Those of you who have been kind enough to follow my excursions into classic mystery fiction know that along my reading travels there have been one or two travails, no more so, I fear, than my attempts to embrace Paul Halter, the modern-day French John Dickson Carr devotee and wannabe. God knows I’ve tried – seven times in fact! – and I won’t bore you with the details. You can choose to search through this site for previous reviews or just take my word for it.
But here’s the thing: it seems that, in my choice of titles, I have been discriminating in favor of one of Halter’s sleuths over the other. Ironically, it’s the same crime I once committed with Carr, frittering away my youth devouring Gideon Fell novels while ignoring Sir Henry Merrivale. (This is a venial sin for which I am currently in the process of atoning.) I thought that Halter’s early 20th century sleuth, Dr. Alan Twist, would be more to my taste than his Victorian investigator, art critic Owen Burns. But if The Phantom Passage (2005), my first foray into Burns, is any indication, I was quite wrong indeed.
For one thing, Burns is a richer character and more firmly rooted in the traditions of Halter’s favorite sleuths than Twist – which is odd, given that the latter is based on Dr. Fell himself. Burns is an aesthete and a dandy, a self-proclaimed raconteur with women, and his relationship with his confederate, Achilles Stock, calls to mind the classic uneven brotherhood between Sherlock Holmes and Watson or between Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. In other words, it’s genuinely charming, even funny at times, and both more logical and intimate than the one Twist has with Inspector Hurst of Scotland Yard. Burns and Stock work with their own Yard man, Inspector Wedekind, and nobody in this triumvirate is a buffoon or a clown. They all bring some quality to the investigation, whether it’s Burn’s creative genius, Stock’s courage or Wedekind’s doggedness.
And they’re going to need all the skills they can muster with the odd case of the street that seems to appear and disappear at will. Even more fantastic is the fact that those who travel down this mysterious phantom passage end up seeing visions of past or future events, usually of the violent variety. Our heroes are drawn into this seemingly supernatural phenomena when an old friend of Burns’, American diplomat Ralph Tierney, bursts into the detective’s rooms to tell him about the crazy night he just had, first being mistaken for an escaped convict and then forced to run right into the spooky alley known as Kraken Street, where he meets an odd assortment of characters and has a terrifying vision of death.
It’s a great set-up, and it leads Owen and Stock on a merry caper that at times feels to me very, well, Holmesian. Along the journey, they wander through every strata of London society and down to the country mansion of a baron with a complicated past. Yet although we are dealing with Halter’s oft-used plot device of a present day issue possibly stemming from past events, there’s no sense of overload or hyper-silliness about the occurrences here. The Victorian setting seems to inspire the author to greater heights of characterization, plotting, descriptive settings and realistic dialogue, all expertly translated by John Pugmire in a way that feels like I’m reading a book written in native English. For most of the way, the wild assortment of circumstances weave together in a way that actually makes sense. It’s a quick read, but it carries a weight (in a good way), both in its prose style and in its storytelling, that satisfied me in a way the Twist novels never seem to do.
Is it perfect? Well, no. For one thing, there’s the ending . . . I will spoil nothing (I hope), but I will say the following: no author I can think of is worse than Halter at hiding the identity of a culprit from me. I almost always get my man (or woman), and that streak continued here. As questions regarding the “who” and the “why” presented themselves, I hit the bulls-eye first time with each answer. And quite frankly, when you step back and figure out the motive for all that’s going on, the whole affair strikes one as utterly ridiculous. Surely the killer could have saved themselves an awful lot of bother with a simpler plan.
Then there’s the matter of the “how,” which is the part that gets fellow bloggers like JJ, Cavershamragu and TomCat all lathery and which never fails to make me yawn. Here, the explanation of what the heck is going on over at Kraken Street utterly underwhelmed me. Halter provides not one, not two, but three diagram/maps to help us understand the trick, and I still don’t quite get it or buy it.
Oddly, though, this did nothing to disturb my enjoyment of Passage, and I am delighted to offer a wholeheartedly positive endorsement of this book by a mystery writer who I have not been especially kind to, as evidenced by his not inviting me to his annual Escar-A-Go-Go in Paris. (Naw, that’s not real!)
And so I’ll leave this short and sweet, just like the novel, and look forward to pursuing the further adventures of Owen Burns. Of course, Halter only wrote six of these adventures, in comparison to the twenty-one novels about Dr. Twist. Only three have been translated into English so far. I understand that The Lord of Misrule is an homage to Carr’s The Three Coffins – not my favorite title by a long shot – and from all I’ve heard, The Seven Wonders of Crime has been designed to drive me crazy.
Bonheur, monsieur Halter, vous êtes tellement exaspérant.