It’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.