Similar to how Alfred Hitchcock’s two version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/1956) use the same core ideas but differ in details, the motifs Paul Halter returns to in The Gold Watch (2019, tr. 2019) — the dual time period narratives of The Picture from the Past (1995, tr. 2014), a baffling no footprints murder at an isolated house a la The Lord of Misrule (1994, tr. 2006), the invocation of The King in Yellow from ‘The Yellow Book’ (2017, tr. 2017) — there’s no doubt this is a very different style of story simply using familiar ideas to very new ends. Strange to say this of a Frenchman, but this is perhaps the outright Frenchest work of his yet translated.
And, boy, am I almost out of things to say, because I do not know how to follow that up and do the book justice without wandering into the sort of territory the average reader should not venture upon ahead of time. The plot, such as it is — and its very intangible nature harkens back to his debut The Fourth Door (1987, tr. 1999) — follows two set of characters separated by 80 years, each with a mystery at their core. In 1991 we have André Lévêque who is haunted by images from a movie he saw as an impressionable youth in the 1960s, and enlists the help of psychoanalyst Ambroise Moreau and, er, astronomer and knower of things Carl Jelenski in tracking down both the movie and the reason for its impact upon him. This, too, is not unlike the core idea of The Picture from the Past, though as the story of André’s encounters with the family of his boyhood friend Guy is drawn in firmer lines it begins to emerge that there may be an unsuspected tragedy at its heart.
In 1911, textile magnate Victoria Sanders invites her right-hand man Andrew Johnson and his wife Alice out to her country house for the weekend, and the addition of Andrew’s attractive young secretary Cheryl Chapman and Victoria’s rapacious brother Daren Bellamy soon leads to the discovery of a body alone in a snowdrift with only the corpse’s footprints leading to it and a firm reason to expect foul play (well, amateur detective and dilettante Owen Burns insists on foul play for what turn out to be fallacious reasons, and foul play it indeed is — no spoiler, this is Paul Halter we’re talking about). With no-one in the later narrative old enough to have appeared in the earlier one, what links them? And, no, we know it’s not going to be the same link as The Picture from the Past despite André’s profession…so what could it possibly be?
It’s the answer to this question that makes me realise just how firmly Anglo-traditional Halter’s previously translated works have been, and it doesn’t spoil anything to say that he’s here embracing the more traditionalist French Golden Age mystery form as exemplified in the little Boileau-Narcejac I’ve read along with certain aspects of Gaston Boca’s The Seventh Guest (1934, tr. 2018) which John Pugmire translated last year. This element, weird as it sounds, might be the least Halterian Halter we’ve so far seen in English, and while it took me a little while to appreciate it’s also to be commended when he could easily have turned the entire 1911 plot into a book on its own and almost have given us a spiritual sequel to The Lord of Misrule. Now in his seventh decade, it is perhaps to be understood that Halter is keen to try something a little different.
Both plot lines manage to twist themselves inside out, with the final 30-odd pages being possibly the most hilariously crazy time I’ve had in a book for a while. The machinations and reversals of the 1991 plot easily make up for the disappointment of its own, minor, unsolvable, semi-realised impossible aspect — to quote one character from late on, “As a Machiavellian exercise, I take my hat off to you.” — and the relatively hidebound nature of the 1911 narrative, in which poor Owen Burns is not served well by little more than an extended cameo, is made glorious summer by the ingenuity of a no footprints murder so achingly devious that it ranks among the best Halter on this side of the language barrier (and shows, along with ‘The Yellow Book’, that there’s still so much to be done by Halter in this — ahem — field even at this aged stage of the impossible crime).
The quiet, easy confidence with which Halter spins these threads is also a notable change. His detractors will cite how his narratives tend to be too busy to really settle on and develop any idea fully — cf. The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005) — and here it’s interesting how, aside from a lovely piece of wordplay that becomes important later on, we’re largely spared too many spinning plates. As more and more motifs crop up in both eras, and as the plots twist ever more sharply about each other, it’s a torrid time enough keeping everything straight, with the ethereal promise of resolution always held just out of reach as a promise of just a few more pages one, just another parallel, just one more hint and nudge. As a die-hard Halter fan, I loved this aspect of it, and if the eventual link eventually fell a little flat for me once I reached it, a bit of time to think it over has helped me appreciate the poetry of it all.
With so many swipes at the impossible crime — and, indeed, at plotting in general — coming off so frowsy these days (come back on Saturday for more on that…), Halter’s return to novel-length ingenuity after a five year hiatus is a call to arms, and the literary equivalent of a YouTube ‘How To…’ video, for genuine brilliance and invention to be applied in this specialist (killing) field. With such fecundity of imagination still alive within him, I hope we see another new novel at some point in the future…though, thankfully, there are plenty of untranslated works to keep John Pugmire busy in the meantime.
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: 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.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Halter stretched the plot of The Gold Watch across nearly a whole century with the continues presence of gold fob watches as the only mysterious constant in an ever-chancing landscape, which appeared to drag and trap the characters in a weird time-well or ripple. What I liked even more is how time seemed to accelerate as the overall story progressed. The Gold Watch started out as a normally paced detective story, but slowly, the clock hands began to tick faster, and faster, until it dramatically exploded in full melodrama. I was reminded of a tightly wound-up, aggressively ticking cartoon clock that explodes and spits out its mechanical innards. I found the effect to be very pleasing.
Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated: