Man, I must have been in some sort of funk. Saturday morning rolls around, and it’s time to pick my read for the weekend, and there just wasn’t anything on my shelves that was jumping out at me. Normally I’d spend my Friday evening peaking through the numerous To Be Read piles littering my desk and scanning my book shelves for the next read. For some reason I just wasn’t feeling it this time. Pick back up with John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie? Not today. Maybe dig into Henry Wade, R Austin Freeman, or Freeman Wills Crofts? Nah. How about Herbert Brean or Theodore Roscoe? Those are guaranteed good reads. Norman Berrow, Anthony Boucher, Rupert Benny, Anthony Berkeley….? How about one of those honkaku impossible crimes? They’re always incredibly fun.
I don’t get why, but none of it seemed particularly exciting. Even the guarantee of a smashing time with Paul Halter didn’t get me wound up. I went with that choice anyway, and selected The Phantom Passage, a story that’s garnered some recommendations and I’ve been meaning to get around to. Damned if I didn’t make it thirty pages in before my passion for reading was fully ablaze.
As the name suggests, The Phantom Passage concerns a disappearing street, a la John Dickson Carr’s The Lost Gallows or Norman Berrows’ The Three Tiers of Fantasy. And honestly, there are only so many solutions that you’re going to get out of a street that vanishes. Maybe that’s part of the fun though, because you know you have a sporting chance at solving the puzzle, and so your mind naturally goes into overdrive. Halter gives us the tale of a man who encountered such a disappearing street early on in the story, and I was left intrigued, with enough noticeable but perplexing clues that I felt that I had something to work with. But man, Halter just builds that starting scenario into something grand, and I was chowing down the pages double time.
You see, the police are aware of a handful of other encounters various people have had with the phantom passage, and not everyone who walked its cobblestones made it out alive. Halter leverages this into a constant stream of discovery, as amateur detectives Owen Burns and Achilles Stock track down accounts from previous witnesses. In a sense, we’re experiencing multiple manifestations of the same impossibility, but each time with slightly different details that build on the puzzle and make it even more inexplicable.
I could go into a lot more detail – the blindman selling grapes, the visions of scenes from the past, fulfilled prophesies of the future… there’s a lot to unwrap – but really, just get your hands on this book and experience it. It’s a fun and furious read, which I suppose describes most anything by Halter that I’ve read so far. The Phantom Passage though has an evenness in the dimensions of quality that probably puts it closest to The Madman’s Room, The Seventh Hypothesis, or The Tiger’s Head. It may never knock the breath out of you, but page for page it will give most anything else a run for the money.
So here’s to you, Paul Halter, for breathing some breath back into my life – I’m enjoying my next random mystery read quite a bit, thank you. And to Locked Room International for bringing the translations to us: the world is better for it. Speaking of which, I saw a tweet from JJ at The Invisible Event indicating that there’s a new Halter title on the way: Penelope’s Web. For some reason, the title of this book always struck a curious chord with me, although honestly, LRI could release any of those tempting titles from Halter’s untranslated library – Death Behind the Curtains, 139 Steps from Death, Sibyl’s Tears, The Traveler From the Past, The Twelve Crimes of Hercules, The Chamber of Horus, The Crime of Daedalus, The Salamander Murders, hell, I could go on and on… Just keep them coming. I’m getting close to running out.