This month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers tackle a sprawling subject: the relationship between mystery and history. It’s a topic one can examine from many different angles. So far, members of the group have shared insights about mysteries set in specific historical eras, or examined how historical context plays into, or is revealed, in Golden Age or modern mystery fiction. I love this latter idea, and my buddy Kate did a fine examination of Agatha Christie’s dabblings into history at the start of the month over at Cross-Examining Crime.
I hope to hone in on this aspect of Christie in two of her best post-war novels next week, and I plan to round off the month with another attempt to kill two birds: a re-reading of one of my favorite John Dickson Carr novels that will connect the author to history and help celebrate his 110th birthday over at JJ’s place, The Invisible Event. All Carr fans should join in here.
But today, I’m merely going to look at one novel, although it is perhaps the oddest Paul Halter mystery I have read to date. I’m not sure if you can call Halter a historical mystery writer or if he just writes pastiches of Golden Age detective novels set in earlier times. All I know is that he is one of the few of this sort I read with any regularity, which is odd because I tend to complain mightily about him. Of the forty or so novels Halter has written, over half of them feature the detective team of Dr. Alan Twist and Inspector Archibald Hurst and are set roughly between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. His other series detective, Owen Burns, is a Victorian sleuth whom I haven’t yet tackled, but even the Dr. Twist novels often hearken back to earlier times, tapping in on Twist’s obsession with the unsolved Jack the Ripper case, for instance, or adding supernatural overtones to impossible crime cases by attaching old legends of witches and monsters to modern cases as a form of misdirection.
The Picture From the Past (published in France in 1995 as L’Image Trouble – The Blurred Image) is a Dr. Twist novel, but the sleuth is not much in evidence through much of the story. Or should I say stories! For the novel is seemingly divided into two separate narratives: a “present-day” (1959) tale of the troubles plaguing a young newlywed named John Braid, and a story of multiple murders taking place in a London slum in some vague “olden time”. The cast of characters is so large, for Halter at least, that we are given a list for each story at the start of the novel, and from this moment Halter teases us with hints of similarities between the two narratives through names, occupations and character descriptions.
For a long time, however, what the connection between the diverse tales could be is cloaked in obfuscation and, with all that’s happening in the “modern day” narrative, I kept asking myself why the second one was even there. In 1959, John Braid is drawn to a picture on the cover of a romantic novel, a photograph of a street, which causes him great unease and vague feelings of familiarity despite the fact that the picture comes from a time before Braid was born. All this is wreaking mild havoc with his recent marriage to the beautiful Andrea, although the fact that Braid is clearly lying to his bride about, well, everything might be a contributing factor to the tension between them. And in the background of this picture of domestic non-bliss is the unfolding story of the “Acid Bath Murderer,” a serial killer of whom Hurst and Twist are in hot pursuit. The murderer seems to be following the pattern of one of the mystery novels written by Andrea’s favorite author, a book that every character in the present day seems to have read. Do the troubles facing the Braids and their neighbors have any connection to the serial killer? And what of the impossible disappearance that occurs three quarters of the way through the story? What does that have to do with the larger picture?
And that’s just Narrative #1. In Narrative #2: Halter provides us with the tragic tale of the Jacobs family, who live in a bad part of, I think, London town and get involved in one death after another, including, of course, yet another impossible crime. It’s harder to hang onto any particular character here because they all keep disappearing or dying. Hovering over all the mysteries generated here is the big question: why the heck is Paul Halter giving us two cases for the price of one? What is the connection between the present case and a story set so far in the past that nobody from the present could be alive or involved . . . unless, as is hinted at one point, one could travel back and forth in time!!!
So listen: I love a good story where the author successfully connects a present day mystery to past incidents. The room at the top of the stair where nobody who spends the night has survived, the presence of a ghost with a grudge against the current residents of a house or village, the modern vendetta against a wrong from the distant past, the building of a home on an ancient burial ground . . . All of these have proven to be fodder for some great mysteries.
But not here. Frankly, this book is a mess. Central to the problem for me is the behavior of John and Andrea Braid toward each other, which simply makes no sense yet has to happen so that Halter can push the plot along. That is one of my main complaints about this author: people act without rhyme or reason merely to serve the demands of the plot. And if the plot is iffy, then the actions of the characters become muddled to the point of nonsense. Another of my confusions is technical: the Victorian plot is narrated by a third person omniscient voice, while the present day plot is told in the first person by John Braid . . . except when it’s not. Halter switches points of view in a harrowing way, sometimes mid-chapter. And there’s no reason why Braid would share his thoughts with the reader the way he does, except that Halter wants to dangle suspicion over certain characters this way. It’s a technique he uses in book after book, and it’s growing tired, if you ask me!
We even get a third narrative going, one that I don’t want to go into detail over so that I won’t spoil things too much, but once the smoke clears at the end, there are all sorts of loose ends from three different tales that don’t add up so well. I will say that it involves a little meta-work on the part of Halter, but without the success of, say, the locked room lecture in Carr’s The Three Coffins or the dying message lecture in Ellery Queen’s The Tragedy of X.
The link between the separate histories is finally explained, not in an illogical way but in one that left me unsatisfied. Still, I can forgive a lot if the mystery itself is a good one, with a villain who is well-concealed. This has been another of my complaints about Halter: I usually spot the culprit very early on in the proceedings. Here, I will say, I did not solve either case, but the quality of the solutions was mixed. The past case sorted itself out more satisfactorily than the one in the present. The emotional aspects of the Jacobs’ tragedy were clearer and easier to latch onto than the problems brewing in the Braids’ marriage because I simply couldn’t buy the latter. And the impossible aspects were more clever in the older tale. Finally, while the connection between one era’s crimes to the other had a haunting aspect to it, the identity of the “Acid Bath Killer” and the murderer in Braid’s neighborhood ultimately left me cold, and the intricacy of this double or triple plotted novel finally collapsed in on its own weight. Funny, I don’t remember this happening in the actual mysteries of the old days with the regularity with which it seems to happen to Halter.