DAY-OLD BLANCMANGE: Paul Halter’s The White Lady

It turns out that if you Google “white lady,” it’s an actual thing. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the legend of a woman in white pervades the folklore of multiple countries. She tends to be the ghost of a woman who died by violence, committed suicide or, in the scarier versions, killed her husband and/or children. Her love life tended to suck. Many white ladies are wearing the wedding gowns in which they killed themselves to avoid marrying men they did not love. The white lady of Estonia was the object of affection of a local canon, and when she fell in love with a choir boy, the miffed cleric had her sealed up in a wall. Some of them are good, helping out in childbirth and offering good advice, while others are malevolent, the stuff of horror movies, like La Llorona.

The White Lady of Buckworth Manor is boring.

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Buckworth Manor is the setting for Paul Halter’s newest Owen Burns mystery, The White Lady, translated and published by John Pugmire and Locked Room International. All classic locked room enthusiasts are indebted to Mr. Pugmire for providing us access to stories from authors around the world, old and new, that we would have otherwise only heard about and drooled over. Halter is one of the only living authors who writes classic mysteries, most of them impossible crimes. They are homages to his beloved John Dickson Carr, to Agatha Christie, and to a style of plotting and trickery that has fallen out of fashion for all but a few dozen bloggers and a coterie of readers possessed of style and taste.

 

Halter has been writing novels about Dr. Twist, Owen Burns or the occasional stand-alone mystery for thirty-three years now, which edges him into the pantheon of prolific writers with lengthy careers and prodigious canons. I’ve been thinking a lot about these people lately: for one thing, as you may know, this year marks the centenary of Agatha Christie’s first appearance in print, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She would write for another fifty-five years, and her success and popularity show no signs of stopping nearly forty-five years after her death. Carr wrote even more novels than Christie in a career that ran over forty years. Ellery Queen, John Rhode, Brian Flynn . . . all of them wrote prodigiously, and now their work is forgotten by most, or dredged up by math teachers for re-examination.

The talents of most of these, and other, longtime writers, tended to dim with age. Last year, Paul Halter – at age 64 now, a mere whippersnapper – published The Gold Watch, a complex, multi-layered whodunit set in multiple time periods that proved he’s still got it. With The White Lady, however, he seems to have put it in a drawer somewhere and forgotten where he left it. Halter wastes a potentially fascinating legend – the stuff of horror and tragedy – on a tepid plot where little happens to such uninteresting people that, despite its mere 155-page length, reading this took me far too long. As a result, the elements that tend to bother me most about the author – the weird prologues and last minute twist endings, the characters made of dried cardboard, the stilted writing – all were exacerbated here.

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If anything, I tend to be the guy who finds Halter’s novels overstuffed with ideas. The Demon of Dartmoor is one of my favorites, but I think there are something like three ghosts and four legends to deal with before the killer is caught. Here we get . . . practically nothing. A mysterious white lady has made appearances in the history of the small village of Buckworth, literally chilling people with her presence. Her “history” is sadly lacking here, however, and most people have assumed that she was actually a tricky servant woman-slash-local clairvoyant who had dallied with the local squire, Sir Matthew Richards, and then when she died, the role of soothsayer, lover, and walking ghost was taken up by her daughter (whose name, Lethia Seagrave, is the best thing about this book).

Sir Matthew’s family forms the crux of the plot, gathered together at Buckworth Manor to play cards, take walks, and complain. The squire has recently married his much younger secretary, a sultry wench named Vivian, much to the dismay of his daughter Ann and her husband Peter. Another daughter, Margot, shows up with her thought-to-be-dead-but-was-merely-scarred-in-prison solder husband and enough expositional baggage to turn into three better novels – except none of it matters in the end.

For seventeen chapters, these characters wander about as the White Lady makes occasional appearances. Most of the conversations surrounding these incidents take on an Elephants Can Remember tone of infuriating vagueness (“I obviously must of have been mistaken, but that’s the impression I had at the time.”), but to sum it up, the White Lady confronts a man in a garden and then disappears through a fence; wakes a man up in his bedroom and then scurries down the hall, into his study and disappears from there; touches a character on the forehead, and the character drops dead; appears in that same bedroom, touches a character with icy hands, bringing on a heart attack.

Only one of these incidents actually happens before our eyes, and it is the best one. In between, we get lots of wandering around and vague conversation. We get Owen Burns and Achilles Stock sitting in an inn eating and pondering over very little. And when we finally get to the summing up, to Burns gathering his suspects and explaining the who and how and why, it’s all beyond disappointing. The machinations of the plot are ridiculous, and the explanations of impossible events range from disappointing to infuriating.

Worst of all, it seems that the author himself is bored here. He steals a murder method from a much better book, he tosses in red herrings from various Christie novels (i.e., the Blackbird Mines from A Pocketful of Rye, that one we can’t talk about from Murder in Mesopotamia) and does nothing with them, and he tacks on another jarring final twist that proves particularly annoying. Worst of all, Halter robs his devoted fans, who look to him to preserve and play with the conventions of the classic impossible crime, of any real satisfaction. (The solution to the disappearance in the study is particularly irksome.)

The translation here feels rushed: odd tenses, syntactical and grammatical errors, and occasionally jarring word choices (after a man insults his hostess and rushes out, another character describes his behavior as “inadmissible”), but the real problems stem from the author. Nobody can hit it out of the ball park every time. And yet, I see Pugmire’s dilemma here: after presenting Halter’s work to English readers in retrospect for over a dozen years, he is now in a position to bestow his latest efforts upon us as they are written. It’s possible, however, that the best work is buried in the past . . . Death Behind the Curtains, 139 Steps from Death, Sibyl’s Tears. Over a dozen titles we can only dream about!

One can greedily hope these titles and more are made available to us in the future. And if we are lucky enough that Halter has no intention of laying down the pen, may his next work be a stirring and complex Gold Watch rather than the tepid ghost story we find here.

22 thoughts on “DAY-OLD BLANCMANGE: Paul Halter’s The White Lady

  1. Sorry to hear this one disappointed you, Brad. I know exactly what you mean about ‘borrowing’ things from other novels (yeah, that red herring from Murder in Mesopotamia – or at least, what I think it is, since I admit I haven’t read this Halter). And if the story isn’t engaging, then it is a lot harder to slog through it. Still, I give Halter credit for being so prolific and keeping it going. That takes perseverance.

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    1. It hasn’t escaped me that I can’t seem to persevere in writing ONE novel, let alone thirty, Margot! And one must credit Halter for his love of the classics and his modern interpolation of them for so many years. Honestly, I think I’m just really disappointed because it’s so hard for me to read anything these days, and I was really looking forward to this one.

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  2. It’s really sad to hear that, because I was really looking forward this book. I’ll buy it however because Halter is one of my favourite contemporary writers. I’m italian and the novels you mentioned, that are still not translated in english, have been in my country and I’ve read them. “129 Steps from Death” is ingenious yet somewhat disappointing (there are too many improbable sub-plots); “Death Behind the Curtains” is pretty clever, with a victim that resembles Miss Marple and with a simple solution to impossible stabbings. Also “La toile de Penelope” is a very interesting and original locked room, in which one entrance is sealed by a spider’s web.
    I hope Halter will publish other fascinating novels in future, such as the wonderful “The Gold Watch”, the complex “The Fourth Door” and the esotic “Tiger’s Head”.

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    1. And as is often the case, Gabriele, you may find much more to enjoy here than I did. You certainly do whet my whistle for some of the other titles, and I agree with you about Gold Watch, Fourth Door (till that ending!) and Tiger’s Head (ditto!)

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  3. When I first saw you talking about a white lady, my brain surprised me by immediately thinking, ‘oh that’s a cocktail.’ Surprising given my lukewarm interest in alcohol. Thankfully my brain turned back to normal and then I remembered the white woman by Wilkie Collins and of course Dickens who works a similar sort of vibe with Miss Havisham.
    Well done again for your perseverance in reading an author whose works have been decidedly mixed for you.
    Hope you and your cats are keeping well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the original title was The White Lady and the Pink Lady about two sisters, one shy and retiring, the other brazen – and one of them a homicidal killer!!! Hmmm . . . sounds like a much better novel than this one, but probably written by Celia Fremlin.

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  4. Oddly enough, I just received this book a few hours ago and wrapped up reading it right before I saw your post! And honestly, even though I have a very unbridled love for Halter’s work, I have to agree with most of your criticisms.

    It read very different from most of the other work I’ve encountered from Halter. While the initial premise is, as you said, fascinating, Halter really doesn’t do anything exciting with it. We have a hundred or so pages before the main murder, and most of it is spent either recounting experiences with the White Lady, or on boring interviews or scene placement with a cast of characters that I’m already forgetting about. Normally, I would never be able to criticize Halter’s work as boring, but The White Lady certainly felt like it for large chunks of a very small page run.

    Even the solutions for all the impossibilities/strange happenings are just kinda eh, with nothing that surprising or ingenious about them with a few bits of good here and there. One of the actually intelligent bits is actually ripped up from a much more famed novel as well. The epilogue also added some nice depth to the story, but it did feel like too little, especially at the end of the novel.

    I think theres a lot of nice bits here and there, but they’re outweighed by most of the bad. I think it’s definitely one of the more disappointing/sub par of the translations so far, especially following books I absolutely adored in The Gold Watch and The Man Who Loved Clouds. Still better than The Vampire Tree however :)!

    I hope for the next translation, Pugmire dives into one of the more unexplored eras of Halter’s career, perhaps the 2000’s? I’d die for translations of tantalizing works like Le chemin de la lumiere, Le tigre borgne, and Les larmes de Sibyl!

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    1. I’m with you! And I was looking forward to reading this so much, in a time when I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around pretty much anything. After The Gold Watch, I don’t know why he just tossed one off like this. And God knows I don’t want to discourage any future translations of the older titles. Look away, Mr. Pugmire, look away!!!!

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  5. Brad – thanks for taking one for the team. The premise / set-up for this sounded so promising and I was looking forward to reading it. Perhaps I was hoping for something amazing like Carr’s The Burning Court.

    Unfortunately, your review is consistent with that of a couple other GAD bloggers so I will give this one a miss. I have too many great books on Mount TBR to spend time on this one.

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    1. I was interested when one of those other bloggers alluded to The Burning Court, but I don’t really see a connection – and I certainly can’t find the same brilliance here. The main murder comes straight from my favorite Carr title, but here it’s truly hard to swallow.

      I’m off to nestle down with Anthony Horowitz. And when, pray tell, do I get to read Byrnside Book Number Three????

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      1. Yes!! I remember seeing several reviews on Goodreads also reference The Burning Court, and therefore I expected the ending to have similar elements to it, which (spoiler) was not the case!

        Halter’s blatant usage of a trick from a Carr novel was also pretty shocking to me, since he usually at least tries to create a variation on a Carr method if he uses one, but here he just rips it off. Actually, it’s given me a hankering to reread the novel in question 😁

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      2. I was asked to re-read that novel in preparation for a joint review/discussion. I am sorely tempted, but oddly enough it’s hard to find a time when there are so many hundreds of unread books sitting around in this house!

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  6. You know, of course, that Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White is my all-time favorite novel. I mean, if I absolutely had to choose one. (And why would anyone ask me to do that, you may ask?) I think I will skip Paul Halter altogether. Too much else to read.

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    1. Halter is not for you, I fear. Take it from the man who steered you toward Fred Vargas! But he is not without his charms for lovers of classic locked room stuff. If you’re ever in the mood, I can suggest a title. But before you do that, read Carr!!!

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      1. Nick, I knew I was in trouble at the start when we find Margot in a train and get all that information about her husband, her friend who takes over for her husband, her Indian lover, and her new fiancé . . . and NONE of that matters! The weakness permeating every aspect of this title began to irritate me all too quickly. Blame it on COVID!! 🙂

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  7. There are several words which occur in both English and French. One such word is inadmissible. But the French “inadmissible” has a wider meaning. It can also mean wrong, inappropriate, objectionable, outrageous etc

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    1. I understand what you were saying, and I appreciate you’re explaining that “inadmissible” would work here . . . in French. I would counter that, since the translation IS in English, one should err on the side of English definitions, and the word made no sense to me here.

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      1. Yes, the word “inadmissible” works in French, but not in English ! I just explained how Pugmire came to make the mistake.

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  8. There is another error which I have pointed out to John Pugmire and he is making corrections in future copies.
    In chapter 16 (A delicate mission), there is a para beginning “Then, looking at her daughter-in-law…”
    But Ann is not Vivian’s daighter-in-law. It should be step-daughter. The French word is “belle-fille” which can mean either.

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