The Crimson Fog – Paul Halter (1988)

CrimsonFogI’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.

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7 thoughts on “The Crimson Fog – Paul Halter (1988)”

  1. I completely agree with the “two novellas smashed together” image, with the first novella more satisfying and the second not working for me at all because it completely reminded me of . . . oh wait! You don’t want us to do that, do you???? Well, I am a typical reader of mysteries, not born yesterday, so that . . . thing . . . your alluding to simply could not escape my thoughts. And that was enough to kind of ruin this one for me.

    Funny, though, because if there’s one thing i complain about a lot with Halter, it’s that I so often see through his misdirection and spot the killer. And I hate that. But this was maybe the 3rd Halter I read, and the only reason this happens here is . . . gosh, Ben, we have to discuss this in person someday! I don’t want to be accused of ruining it for anyone.

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    1. The first “novella” was indeed more satisfying, and I would have preferred to have it fleshed out to novel length in exchange for the second portion of the book. There were a few avenues that could have been explored more, such as theorizing on various magic tricks that the victim was trying to pull off. That, and shedding that entire “thing”, because there actually was a nice surprise without it.

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  2. This was the first Halter novel I read; I’d heard a lot of good things about him (the French John Dickson Carr!) – I found it a bloody slog (emphasizing “bloody”). Halter would do better things – but it features some elements that would appear too often in his books. Джек Потрошитель и Роджер.

    And, of course, it had the same plot as Fred Nurk’s Zanzibar Snatch (first published in 1672, lost, translated into Urdu by Richard Burton, found in the hut of a one-legged goatherd, reprinted in 1935 as by Septimus Plonk, who drowned himself from the inside).

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  3. 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.

    This is pretty much the exact reason I avoid reviews of books I want to read — so many reviewers (professional and amateur) can’t help pointing out how well-read and knowledgeable they are by referring to the misdirection on the first page, or the similarities to X. Had more than a few books spoiled that way, so now I just leave well enough alone.

    As to The Crimson Fog…it was an early Halter for me, and I read it in a single sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, the thing you refer to is not as obfuscated as it might be, and yes the repeated use of the same trick to vanish from the police is a little disappointing, but the murder of the magician is great, superbly misdirected away from and enjoyably resolved. I also enjoy something with an unconventional structure like this, even if it is a bit weird how the narrative suddenly shifts, and that telescoping of focus — how the first part seems so distant once you’re in the second — was one of the factors I enjoyed the most.

    Good heavens, Ben, you’re becoming a Halterian!

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    1. Even with the disappointing solutions, there is the fun of exploring in your own mind how the tricks could have been pulled off. Halter has a great way of setting up a puzzle and making it appear larger than life.

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  4. “…it’s almost like Halter mashed two different novellas together.

    Yeah, the book has a hint of the French roman-feuilleton, but, as far as I remember, without an overly episodic plot structure. And while it’s not one of Halter’s best works, it certainly was an enjoyable and interesting read.

    …so many reviewers (professional and amateur) can’t help pointing out how well-read and knowledgeable they are…

    *sweats nervously*

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  5. Thanks for the review. I recall liking the first half of the novel much more than the second half. I think I started suspecting a certain trick being played in the second half, which spoilt the fun.

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