The Phantom Passage – Paul Halter (2005)

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.

25 thoughts on “The Phantom Passage – Paul Halter (2005)”

  1. I’ve always loved The Phantom Passage. Most impossible crime novels involving the disappearance of a home or other architectural fixture will go down a predictable route when it comes to the solution, but Halter tries something a bit different here, and as always, I respect his ingenuity.

    Penelope’s Web is a very interesting book. I’ve read the French edition, and it’s unlike anything translated by Halter so far. It’s a lot more focused on a singular impossible crime instead of a curmudgeon of mysterious events, and it’s quite workmanlike – almost like a Halterian homage to Freeman Wills Crofts, though I don’t think Halter could ever slip into Crofts-level investigative monotony 🙂.

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      1. The only other French Halter I’ve read is The Curse of Barbarossa. I have … mixed thoughts on it. It has a lot of great components, but it falls flat in several other areas. I will say that the main impossibility is actually one of my favorite Halterian scenarios, though the solution is, admittedly, a bit out there. This was Halter’s first novel, so I can’t judge it too hard.

        I also have ebook editions of The One-Eyed Tiger and The Traveler from the Past, which I need to get to. They’ve been lounging around while I indulge myself in a massive Christie reread, but I’m sure my hunger for a good impossible crime will eventually resurface! I’ll send some thoughts once I read both.

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  2. I’m going through the same readng funk as you describe here — man, nothing appeals right now — and have entertained a reread of The Tiger’s Head for the exact reasons you experienced above: Halter in full creative flight is a delight. I love this one, too, and am very pleased to see someone else getting caught up in the simple joy of being baffled entertainingly; not enough modern stuff does this, y’know?

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    1. I’m terrified of running out of Halters for this exact reason. LRI releasing two a year is awesome, but eventually I’ll catch up.

      Hopefully The Eleventh Plague shakes you free, as Berrow is always a good time.

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      1. Yes, since halter is no longer writing two a year you’ll catch up in due course. Imagine the wonderful state of affairs whever every Halter title has been translated. Terrible, of course, with no more to come, but fabulous nonetheless.

        The Eleventh Plague has already been abandoned — it’s one of Berrow’s long-winded “mariahuana” thrillers and a thoroughly dull, dull, dull time.

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  3. I was not a big fan of the visions from the past and future, which is normally something I rejoice in, but the problem of the vanishing street is superbly handled with one of Halter’s all-time greatest solutions. Not merely a variation on the kind of solution usually employed to make a room, house or a street disappear. Easily one of his best and a perfect introduction to everyone who’s new to Halter.

    …a new Halter title on the way: Penelope’s Web.

    Good! Penelope’s Web was at the top of my wishlist ever since reading Xavier’s review. Hopefully, The Traveler from the Past and The Twelve Crimes of Hercules are next in line.

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    1. For any of the individual puzzles in The Phantom Passage I was able to come close to a solution, but trying to tie them all together was beyond perplexing. That’s what I enjoyed about the past/future puzzles. They just stacked more and more onto the tower until it became insurmountable.

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  4. If I had to pick some Halters you haven’t read, I’d choose The One-eyed Tiger, Death Behind the Curtains, Sibyl’s Tears and The Silver Rope. The first two are excellent, but One-eyed Tiger is pretty long and has many adventure-like elements that some people might not be keen on reading (I love adventure novels, though). Curtains is a traditional murder mystery done perfectly.

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    1. I rate One-eyed Tiger, Death Behind The Curtains and Silver Cord very highly but not Sibyl’s Tears since I was able to guess the culprit easily.

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  5. Actually, there has been only one translation of an existing Paul Halter novel in last 3 years that is Penelope’s Web ! The other two (Gold Watch and White Lady) are new novels. At this rate , it will take some time to catch up !

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  6. Thanks for the review of Phantom Passage – I have it on my Kindle, but haven’t read it, as I’m saving it as a treat. 🤓

    Regarding Penelope’s Web, I think Nick Fuller gave it three – rather than two – stars: https://grandestgame.wordpress.com/2018/01/02/la-toile-de-penelope-paul-halter/

    (Just a warning – a comment Nick makes in his review made me latch onto as aspect of the solution.)

    I agree with Nick’s comment that Penelope’s Web scores points as a credible puzzle, but isn’t quite as creative as Halter’s strongest work. Though I probably rate the novel slightly higher than he does.

    As for 136 Steps – I read it in Chinese translation as well, and I didn’t think it was as strong as Penelope’s Web. I have 12 Labours of Hercules on my TBR pile, and will let you know when I get round to it.

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  7. This was great, wasn’t it? Yeah in one sense it was such a ludicrously roundabout way to achieve the culprit’s ultimate goal. But then the same outrageously OTT quality of the impossibility, which made it so irresistible from a puzzle standpoint, meant Halter was always going to find it a tough sell when it came to justifying its necessity.

    That solution though was magnificent, the diagrams delightful and the clues were certainly there in hindsight. I did have some misgivings about the likelihood of the victims becoming disorientated to the degree needed to successfully pull off the trick, but the underlying principle is so inspired that I’m willing to extend my suspension of disbelief in order to accommodate it.

    This was my ninth Halter and as it stands, purely in terms of impossibility/solution, I would rank it as being tied with The Fourth Door in second place, ahead of The Demon of Dartmoor in third and behind The Gold Watch in first.

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    1. I’m not as enamored by The Fourth Door as others seem to be. It was an enjoyable read as all Halters are, but I unfortunately figured out the core impossibility, and the solution to the others were a let down. I do see The Phantom Passage ranking amongst the better Halters, although the brethren in my mind are The Tiger’s Head, The Madman’s Room, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Seven Wonders of Crime, and The Demon of Dartmoor. I think I’d rank all of those a bit higher, although The Phantom Passage is much more balanced than The Demon of Dartmoor.

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  8. Yeah I’m a fan of Seventh Hypothesis and Tiger’s Head, but to my mind neither possessed a doozy of a solution, which is what my ranking above is based on. The secondary impossibilities in Fourth Door were admittedly disappointing, particularly the no footprints. The locked room, however, recalled the glee I felt when reading the solution to Whistle up the Devil, and I put in the same league, even if I did have a vague notion as to what was being perpetrated. The Gold Watch isn’t even in the same ballpark as those other titles as a book, but it has the most breathtakingly brilliant no footprints crime I’ll probably ever read.

    The Seven Wonders of Crime is one I see criticised a fair bit, so I’m curious which side of the fence I’ll fall on with that. It’s competing with Death Invites You to be my next Halter. But first I have twenty or so of his short stories to get through.

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    1. I’d definitely say The Seven Wonders of Crime is better than Death Invites You. The former give you – somewhat obviously – seven separate impossible crimes, which provides a constant evolution of plot and sense of discovery. Death Invites You focuses on a single crime – with a fantastic setup, mind you – but it fell a bit flat for me in the end.

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  9. IMO, this is one of the three or four best Halter translations so far, with the exception of what may be the biggest plot hole I’ve ever encountered in a mystery novel. The big surprise at the end of Chapter 15 is that a certain person’s dead body has just been found, which is OK…except that Halter told us back in Chapter 5 that his body was found months ago.

    You may have already seen these, but the (sadly now abandoned?) At The Scene of The Crime blog features reviews of many Halter books, including 8 novels which have never been translated into English: http://at-scene-of-crime.blogspot.com/p/paul-halter.html. And a ninth untranslated novel is reviewed here: https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/the-bloody-match-by-paul-halter-2001/. Almost all of these sound amazing, so hopefully we’ll get more of the Halter backlog from LRI soon.

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    1. Thanks for the links to the additional reviews. It’s nice to see some glimpses of what the untranslated books are like, as often it seems like we simply know the title and nothing else. The One Eyed Tiger and 139 Steps from Death sound the most interesting.

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