This is really a special event! For the first time, Paul Halter is releasing his newest work in English before it is published in French. And while the new book, The Gold Watch, er, clocks in at a typical 178 pages, its scope is nothing short of epic.
Divided into two narratives – yet essentially covering four distinct time periods – the book straddles the genres of mystery, fantasy, horror, and psychological suspense. Plus, it’s the first opportunity for English-only readers to observe the author grappling with modern-day people and universal themes in a manner that I can only imagine as being ineffably French.
For those Halter fans who are starting to get worried, let me assure you that the novel’s centerpiece is an impossible crime mystery set in 1911 and featuring dilettante detective Owen Burns and his pal, Achilles Stock. The two are summoned to Raven Lodge, the country home of Victoria Sanders, who runs a fabric importing company and is hosting a small group of friends and family for a snowy winter weekend. Actually, I should say was hosting – because Victoria has been found dead in the snow, beyond the woodland that encircles the mansion, and although Burns is sure she has been murdered, only Victoria’s own footprints can be found leading to the body! (Check for yourself: the book provides a map!)
This is Paul Halter, folks, so the investigation unearths a great deal (dare I say too much?) going on. Aside from the usual stuff of mystery – the ne’er do well brother in need of money, the business associate craving power, and a roundelay of romantic intrigues – there are other elements at work that are more sinister and fantastical, bringing in both metaphysical and supernatural elements.
How, for instance, might this crime relate to the vicious murder of a woman ten years earlier in the London streets? (And why did the woman look with horror at her own home just moments before her death?) What is going on with Victoria’s dyer/manservant, an Indian mystic who grows plants he claims are capable of producing a new color that is both invisible and magical? What happened to the yellow book that disappeared from Victoria’s bedside, which Burns claims is a cursed play-script capable of turning a reader suicidal – or homicidal?!? And, of course, what about that gold watch, the element that seems to extricate past and present together with its dangling chain?
It’s a lot, right? Typical Halter, yes?? The fun will be in how he ties it all together, explains the footprints and solves two murder mysteries, okay?? But people! This isn’t even the half of it!!!!Because what I have described comprises only half of this novel. There is a whole other narrative, set in 1991 France, that at first seems to have nothing to do with the mystery featuring Burns. And in its own completely different way, this storyline is as complex as the other, maybe even more so.
Our modern-day hero is Andre Leveque, a successful playwright who has developed a block due to his growing obsession with the fleeting memory of an image of film he saw on TV when he was a boy. That the image corresponds in odd ways with the murder the readers are treated to in 1901 is confounding – even more so because we know a little boy witnessed that killing, and yet it’s physically impossible for that kid to have been Andre, who is only in his 40’s.
Thus, we’re forced to wonder constantly whether this novel is going to cut across genres in some way – various theories of reincarnation are proposed and discussed – or whether Halter will do due diligence to the Mystery Author’s Code of Conduct and find natural explanations for everything.
In order for Andre to reach some answers (and appease his young, pretty wife, who appears to have secrets of her own), Andre consults both – a psychoanalyst . . . .
and an astronomer! What happens with each of these consultants deepens the mysteries of Andre’s life in intriguing ways, taking him back to his childhood in the late 1960’s and to a whole new country home where yet another seemingly impossible crime unfolds: the fall of a woman from a quarry when nobody is near her. Surrounding this possible murder is yet more romantic intrigue and always – always! – the image of the gold watch!!
How, you might imagine if you are a true fan of Halter’s work, does the author manage to interweave these two (three? four???) disparate stories, subtly drawing parallels at first, and then creating deeper mysteries over how these events spanning a century are connected? You know me: I’m the first to kvetch about the author’s “kitchen sink” method of cramming as many plot elements in as possible (did The Devil of Dartmoor have two ghosts or three?), but I have to say this is all rather delicious. And Halter adds a new layer by insinuating real life art and legend into the novel’s plot. That cursed yellow book, for instance, may be familiar to fans of horror fiction: Robert W. Chambers’ book of short stories The King in Yellow was purported to have the same effect on readers/viewers as described herein. Halter even incorporates Chambers’ play plot into his own.
The same co-opting occurs in the present, as Andre’s obsession with the film he saw the trailer allows Halter to weave discussion about real films noir into the narrative. One film, in particular, becomes an essential clue on Andre’s journey; if you know your film noir, you can figure out which film it is because, yet again, Halter borrows a set of plot ideas wholesale from someone else. Still, I found a heightened sense of suspense from Halter abandoning, at least half the time, the safe cloak of the past, where readers might be more accepting of the plethora of fantastical events that often comprise a GA mystery. What happens in the modern narrative seems very much a hybrid between “classic” mystery and modern psychological novel, which may or may not be to your taste but which I found interesting.
Whether it’s ultimately a successful tour de force or just . . . too. . . much . . . depends on whether you think Halter succeeds in tying it all together in the end.I know already that we must agree to disagree on this point. Suffice it to say that all narratives conclude in dramatically explosive (and highly varied) ways, that the solution to one murder case is, as often happens, disappointing (I’m not even sure I know exactly what it implied in the end) but that the other murder exemplifies GA impossible crime tropes – which is to say Halter honors classic ideas (this time he even includes Christie!) and makes something original out of them. I have to say, though, that this time the solution is so deeply rooted in what I will call the F/D/BC Gambit (don’t ask unless you want me to spoil things for you) that it unintentionally gave me the giggles. I also think that, in the interest of surprise, Halter doesn’t play particularly fair with the reader on several key points.
No matter: The Gold Watch moves at a rapid pace, is full of major twists, is consistently entertaining, and in many ways seems the most unabashedly French in tone of all his novels I’ve read so far.