A man seeing an old photograph of an unremarkable street scene on the cover of a book and being struck by an overpowering reaction of uncertain origin doesn’t sound like a promising start to an impossible crime novel. However, it turns out that such an opinion is simply a sign of your lack of inventiveness, as Paul Halter can spin one hell of a tale from just that. Well, okay, not just that, as there’s also the notorious Acid Bath Murderer going around destroying the remains of murder victims by pouring acid on them – and John Braid, our photo-phobic protagonist, is curiously unwilling to tell his young, trusting and rather new wife what he gets up to every day when he leaves the house. And he’s rather keen on not letting his briefcase out of his sight…
Of course, Halter then complicates things further by throwing in a parallel narrative set some years previously in which the wife of a wealthy resident of a down-at-heel London suburb is murdered, tracing the impact of that murder upon the woman’s husband and children. Clearly the two stories must be related, but how? And who is responsible for the deaths in each thread?
Of all Halter’s novels translated into English by John Pugmire in his Locked Room International undertaking – and I’ve read every single one, so have now terrifyingly run out of Halter – this is easily the most melon-twisting. About four or five chapters in it suddenly occurred to me what he was doing, the trick he was trying to pull, and so I kept an eye out for the tell-tale details that reinforced this conviction. He thought he could pull one over on his readers time and again, but I had his measure and was ready for him this time. Then it turned out that that wasn’t at all what he was doing, that he was in fact busy doing something completely different, and while I’m still not convinced how fully successful it was I have to admit that I can’t get it out of my head now I’ve finished the book. It is, in many ways, quite the most unusual puzzle plot I may have ever read, but it fits together with a beauty and a complexity that is reinforced near-perfectly at almost every stage.
Each thread contains its own impossibility, one of which is a trifle mundane and the other of which is simply marvellous. The disappointing one is, while a touch minor, still perfectly reinforced within its own narrative – it is well-motivated, well-reasoned, fits in with several established facts and ideas and crucially works when the end is reached and you’re free to examine everything retrospectively. The stronger of the two is exceptionally well-worked, and takes on a greater complexity and cleverness when assessed back-to-front and put in the appropriate context…and still neither of this has any direct bearing on the identity of the Acid Bath Murderer or (arguably) the troubling image that started the whole shebang off.
The further you get into the narrative, the more tightly the two strands begin to helix around each other, and as it starts to get more and more difficult to separate them out you have to pay due deference to Halter in how they are resolved, and what the link between them turns out to be. Psychics, hypnotism, mysterious deaths, suspicious spouses, attentive neighbours, and John Braid’s increasingly paranoid behaviour are all ironed out to reveal a tapestry that may have the odd rogue thread, but the nature of what Halter is doing deserves thunderous applause. There is one development that won’t fool anyone who has read more than a couple of his books, but having that one near-certainty to cling to (it is revealed with a purposeful lack of fanfare at about the three-quarter mark) helped anchor me in the storm.
Is it a good book, though, or is it simply an accomplished piece of narrative? Honestly, I still don’t know. It will live on in my head for a long time, and I’m itching to reread it again – I’ll try to come back to it within a year – and there are few enough books these days that incite such reactions, given the jaded nature of this reader’s soul. It may remain a question for perpetuity, but presently I love how it has rattled me out of a bit of a funk even if it may inspire rather more in the way of fulmination in others. I remain a massive fan of Halter’s, however, and am eternally grateful to John Pugmire for his superlative work in bringing the French maestro to those of us too feckless to learn French. So, y’know what? Five stars it is.