appreciate the warning!


  2. “Originality goes along way for me, and Halter has it in spades here.” I agree too but just wish he was a better writer even allowing for any shortcomings there might be on the part of the translator.


    1. I can understand that and there is certainly a sense that in a Halter novel everything exists to serve the puzzle resulting in some odd descriptions of pieces of characterization. Normally that would bother me but I think I probably do give a little leeway for it being translated and I assume that some of the more old fashioned and formal turns of phrase reflect that he is writing in what I take to be a pastiche of a Carrian style.


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