The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)

picturefromthepastIt’s been about a year since I first jumped into reading Paul Halter, and I’ve already made my way halfway through the Locked Room International translations of his work.  It’s been hard to drag it out this long – every book has been a direct injection of exactly what I’m looking for in an impossible crime novel.  That isn’t to say that they all work out in the end (I’m looking at you, The Invisible Circle), but every story has been a rush of endorphins.

There’s one Halter title that’s always struck my curiosity – The Picture from the Past.  This could just be me, but it seems to be the book that flies under the radar.  You have the ones that everyone raves about – The Demon of Dartmoor, Death Invites You, The Madman’s Room, etc, etc.  You have the ones that people tend to criticize – The Vampire Tree, The Seven Wonders of Crime, maybe The Lord of Misrule.  And then you have this weird little guy – The Picture from the Past.  I rarely see it come up in reviews or conversation.

It’s not just that lack of attention that drew me to it though.  It’s the haunting question that the title invokes.  What’s so significant about that picture from the past?  You see, I’m kind of a sucker for mysteries that play out over long swaths of time.  The rooms that kill of The Red Widow Murders and The Madman’s Room.  The crimes that echo across generations in Hag’s Nook and Dark of the Moon.  Some part of me gets stirred up by looking at a mystery through the obscuring veil of time and questioning how it could be tied to crimes of the present.

The Picture from the Past evokes that very question in its title alone, and it’s a fine reflection of the mystery that permeates its plot.  The story jumps back and forth between two narratives – one occurring in the present and another some unrevealed time in the past.  The present day plot concerns the police closing in on the notorious Acid Bath Murderer, a killer who has disposed of six victims in a most grisly way.  The plot of the past follows the murder of a woman by an unknown group of thugs, and another crime that eventually occurs in its wake.

The natural question in any mystery that spans generations is “how are these events connected?”  Is someone from the present copying the past?  If so, how do they have insider knowledge of what happened long before they were born?  It’s a puzzle that’s almost borders on impossibility.

The Picture from the Past introduces a vague link between the two narratives implicitly with the object of the book’s title.  John Braid (of the present day story) is troubled by a book cover that he spies one day in a shop.  The image on the front seems innocent enough – a nondescript street with a handful of buildings.  The picture stirs a sense of nostalgia that haunts Braid, but for the life of him he can’t nail down what is significant about it.  This was exactly the type of mystery I was hoping for.

Halter provides plenty of other mysteries to go along with it.  Both the present and past narratives eventually provide impossible crimes.  In one, a man enters a room in front of several witnesses.  A loud noise is heard, and when the observers bust inside, they find no one, even though all exits are sealed from the inside.  The man has seemingly vanished.  The other impossibility involves a man stabbed in his house, with all entrances thoroughly locked and undisturbed.  The one unusual clue is a bucket of cold water in front of the door, which doubtlessly sends most reader’s minds scratching towards a somewhat conventional trick.

One of these locked room impossibilities was a complete let down – in fact, aside from recalling who pulled it off, I can’t even remember what the trick actually was.  It simply wasn’t memorable.  The other locked room was a gem though, featuring a solution that I haven’t seen before and qualifying for my top five favorite locked room solutions list for the time being.

Unfortunately the story failed in the spot where it held the most promise – the mystery of how the present meets the past.  Halter plays some clever games and I can appreciate how he challenges assumptions, but it ultimately fell a bit flat.  There was something that I wanted out of the story that it just ultimately didn’t deliver.

As such, I’m comfortable saying that this is a middle of the road Halter – not especially memorable compared to the rest that I’ve read.  Of course, “middle of the road Halter” translates to “more enjoyable than 90% of the books that I read.”  I realize that Paul Halter isn’t for everyone, but he delivers exactly what I’m looking for even when it’s a bit of a let down compared to the potential.

The Picture from the Past is a fun read – I consumed it in a single sitting, which is a rarity for me.  There’s a ton going on in the story, and I’ve only cracked the surface with what I’ve detailed above.  You get two nicely set up impossible crimes, and although only one delivers, it’s one hell of a solution.  I wouldn’t hang this title out there as a place to start with Halter’s library, but definitely don’t pass it over.

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15 thoughts on “The Picture from the Past – Paul Halter (1995)”

  1. I read this one a few months ago and I was surprised by how good it was–as you say, no one ever seems to talk about it. The story set in the present has one of Halter’s best-hidden murderers.

    I wonder whether the stuff with the mysterious photo was inspired by THE BURNING COURT? There are a lot of books where Halter takes one of JDC’s opening hooks and runs with it in a completely different direction. He’s done the room that kills (THE RED WIDOW MURDERS/THE MADMAN’S ROOM), the disappearing street (THE LOST GALLOWS/THE PHANTOM PASSAGE), and the impossible defenestration (IN SPITE OF THUNDER/THE DEMON OF DARTMOOR).

    Locked Room International has the odd habit of occasionally changing the titles of the books they translate; this one was published in France as THE BLURRED IMAGE. There’s also THE TREE WITH TWISTED FINGERS, possibly the most creepy and tantalizing name of any Halter book…so, of course, the LRI translation came out as “The Vampire Tree.” How could they possibly think that was a better title??

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    1. I did see that The Picture from the Past was originally released under a name that translates as The Blurred Image. Given my fascination with past crimes, I have to say that I love the LRI title in this case, although the original has a nice subtlety. I’m definitely in agreement about The Tree With Twisted Fingers.

      Interesting point about Halter taking a Carr concept and running with it. The Madman’s Room and The Phantom Passage have rather obvious twins, but I didn’t key into the The Demon of Dartmoor (likely since I haven’t read In Spite of Thunder – although I’m aware it involves a defenestration). I have to admit that your point now has me searching for parallels in his other works that I’ve read, although perhaps they don’t exist. In some sense the core impossible crime of The Crimson Fog feels very Carr-in, although I don’t think there’s really a parallel. You’ll laugh, but I’m reminded of the magician scene at the end of The Gilded Man, although obviously that doesn’t result in anything.

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      1. Found another one! Based on Nick Fuller’s description, the hook for DEATH BEHIND THE CURTAINS (which has not yet been translated into English) sounds similar to DEATH WATCH: one of the guests in a boarding house is a criminal in disguise, and the person who figures it out gets murdered.
        https://grandestgame.wordpress.com/list-of-authors/paul-halter/la-mort-derriere-les-rideaux-paul-halter/

        By the way, are you planning to read any of the Locked Room International books not written by Halter? They’re kind of up and down in quality, but I think THE DECAGON HOUSE MURDERS, COME TO PADDINGTON FAIR, and DEATH IN THE DARK are terrific.

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  2. Definitely middle of the road, with a less than satisfying version of the “final twist” Halter loves to tack onto the ends of his books which seldom work. And at least you agree with me about The Invisible Guest! Poor deluded JJ!!! Yet even I am starting to go with the flow when it comes to Halter: fast pace, bonkers plot, stop harping on the characters/translation/dialogue and just . . . go with it! You can’t say I’m not a lifelong learner! 🙂

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  3. Someone early in their blogging career — I forget who — gave this five stars after finding it a dizzying read, and I imagine they stand by that in spite of agreeing with many of the points above. I know which if the impossibilities you find disappointing, and it’s one that has that sort of “Oh, right, so that’s all” explanation, but then you look at the why and the how did they think of that? and, for me, that elevates it a bit. Yes, it’s a trifle utalitarian, but in-universe I thought it somewhat beautiful.

    The Carr parallels are an interesting idea, especially as I’ve always considered Halter to be someone who strives not not repeat methods — it’d be interesting if he was deliberately finding exisiting problems and working in new solutions (rather than thinking of how an effect could be achieved and then creating the impossibility around it). I seem to remember an interview in which he said that defenstration from The Demon of Dartmoor struck him one day, and he then had to find a way to make it part of a story, but I’m always fascinated with how authors of these sorts of things, when they work hard to do something clever or new, construct those ideas into such a narrative.

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    1. It’s funny – I recall reading your review sometime back and recalling that you raved about the book. In part that’s what caught my interest when I noticed that The Picture from the Past never came up in many Halter discussions. Then, after I read the book, I went back and read your review and thought “wait, JJ didn’t rave about the book. He pointed out the exact same flaws as me and enjoyed the same elements that I enjoyed.” Of course, my eyes somehow missed the five stars at the bottom that second time. Anyway, I think that your review very much echos my own thoughts.

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      1. I had the added joy of being very certain how the two stories linked up (sort of…) and then turning out to be thoroughly wrong, which always aids the reading process and makes it more memorable.

        I had also intended to reread it by now, but 3+ years on I keep discovering new authors to distract my attention (and Halter himself turned out to be no slouch in the remaining books I hadn’t read). One of these days I’ll get back to it, and I’m extremely curious to see what I make of it once I know what’s happening. Though I’d not advise expecting that to happen any time soon…

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  4. So what is the best Halter to start with? I tried Seven Wonders, and, well, I gather that’s kind of like starting on Carr by reading The Cavalier’s Cup. I’m planning to give Halter another try, but as well as not wanting to pick another weak one, I don’t know if I should start with his equivalent of The Three Coffins either, if you follow me. Any suggestions appreciated!

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    1. I suggest The Madman’s Room. There are other books that do certain things better, but this is his most well rounded work. If you don’t enjoy it then I would be skeptical if you would like any of his other work. But…you will love it!

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  5. I actually do remember this one! I had it on a list I put together for friends/teachers who wanted mystery recs. I thought that the locked rooms were simple enough to be a good easer into the genre. Which one did you like/dislike?

    I admit I don’t remember said final twist and even worse prior one. Mainly because said final twist made me go, “Wait, what does this mean?” I thought I understood what Halter was getting at, but not at how it fitted into the story at all. Ah well.

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