#575: The Gold Watch (2019) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2019]

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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.


See also

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

Featuring Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst:

The Fourth Door (1987) [trans. 1999]
Death Invites You (1988) [trans. 2015]
The Madman’s Room (1990) [trans. 2017]
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) [trans. 2012]
The Tiger’s Head (1991) [trans. 2013]
The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) [trans. 2012]
The Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) [trans. 2018]
Penelope’s Web (2001) [trans. 2021]

Featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock:

The Lord of Misrule (1994) [trans. 2006]
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) [trans. 2005]
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]
The Mask of the Vampire (2014) [trans. 2022]
The Gold Watch (2019) [trans. 2019]


The Invisible Circle (1996) [trans. 2014]

Collected short stories:

The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004 w’ Adey]

Individual short stories [* = collected in the anthology The Helm of Hades (2019)]:

‘Nausicaa’s Ball’ (2004) [trans. 2008 w’ Adey]*
‘The Robber’s Grave’ (2007) [trans. 2007 w’ Adey]*
‘The Gong of Doom’ (2010) [trans. 2010]*
‘The Man with the Face of Clay’ (2011) [trans. 2012]*
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (2014) [trans. 2014]*
‘The Wolf of Fenrir’ (2014) [trans. 2015]*
‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’ (2015) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) [trans. 2017]*
‘The Helm of Hades’ (2019) [trans. 2019]*

19 thoughts on “#575: The Gold Watch (2019) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2019]

  1. I’m not only glad you liked The Gold Watch, but relieved, because we tend to disagree about these time-themed detective stories like Christopher Bush’s Cut Throat and the Jonathan Creek episode Time Waits for Norman.

    Speaking of time-themed detective stories…

    …thankfully, there are plenty of untranslated works to keep John Pugmire busy in the meantime.

    …I still hope one of the next Halter translations is going to be The Traveler from the Past. The story has one of Halter’s most fascinating premises that has, to my knowledge, never been used before (or since) in a proper detective novel.


    • Well, in fairness, the mystery here isn’t quite as time-themed as those examples you cite — and the time trick in Cut-Throat is very clever, the book around it is just so unfocused. Here, though, it’s lovely to see Halter relaxing and having so much fun playing with the expectations of the mystery genre. And, goddamn, that footprints-in-the-snow murder is freakin’ genius.

      If we’re adding Halter translations to the wishlist, I’d throw Le Tigre Borgne into the hat — I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, and it’s apparently very different from Halter’s usual. Given how much I enjoyed this “something a little different”, another different Halter would be a delight.

      Although, let’s face it, any new Halter translation is a cause for celebration…!


  2. I really ended up appreciating what Halter went for here. I agree the impossible crime explanation for the 1911 is really great; one of my favorites of his. But the reason I’ll end up remembering the book is probably because it’s the first time Halter got me interested in the characters as human beings instead of just being pieces on the board for him to mess around with.

    In a way, it almost reminds me of The Vampire Tree — what with a spouse setting off on trying to dig up a past, the way a past plot intertwines with the present, a detective that’s not in the forefront and could basically be written out; all with something dark lurking in the background of it all. But whereas the Vampire Tree bored me, Golden Watch kept me engaged throughout.

    My only real complaint with the book is [spoilers, I’ll code these in rot13. If anyone’s unfamiliar with that, just google rot13, go to the first link, and paste this in the upper box]:
    V ernyyl jnfa’g qvttvat gur cneg bs gur phycevgf’ cyna jurer gurl gevrq gb frg vg hc gung gur ivpgvz jrag znq orpnhfr bs gur Xvat va Lryybj. Vg’f ernyyl… abg frg hc cebcreyl, punenpgre be ngzbfcurer-jvfr. Abg gb zragvba vg raqf hc srryvat qvfzvffrq cerggl dhvpxyl. V qb yvxr gur cnl-bss naq gur vzntrel vg tvirf va gur 90f cneg bs gur cybg, ohg vg fgvyy fghpx bhg yvxr n fber guhzo ng gur gvzr.


    • The 1991 story, especially, sells itself on the mystery of what those characters are wrapped up in, I agree — indeed, the strength of that thread just about balances the disappointment of the not-really-realised impossible crime where a) you’re not really clear it’s an impossible crime to being with, and b) it gets resolved in such an off-hand manner that you’re disappointed before you realised you were supposed to feel anything.

      It’s great to get something this unexpected from Halter, too, especially after quite a long career when it would be easy for him to simply crank out another Lord of Misrule (and, let’s be clear, the 1911 impossibility is strong enough to carry a book all on its own). I do agree with your complaint however, especially because:

      Jr’er gbyq gur obbx qbrfa’g rkvfg, naq vg’f xabja gb or n snoevpngvba rira va 1911, naq lrg Bjra Oheaf’ pbaivpgvba gung gur qrngu vf zheqre fgrzf vzzrqvngryl sebz gur snpg gung fur’f orra ernqvat gung obbx. Vg qbrfa’g dhvgr evat gehr. Ohg gura gur frghc bs gur zheqre vf fb qnzarq arng, V fhccbfr Unygre arrqrq fbzr jnl gb npghnyyl fgneg fhfcvpvba pvepyvat. Naq vg’f abg yvxr gurer’f zhpu qrgrpgvba gb ernpu gur nafjre, fb rfgnoyvfuvat vg nf n zheqre jnf rira gevpxvre.


  3. Three can play at this game . . .

    Lbh thlf pna enir, ohg V sbhaq gur jubyr fbyhgvba gb gur 1911 zheqre nyy gbb erzvavfprag bs gur byq “sbk, qhpx naq ont bs pbea” ybtvp ceboyrz. Pneelvat guvf naq gung onpx naq sbegu naq onpx naq sbegu? Pbzr ba!!! V guvax jung yvsgrq guvf bar sbe zr jrer nyy gur ryrzragf gung QBA’G dhvgr svg vagb pynffvp zlfgrel qrgrpgvba.

    And because of this, I, too, would welcome a translation for some of the “odder” Halter tales out there!


    • Yeah, I take your point, but then the mechanics of most impossible crimes can be dismissed in the same way. The ingenuity — for me, at least — is in not quite being able to see how it’s done even when you know there simply has to be a physical explanation.

      By contrast, one cold dismiss a lot of Christie by saying “Well, it was just a bunch of people who you were lead to believe didn’t actually feel what you thought they did” or that John Rhode writes books where “it all boils down to some sort of complicated science idea”. It’s this multitude of perspectives on the same goddamn words that everyone else reads which makes talking about books so fascinating.

      And, yeah, if someone hadn’t enjoyed the more traditional Halter mysteries, I can absolutely believe this very non-traditional one might scratch more of their itches. Makes sense, dunnit?


  4. JJ, I’m a long time GAD fan from Buenos Aires who got acquainted with Paul Halter thanks to your enthusiastic reviews. As a Carr maniac, I just had to read this guy… And trust me, I did.
    Some of his impossibilities are wonderful (Dartmoor, Madman’s room)… pure undiluted ingenuity. The fast pace of his novels is a strong point as well.
    Of course, not everything about Halter is golden, he’s rather weak at atmosphere and characterization. But there’s an even bigger sin about Mr. Halter: he can’t think a guilty party to save his life. I’m awfully tired of this one trick and, bloody hell, it isn’t a good trick to begin with! He’s been pulling the same BS since the 80s..
    Things Gold Watch has going for it 1) that sh%tty trick once more. 2) a structure lifted from a better novel, that isn’t one of his best books. 3) a good impossibility that’s good because it is a variant of one of his best short stories . 4) characters that behave and speak like madmen about all kind of metaphysical drivel.
    So, yeah, this one was a poorly executed retread. Nothing new under the sun.

    I have yet to read The Vampire Tree and The Phantom Passage, but as of now I’d rate this novel 1 out of 5. Quite possibly Halter’s worst. I wouldn’t recommend it.

    I will still read every Halter I can find, though. I’m looking forward to an english edition of One-eyed Tiger, English Manor and Penelope’s Web. I, ve heard some good things about those!


    • Oh, I don’t deny that Halter has his faults — everyone does — and I know I’m a fanboy because, while I admit that they’re very valid points against him, they dissuade me not one bit from loving what he does.

      I suppose I’m happy to forgive because when he nails it — Madman’s Room, Tiger’s Head, ‘The Cleaver’, ‘The Yellow Book’, etc — he really nails it. It’s so difficult to get anyone to commit to a traditional mystery with a straight face these days, that to have someone doing it and throwing in stupendously original impossibilities into the bargain makes me willing to forgive a lot.

      And this on is very very very very unlike what he’s done before — much more mired in the Boileau-Narcejac school, which I think it would been good to experience before reading. And, hey, for all it’s flaws, the no-footprints death is pretty durn spectacular…

      I share your hope for a One-Eyed Tiger translation; it sounds marvellous. Hopefully John P. isn’t packing these in any time soon 🙂


  5. Yes, JJ. When Halter is at his best, he’s absolutely brilliant. It’s really hard coming up with new impossibilities after all this time, and some of them, like the main one in Demon of Dartmoor …oh, boy, that was golden! Or the wet spots in Madman’s Room.
    I agree about Tiger’s Head, it’s one of my top 5 Halters. (you should do a “Best Halter” poll one of these days =P)
    The Cleaver is a pretty good short story; sadly, there are only two ways of solving a premonitory dream if we leave aside the lame “it was suicide all along”. Anyway, even though I saw it coming, it was a great read.
    But, yeah, he’s an absolute beast when it comes to planning devious murders.
    Oh, how I wish his “whodunits” were half as strong as his “howdunits”…but even Achilles had a weakness, right?

    BTW, I’ve heard the problem with The One-Eyed Tiger (I hope they don’t translate it as “The Vampire Tiger”) is that it’s a really long novel, so in the end it was a better move for John to release two Halters instead of one. Don’t remember who said it, though…


    • I, too, had heard that The One-Eyed Tiger is a long book, but given that brevity is sometimes Halter’s enemy — The Seven Wonders of Crime, say, needs to be at least twice as long as it is — I’m interested to see how he acquits himself to a longer narrative. Does it address the issues like a lack of hiding his culprits? Those extra words were doubtless put to some use, since he;s not one to waste time in his stories…


  6. I’m on a bit of a no-footprints kick at the moment, having read White Priory, Lord of Misrule and revisited the Black Canary episode of Jon Creek (better than I remembered) in short order, and still thirsting for yet more original and clever solutions to that particular problem. Wasn’t expecting TGW to contain one, but excited to learn it does and promptly ordered a copy. Hope it offers something to rival some of the ingenuity found in those aforementioned cases.


    • The no footprints impossibility in here was a delight, and I hope you get as much out of it as I — and, I believe, others — did. Halter is phenomenal at this type of thing, his footprints stories are among the best this subgenre has produced (c.f., his short fiction such as ‘The Night of the Wolf’, ‘The Wolf of Fenrir’, ‘The Yellow Book’, as well as that aspect of The Vampire Tree).

      Given as it’s my favourite form of impossiblity, it is perhaps no wonder that Halter has become such a favourite of mine. Not that he’s not great elsewhere, of course — ‘The Cleaver’, for one, is one of the best impossible shorts ever written — but his skill with no footprints on an easily marked surface is what helps set him apart.


  7. Thanks for the tip, JJ. I was already sold on Halter based on his other work, and now you’ve gone and endeared him further by saying no-footprints are a bit of a forte with him.

    Night of the Wolf is accessible enough and I will be picking up a copy in due course. Vampire Tree.. given the relatively lukewarm reception its got from all quarters, the no-footprints would have to be outstanding for me to bother (this is where you say “Oh but it is!”) and I believe I would need to obtain specific back issues of EQ magazine for Fenrir and Yellow Book. If that proves tricky I’ll just hope for eventual plans by LRI to put out another collection of Halter shorts which include both.

    Just got to know that The Fourth Door (which I ordered alongside Gold Watch) also has a no-footprints which is supposedly pretty good, so that’s an unexpected bonus!


    • Don’t forget that LRI put out asecond short story collection, so you can probably get Halter’s English translations for less money than tracking down individual copies of EQMM.

      As for The Vampire Tree…viewed from the perspective of Halter’s other works is doesn’t measure up, but as a sort of paranoid thriller it has much to recommend. This only occurred to me after I had read it — expecting it to be more like the previous translated works — and so it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I view it more favourably. That may help you make a decision…!


  8. Okay that no footprints in the snow is officially my favourite impossibility of all time. Now that could be a knee jerk reaction, but in truth a solution to a locked room rarely leaves me so elated that I feel compelled to leave a comment to that effect mere minutes after finishing the book. For the record the story falls way short of the excellence I’ve come to expect from Halter, and in all honesty I found the 1991 plot utter tosh. But then I am of those who would rather read a mediocre work immortalised by a staggeringly good resolution, as is the case here, than an otherwise great read ending which falls flat come the big finish.


    • Hurrah! I’m delighted it lived up to — and even exceeded — expectations. I think it’s a work of genius, especially given how much has already been done in this (ahem) field. I just wish there was more of this sort of thing about…


  9. A work of genius, a work of art, even. I read the solution three times, my smile widening each time. Deserved a better story around it. I, for one, would have preferred a spiritual successor to Lord of Misrule; the footprints in the snow definitely warranted it’s own book. Special, special, special. Onto Fourth Door now. Lets see if it lives up to the hype.


    • Yeah, I read the solution twice just to revel in its beauty; it really is something special.

      The Fourth Door was Halter’s debut, remember — his published debut, at least — so don’t expect quite the same level of brilliance. But it’s certainly not without merit. Enjoy!


  10. And enjoy I did! Aside from maybe lacking a little polish, and a few too many unnecessary twists near the end, it was very entertaining and mostly satisfying. Probably his purest locked room with another humdinger of a solution, enough to propel it into my top five Halters thus far. The no footprints.. eh, nothing to write home about and the explanations for the other minor mysteries were a little straightforward, but I think overall a high quality take on the accursed room trope with lots of other fun little ideas thrown into the mix.


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