I’ve purposely avoided reading anything about The Crimson Fog up to this point. A post by The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel warned that it was difficult to discuss without spoilers, and I’ve noticed that many posters only talk about the novel in the vaguest of terms. Well, I appreciate the discretion – nothing is worse than having an entire novel semi-spoiled for you by an innocent discussion that reveals more than intended.
That’s the tricky thing about writing about GAD mysteries – communicating how a book impacted you without accidentally giving things away. After finishing a book it can be so tempting to draw an analogy to the solution – “it’s similar to A Murder is Announced”, “it reminded me of the solution to The Emperor’s Snuff Box”, “reminiscent of Crooked House”…these are all statements that would immediately clue a reader in to what to look out for. Even worse is when someone comments that the author hoodwinks you within the first page or chapter, because, well, now you’re going to second guess everything that happens in that small passage.
In reading The Crimson Fog, I can definitely see why people are gun-shy about revealing too much. I’ll state it plainly, and I don’t think it risks a spoiler – if you don’t see through one aspect of this plot then you were clearly born yesterday. I can’t imagine any living being reading this book and not having a gut feeling about a particular element. Fortunately, I think we can review this book without really even touching on that.
At its heart, The Crimson Fog is about a crime in the past. Well, the past’s past. You see, the book is set in 1880’s London, and the story concerns a cold case that occurred 10 years prior. And not just a crime, but an impossible crime. And not just an impossible crime, but one done right.
Richard Morstan is putting on a magic show for a group of young girls on the upper floor of his manor. As a delightful floor plan reveals, a long room is divided in half by a curtain – a portion for the magician and the rest for the audience. There are two doors into the room – one where the audience is seated and another that is securely nailed shut. The girls are given a chance to examine the room throughly to prove that there is no funny business.
The stage is set and the curtain is closed. A light commotion is heard, and then silence. After several minutes, the worried audience members pull back the curtain. Richard Morstan lies dead, killed by a knife wound to the neck. This isn’t quite a locked room, as there is one open window in the area where Richard died. However, a group of boys were practicing archery outside the window and would have seen anyone attempting to enter or leave.
The complex circumstances of the murder left it unsolved, and now nine years later a man named Sidney Miles shows up in town intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery. We don’t really know who Miles is, although in seeing the story unfold from his perspective we know that he is in disguise and is intimately familiar with the crime.
Miles kicks up the dust on the stale investigation and conducts a series of interviews with witnesses who were at the scene of the original crime. I’m kind of a sucker for the “murder in retrospect” that you get in books like Five Little Pigs and He Who Whispers – looking at a past crime through the lens of time. In this case, the renewed investigation leads to an interesting theory – whatever magic trick Richard Morstan was planning may have involved an accomplice. Figure out the magic trick that Richard was trying to pull off, and you just might have your clue to the killer.
The investigation of that particular question apparently panics somebody, because it kicks off a whole slew of present day murders. In each case, the killer is nearly caught but manages to escape under impossible circumstances. A nice touch to the story is the question of just how much pain and suffering is caused by reopening the long closed case.
The story shifts abruptly for the final third. We’re too late in the book for me to go into any details, but it’s almost like Halter mashed two different novellas together. That’s somewhat of an unfair statement as the plots are heavily intertwined, but the second portion read considerably different than the first. Although there’s plenty going on in the final 70 pages, it seemed to have dragged a little compared to Halter’s usual frantic pace.
My bigger complaint is that the solutions to the impossibilities don’t quite deliver. The main crime has a clever enough trick to it, but the answer behind how the killer is able to vanish repeatedly was a complete let down compared to the potential that was offered.
I shrug that off though – The Crimson Fog was a blast to read. It’s one of those books where I couldn’t wait to pick it back up in the few instances I put it down. I spend a lot of time focusing on the impossible crime elements of Halter’s books, but there are also the ways that he misdirects by playing around with how a story is told – although I can’t go into detail on that aspect for this book.
It’s interesting that this is one of Paul Halter’s first few novels – as a reader of the translated versions, it’s tempting to think of Halter’s work as coming out in the order that the translations were released. The Locked Room International translations mostly focus on the first decade of Halter’s output, and The Crimson Fog is one of Halter’s first three works, along with The Fourth Door and Death Invites You.