Death Out of Nowhere by Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally Published as La Mort Vient De Nulle Part (French) in 1943
English translation published in 2020

The Blurb

Is Breule Manor cursed? Can a strange incantation predicting the time of death release an occult spirit to murder time and time again, in impossible circumstances and with no clues? As the terror gets closer, an amateur detective stumbles across the astonishing solution. Recognised as one of the great books of the French Golden Age, the story will grab you, baffle you and amuse you.

The Verdict

Though short, Death out of Nowhere is packed with superb ideas and a genuinely astonishing solution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

Death out of Nowhere begins at a gathering of four friends – a journalist, novelist, school supervisor and clerk – at the manor belonging to another of their mutual friends, the Baron Pierre de Maleves.

During a discussion about crime fiction Beaurieux, the school supervisor, makes a bet that he can commit a ‘perfect crime’ at the hour of a friend’s choosing. The friend accepts and tells him to do it immediately which he does, performing a small series of actions involving a handkerchief, a funnel, some playing cards and exclaims “and the Emperor be damned”. Moments later a shot rings out and a short while later the Baron’s great-uncle is found dead in a locked and bolted room with no weapon to be found.

Let me start by saying that the opening chapters of this novella are an absolute hoot. The book opens with the group bickering about crime stories with the dialog poking fun at some of the conventions and excesses of the genre. This is one of my favorite tropes in crime fiction – the self-aware discussion of the genre to make us aware that these characters are already aware of the tricks and promising, hopefully, something fresh. Gensoul and Grenier handle this well and I think the resulting novella does a fine job of fulfilling that promise.

The idea of the impossible crime bet is an appealing one and, once again, introduced quite effectively. Beaurieux has been highly animated in conversation and when he grabs LeBellec, the clerk, by the wrists and declares “All of a sudden, I feel like killing someone” I felt energized and excited by what struck me as a moment of quite wonderfully controlled yet dramatic madness and I wondered what that moment was setting up.

The ritual itself is interesting in its simplicity and immediately raises a number of questions about what happened, whether the murder was supposed to happen and what might happen next. I was highly engaged by the questions posed and while I had some guesses, I didn’t come close to answering them. Well, except that last one. There will be more murders…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the breakneck storytelling engaged in by the authors. From the start this book is constantly throwing ideas and story developments at the reader. This is not only highly effective in terms of keeping the reader bewildered as the pace barely lets you think, it also helps to add to the unsettling effect created by this series of murders as it does seem that things are continuing to accelerate and become more dangerous for the remaining house guests.

On the topic of those guests, it should be said that this book does not have a character formally designated as the sleuth and in whose good nature and truthfulness we can wholeheartedly trust. This does open up the possibility that any of the small cast might have been involved although the nature of their various alibis makes finding a suspect who had means and opportunity seem almost impossible.

I would also say that as you might expect from a work of this length, characterization of the various suspects and victims is fairly simplistic. The four friends do all have distinct personality types but exist mostly to fill functions in the story. I think in this case it works well and ultimately suits the tone and style of the story the authors were seeking to tell. In other words, come to this book for its plot and ideas rather than its characters and you won’t be disappointed.

The solution, when it is revealed, is one of the more audacious I have encountered in impossible crime fiction yet I think it is mechanically credible, particularly given the way it is executed here. It is perhaps the type of solution that it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with organically but I do think it is justified when you look back at the material with knowledge of what the solution will be although few of the most important clues are signposted.

My only complaint with the plotting comes with a mechanical reveal that takes place in chapter fourteen which hinges on an understanding of how something works that I didn’t think had been described. Had that been critical to understanding all of the murders I might have been less willing to forgive it and I will concede that this may just hinge on my own ignorance and may have been more apparent to other readers.

Putting that complaint to one side, I loved many other parts of the conclusion and think it did a fine job of making a complicated series of events understandable and credible. The explanation occurs after a flurry of excitement and here, once again, the authors do an excellent job of conveying both a sense of energy and intellectual curiosity.

Overall I must once again give John Pugmire and Locked Room International credit for translating this work and making it available for us to enjoy. While it is short, it has so many fantastic ideas at work that I felt thoroughly satisfied with my experience reading it. I had never heard of this novella or its authors prior to the announcement of its release being made so it was a particular delight to get to come to this with no foreknowledge or expectations and I can only hope that they continue for a long time to come.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event liked this overall, saying that it won’t be for everyone (and suggesting that it doesn’t really play fair).

(Apologies if the formatting is off on this post – I edited it on my cell after posting to add the link)

The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter, Translated by John Pugmire

The Tiger’s Head
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1991
Dr Twist #5
Preceded by The Madman’s Room
Followed by The Seventh Hypothesis

It has been a surprising amount of time since I last read and wrote about a Paul Halter novel though I have had several up near the top of my TBR list. The Tiger’s Head was my selection mostly because I was tantalized by its premise of a murder committed in a locked room by a genie. As it happens though this is just one of three mysteries within the novel.

Each of those three mysteries is presented as a separate case and yet have considerable overlap as they involve the same community and cast of characters. The first is the murder and dismemberment of several young women, the second is the murder of a retired major in a locked room and the final one is the ongoing series of thefts of seemingly random items of limited value around the small village of Leadenham.

Let’s start with the least of these – the thefts. Though it is introduced almost as a background storyline, Halter does not treat it as such. While it may not be the case that brings Dr. Twist to Leadenham, it has plenty of points of interest (not least that everyone in the village has an alibi for one or more of the crimes) and could easily have made for an entertaining short story in its own right. I certainly enjoyed the resolution and discovering how it played into the other story threads.

The second story thread, the murder of the Major, is the one that the novel is named for and it presents us with our most traditional locked room elements. There is, ostensibly, a supernatural element at play: the Major had told a story about how he had won the Tiger’s Head cane from a fakir while in India and that it contains a genie that can kill. The Major had challenged a friend to stay with him in a room where every door and window is locked from the inside and wait for the genie to appear. When their friends get worried they break into the room to find the Major dead and the doubter lying unconscious from head injuries, claiming that he saw and was attacked by the genie.

Now, I will say that I do not love the conceit of a room with the locked doors under observation by individuals – it is too obvious how this sort of a puzzle can be broken. Happily Halter gets on with it, almost immediately acknowledging that not everyone’s story can be true and getting on with trying to unpick people’s alibis.

This puzzle is, in my opinion, the cleverest of the three mechanically (while it plays fair, I would be astounded if anyone was able to deduce exactly how it was achieved) and if the book has a fault it may be that it chooses to present the solution to this three-quarters of the way through rather than at the close. Structurally there are some good reasons for this because of the ways the three stories connect but it does mean that the most intriguing and complex aspects of the narrative are already done as the book enters its endgame.

Twist and Hurst’s original reason for being in Leadenham is to hunt the ‘Suitcase Killer’, who has dismembered young women and put their limbs into suitcases which have been left at train stations. The premise is usually gruesome for Halter but I think he sets up the situation quite brilliantly, reminding me in some aspects of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries. Unfortunately it is one of those cases where I can’t really reveal which story it is without giving away some of the parallel plot points. I can say though that there are some really satisfying moments, not least one that comes at the end of one of the early chapters that actually had me gasping in surprise.

Readers may feel that this story thread does slide into the background a little too easily at points in the narrative given that we are talking about the actions of a serial killer who we should expect would strike again. I think though that Halter does present a credible reason why Twist and Hurst get distracted from this case and focus in on the other mysterious events taking place in Leadenham.

The explanation given for what happened and why is clever, particularly in how it relates to the other storylines. There is some very clever plotting and narrative sleight of hand at play here and while I think it plays its strongest surprise a little too early (and is mechanically fairly straightforward), I found the solution to be significantly more satisfying than I expected though I share Brad’s dissatisfaction with an aspect of the ending that does leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

In spite of this however I have little difficulty in pronouncing this a triumph and one of the most satisfying experiences I have had with Halter to date. The quality of the run of books Halter produced between The Madman’s Room and The Demon of Dartmoor is truly impressive and while I think The Seventh Hypothesis is a more satisfying read overall, I think this is a close runner up winning points for its creativity and imagination.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event has not written a review of this on his blog but he did discuss it on an episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast. He also includes it on his Five to Try: Starting Paul Halter post. Finally, it places highly on his Top 15 LRI publications list.

The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel also recommended the book, albeit with some reservations. These include feeling that one of the locked room resolutions is ‘utter rubbish’ and thinking a motive is over the top. I do agree with his general sentiment that Halter’s problem is often that he throws too many elements in, not giving them the room to be properly developed.

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog is not always Halter’s biggest fan but he says that he was pleasantly surprised for the first three quarters of the novel and loved one of the explanations for a locked room. Unfortunately his experience was spoiled by a final scene reveal and by Halter not really trying to hide whodunnit.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was responsible for pushing this book higher up my TBR when he reviewed it toward the end of last year. He comments on how no individual solution is brilliant but the way they are brought together is ‘misdirection at its finest’.

The Invisible Circle by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Circle
The Invisible Circle
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1996

Several months ago in the comments section of my review of The Seventh Hypothesis I came to a realization about Paul Halter’s novels. I have sometimes struggled with the theatrical, gothic elements in his novels because they seem contrived for the reader’s entertainment rather than because they make the killer’s plans better.

The Invisible Circle, like The Seventh Hypothesis, is a consciously theatrical mystery. What I mean by this is that the theatrical elements of the scenario Halter creates are intentionally created by a character within the story to appear theatrical rather than to try to convince us that supernatural events are actually occurring.

There are multiple theatrical aspects to Halter’s scenario which are introduced early in the story, each evoking Arthurian legends. Before the characters even arrive on the island off the coast of Cornwall they are aware that the area is reputed to be the real location of King Arthur’s castle. Later the eventual victim gives each of the characters an Arthurian name, tells them that he will be murdered within an hour, identifies a killer and proceeds to lock himself within a room telling everyone that he must not be disturbed within that time. When he is discovered, he is found stabbed to death with a sword that they had previously seen firmly lodged in a stone.

Though I had been worried that those theatrical elements would be an afterthought or used as little more than color for this mystery I was very pleased when I realized that they had significance to piecing together what was happening and why it was happening. By the end of the novel we understand why the killer decides to create an apparently impossible crime and even if we think their actions are improbable, they are at least logical.

The puzzle of the murder itself is rather brilliant, benefiting in part by the other characters being able to clearly establish the geography of the room and its contents prior to it being sealed with the victim inside. This is a side effect of the theatricality or artificiality of the premise of the murder – because it is announced by the victim the characters are able to state definitively what they witnessed within the room and that no one interfered with the door during the hour in which the murder took place. The reader has to not only work out how the killer gained access to the room but also how they extracted the sword from the stone during that hour.

My usual stumbling block with these sorts of impossible crimes, particularly from Halter, is in understanding the killer’s thinking. My expectation is not that the crime is likely to have been committed in the way described but that the characters’ actions make sense given their motive and the resources at their disposal. I think Halter does a very good job of creating a solid explanation for why the killer decides to carry out a murder in this fashion and that he plays absolutely fair with the reader in laying the clues for us to deduce what is going on. I may not consider such a murder likely but I could understand how it might make sense to the killer to commit their crime that way.

Mechanically I think there are some aspects of the crime that work extremely well. Certainly I think the mystery of how the sword in the stone could have been used is cleverly explained. Also I was in no doubt of the killer’s movements and that they had the opportunity to carry out the murder which helped make the solution even more credible.

Now that is not to say that isn’t at least some coincidence and luck involved in the killer’s plans coming together. Their plan ultimately has some flaws, one of which is that once you attack the situation logically the killer’s identity becomes clear even if their motivation is not immediately so. Still, while I correctly guessed at the killer’s identity very early in the story it took me a while to feel like I could prove it.

The bigger issue is that there is a key aspect of the plot that relies on some astonishingly poor observational skills on the part of the cast of characters. Reviews by Puzzle Doctor and Ben both identify this as something that would be hard to believe could work as effectively as it does here and they are each right to do so. It didn’t bother me given that Halter signposts the theatricality of this scenario and that once you understand what has happened it can be used as evidence to solve the bigger mystery but I would agree that the killer gets extremely, almost unbelievably, lucky in that moment.

Having voiced my appreciation for Halter’s plotting and use of the Arthurian legends, I must say that the novel is less impressive in terms of its cast of characters. With the exception of Madge, the host’s niece, they feel functional rather than three-dimensional. I think this is appropriate for the type of plot Halter creates here but I mention it because this approach to characterization is not to everyone’s tastes.

So, where does that leave me overall? The Invisible Circle is not my favorite Halter novel but I think it is one of the most enjoyable. The pacing is brisk and each chapter seems to end with a fresh revelation that spins the case off in a new direction or makes the scenario seem even more dramatic.

Though I think the killer’s plan was enormously risky, I think Halter does explain the reasoning behind it and I appreciated that it plays fair, providing a solution that the reader can work out by a process of logical deduction. For those reasons I could overlook the killer taking what seems like several enormous risks and appreciate what they brought to this otherwise very cleverly constructed story.

The Man Who Loved Clouds by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Clouds
The Man Who Loved Clouds
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1999
Dr. Twist #14
Preceded by Meurtre dans un manoir anglais
Followed by L’allumette sanglante

I recently had an excellent time with The Seventh Hypothesis, naming it my Book of the Month for July, so I was excited to learn that Locked Room International would be releasing a translation of another Twist and Hurst mystery.

The novel concerns events in the coastal village of Pickering and the mystery surrounding a young woman who lives there.

The book begins with Twist relating a story he has been told by a young journalist who had visited the village on a whim, following a group of clouds. During that visit he had a brief encounter with that young woman in which she made a big impression on him, leading him to make enquiries about her with some of the locals.

Her name is Stella Deverell and she is reputed to have fairy-like powers including the ability to predict the future and to disappear into thin air. On a number of occasions she had been observed walking into a small wooded area only to disappear and though several people have attempted to catch her and find her secret, including the local police force, none had managed it.

She claims to have been clairvoyant since she was a young child and locals can point to several predictions she made that had come true as proof of her abilities. One of those predictions concerned the death of her father, made several days before he was discovered dead at the foot of a cliff having apparently committed suicide. Shortly after the journalist arrives she makes further predictions of deaths and in each case they come true, the victims appearing to be hurled to their deaths by strong gusts of wind.

Unlike the other Halter novels I have read and reviewed, it is noticeable that this is not structured around an obvious case of murder. We are aware of several strange deaths from the beginning of the book but at the point the investigation begins it is from the perspective of trying to understand a seemingly inexplicable set of events and to prevent further deaths rather than to solve an event already established to be a crime.

Stella is an intriguing character and wisely Halter avoids giving us too much time with her, having her discussed more than she is shown. We hear several accounts of incidents involving her and her powers, each making her powers seem simultaneously more convincing and puzzling. We may think of individual explanations for each of the incidents but it is harder to understand the bigger picture of how and why she is accomplishing these feats.

Some of the explanations can feel a little anticlimactic if viewed in isolation and only in terms of the mechanics of the puzzle but I was impressed by the way they tie together. In the past I have sometimes questioned the psychological consistency of Halter’s stories but here I think each small puzzle contributes to our understanding of the wider dynamics within the village and helps us get closer to identifying a killer and their motive.

While I would always caution readers not to expect too much in terms of the characterizations in a Halter novel, I do think this is one of his richer and more rewarding works in that respect. Certainly there are a number of characters who exist to impart information or to flesh out the population of the village but the characters at the heart of the narrative are given back stories, clear motivations and time is spent establishing their relationships.

In addition to resolving the puzzle elements of the plot, the ending also manages to include a whopping great revelation that I think is executed superbly. There is no trickery involved, nor does it feel like an afterthought but rather that element of the story was clearly planned from the beginning and hinted at throughout the novel. It ties in strongly with the themes Halter develops throughout the book and I think it makes for a surprisingly powerful conclusion.

I was less impressed with the mechanical explanations of how the wind had killed several villagers though I think it would be hard to imagine any explanation that could live up to the strangeness of that idea. I was a little more confused about why Twist does not seem to more actively attempt to disprove that could be the case and I do agree with Nick Fuller that it does seem odd that the sleuths spend more time reacting to events than actively pursuing leads or trying to disprove what a supernatural explanation for those deaths.

Neither of those issues substantially affected my enjoyment of the book and while I need a little time to reflect, I certainly think it is in the conversation to be one of my favorite Halter stories (The Seventh Hypothesis probably still has the edge but it is close). It is intricately plotted and I became even more impressed once I could see how each of the elements fitted together so neatly in the conclusion. Very highly recommended.

The Double Alibi by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

DoubleAlibi
The Double Alibi
Noël Vindry
Originally Published 1934

Over the past year I have been slowly but surely working my way through the Locked Room International back catalogue in a rather haphazard way, picking titles based on positive reviews comments from blogging chums and on occasion because an element of the premise intrigued me. Though I own The Howling Beast and The House That Kills I decided I would skip over those titles after I read JJ’s review of this title.

There were a few aspects of the novel that appealed to me in advance but what caught my attention the most was the problem of a person appearing to have been in multiple places at once. As TomCat quite rightly points out, this is not really an impossible situation as there are perfectly clear explanations given for each of the sightings but the reader and M. Allou have to work out how these different threads are woven together.

The subject of those reported sightings is Gustave Allevaire, a thief who has been in prison several times to his cousins’ mortification. They are constantly trying to persuade their aunt who they care for and who expects to receive a sizeable inheritance whenever her brother passes away that he is a bad lot but she still sees him as a cheeky youngster rather than a career criminal.

They hear from a family friend that Gustave has been seen in the vicinity of their home so when they wake at one in the morning to discover that the silver and their life savings have been pilfered they instantly suspect him. Things are looking even bleaker for Gustave when his fingerprints are discovered on a few pieces of silver that were dropped in the house. The problem is that at precisely the same time he was supposedly stealing from their home he was also breaking into but not stealing money from his employer’s desk nine hours drive away and in a third location (I’m not spoiling that one for you – it is a great reveal).

Enter M. Allou, a juge d’instruction who takes charge of investigating these cases in spite of their occurring in separate jurisdictions. In the course of the novella he travels to each of the crime scenes, interviewing the witnesses and trying to make sense of how Gustave appears to have been in three places at once.

The novel is at its best in the opening and closing sections as it lays out the facts of the incidents and explains the links between them. I found the scenes with the Levalois sisters and their aunt to be entertaining and their relationship to be well observed. The characterization is strong and I appreciated the time Vindry spends explaining their living situation as it does help bring them to life rather than existing just to serve the puzzle.

Similarly I really responded well to the characters in the office where Gustave had been working and, in particular, to the uncertain interpersonal relationship between the witness who claims to have seen Gustave and the owner’s sister. Even the police officers that Allou works alongside prove interesting and colorful!

Unfortunately while I appreciated the strong character work, I did find that the novel seemed to drag a little for me in the middle. In this section we witness Allou and his colleagues mulling over the different theories about who may be at best incorrect or possibly lying about what they saw, a process that becomes a little repetitive as we wait for a breakthrough to happen.

Happily that does come along with a small locked room problem to liven things up as we get ready for Allou to have his breakthrough and work out what was done and how. Those explanations are quite clever and do make sense of the tangle of links between the three appearances. I certainly didn’t get close to solving this one and kicked myself about not picking up on a couple of points once the explanations were given which is really what I’m hoping to get out of reading an impossible crime story.

Overall, I am glad I finally got around to reading one of the Vindry books I have had sat on my to read pile for months and I certainly appreciated some of the interesting character choices the author made. The puzzle, while not impossible, is clever and stimulating and I did enjoy the way everything is brought together at the end. I will be curious to try the other Vindry novels in the future though I think my next Locked Room International stop will be a return to Halter.

The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

SeventhHypo
The Seventh Hypothesis
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1991
Dr Twist #6
Preceded by The Tiger’s Head
Followed by The Demon of Dartmoor

In preparing this review I took a moment to go back and read what I had written about previous Halter novels and was shocked by what I found. Folks – it’s been nearly FOUR MONTHS since I last read a Paul Halter.

That was The Phantom Passage, a novel I found to be a little disappointing in the way it was resolved. In the comments JJ suggested that I may want to take a look at The Seventh Hypothesis and I decided, for once, to actually follow-up on a Halter suggestion. I am glad I did because this novel is, to date, my favorite of his works I have read.

The plot is, as can be quite typical of his work, overstuffed with elements which can make it a challenge to summarize. The best I can offer is that Halter presents us with two crimes that, because of some coincidences, appear to be linked.

The novel opens with a policeman having a strange encounter with a man dressed as a medieval plague doctor. Soon afterwards he encounters a man dressed in the manner of a very old-fashioned doctor who addresses him as a confederate worried about where they have hidden a body. The policeman investigates, searching the three bins in turn without finding anything. The doctor pronounces himself a doctor of crime and, upon leaving, directs the policeman to look in a bin again where he finds a corpse.

Later the private secretary of a playwright comes to see Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst to tell them about his concerns regarding a conversation he overheard between his employer and a visitor. He tells them that the pair have made a murder pact in which one will commit a crime and try to blame it on the other. If that wasn’t confusing enough, at a key moment in their conversation one of the pair picked up a doll that resembled a plague doctor, calling back the first case.

In the past I have complained about feeling Halter incorporates too many ideas into a single story, opting for style and theatrical moments rather than logical plot developments. For instance, I took issue with some of the deaths in The Demon of Dartmoor which I felt stretched credibility. The Seventh Hypothesis follows the same pattern of incorporating a lot of ideas and incident into a very short page count and yet here the mixture works with those elements seeming to support each other.

Part of the reason I think it works so well here is the central conceit of the challenge between the playwright and his rival, a renowned actor, into which all of the other elements are folded. Halter wastes no time trying to convince us that what we are seeing may be coincidences or misunderstandings but he establishes at least some points in the secretary’s story to be true. He does this both by having the investigators discover inconsistencies in stories but also by directly showing us conversations between the two suspects, making us aware of their responses to some developments.

JJ calls the interactions between those two characters as being ‘a sumptuous, insanely dizzying whirligig’ and I heartily concur. I found both the report of their conversation and the meetings between them to be thoroughly intriguing and while this apparent narrowing of our field of suspects should be limiting, the construction of the plot helps ensure that the reader can never entirely trust the evidence they have before them.

What creates that ‘whirligig’ feel he alludes to is Halter’s breathless plotting. It is rare for a chapter to pass without a small revelation or incident taking place which changes our understanding of what is happening or significantly moves the case forwards. For instance, there are several further murders that take place after the discovery of that first body, making an already complicated case even harder to unravel. Even the secretary’s report of the conversation he overhears contains two or three significant reversals and revelations.

Halter’s stylistic flourishes are also very well executed, creating an unsettling oddness that may initially seem a little forced and yet fit perfectly into this very theatrical plot Halter constructs. While I enjoyed those early passages in which the doctors in historical dress talk about plague in the city, I did wonder if these existed just to create a sense of atmosphere but I was pleasantly surprised by the way he incorporates those costumes into the plot and makes them feel necessary rather than an indulgence.

The solution to the story is cleverly constructed and quite audacious. Each of the explanations makes sense as logical and consistent with the evidence and I thought some of the ways clues were utilized were quite novel. Some may question whether Twist proves all of his case and I do take their point – the most questionable revelations occur in the epilogue and while I guessed at them I do not know that he could have proved them – but the logical process he describes in reducing his suspect pool in the run up to the accusation makes perfect sense to me and I do think he proves his case mechanically, if not convincingly when it comes to motivation.

Given my fairly glowing sentiments about this book I guess the question I am left with is why isn’t this picked as a highlight of Halter’s oeuvre? My feeling is that it probably comes down to how, unlike much of his translated work, the mystery is neither an impossible crime nor a locked room. Aspects of it are certainly incredible and audacious and may look impossible but it is fairly simple to work out how the disappearing and reappearing body may have taken place. The challenge is in knitting all of these elements together to understand why these things occurred.

I enjoyed that challenge a lot and found the book to be stimulating, imaginative and satisfying right up to the conclusion. After this experience I certainly don’t think it will take four months for me to pick up another Halter – the only challenge will be deciding which one. Fortunately I still have a fair amount of his back catalog to work through…

The Phantom Passage by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

PhantomPassage
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.