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.

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The Sleeping Sphinx – John Dickson Carr (1947)

sleepingsphinx“The sand, the lock, and the sleeping sphinx”

I went into The Sleeping Sphinx knowing very little.  It’s not a famous work within Carr’s library, but it’s positioned at an interesting spot in his timeline.  The previous two Dr Gideon Fell novels – Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) – are considered by most Carr fans to be among the author’s best work.  The next entry in the series – Below Suspicion (1949) – is criminally under-rated in my opinion.  Given the strength of this run, I was curious to see what The Sleeping Sphinx would hold.

Don Holden returns from WWII under unusual circumstances.  Involved in espionage during and after the war, he was sent on an assassination mission in Italy and declared dead as part of his cover.  He returns to a home that thinks he ceased to exist.  The beginning of the story is fairly engrossing as we watch Holden reunite with his old life and attempt to rekindle a relationship put on pause for seven years by the war.

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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.

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The Devil Drives – Virgil Markham (1932)

DevilDrivesThis is a book that I’ve been dying to get to for a while now.  First, it’s featured in John Pugmire’s list of 99 key locked room novels.  Second, reliable impossible crime enthusiast JJ at The Invisible Event posted a review raving about the book despite declaring it contrary to his usual mystery standards.  The real reason though that I’ve been excited about The Devil Drives is the physical copy I got hold of – a 1944 Bartholomew House edition.

I’ve never had a Bart before, but this one is gorgeous.  The feel of the cover is almost that of a well worn leather baseball mitt.  The pages are of WW2 regulation paper-saving stock – so soft to the touch that they feel like they were printed on the skin of a lamb who lived its entire short little life in a bath of warm olive oil.  I have a dozen or so other books of similar vintage (all Pocket Books and nearly all Ellery Queens), but my copy of The Devil Drives is unsurpassed in the experience of simply holding it.

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The Tiger’s Head – Paul Halter (1991)

TigersHead“Suitcases with macabre contents, mysterious and seemingly pointless thefts, murderers who can vanish from locked rooms, tales about evil genies, fakirs who can make young boys disappear and cobras coil and uncoil at will – when they’re not climbing ropes in the air..”

Detective Archibald Hurst summarizes the plot of The Tiger’s Head much more concisely than I could probably manage.  In that one sentence he provides a glimpse of the hail storm of craziness that author Paul Halter blasts you with throughout the novel.  This is par for the course for Halter.  The french author’s novels teeter with impossible crimes stacked every which way.  There’s something simply gluttonous about Halter’s work if you’re a fan of the “how done it”.

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Papa La Bas – John Dickson Carr (1968)

papalabasEver since I started reading John Dickson Carr, one thing was clear – Papa La Bas was a title to steer clear of.  Across a career of over 70 novels, it’s inevitable that a writer is going to have a few duds.  What’s amazing is that out of the 50-some Carr titles that I’ve read, I’d only say that two are flat out bad and a handful have problems.  Papa La Bas appeared to be a consensus bad one, although I’ve oddly never stumbled upon a full blown blog review.

As I’ve detailed a few times by now, I’ve grown leery of the bad reputation that some Carr books have.  The Problem of the Wire Cage is a near classic.  Below Suspicion is an under appreciated gem.  I wouldn’t phone home about Patrick Butler for the Defense, but it was a decent read.  Even Carr’s supposedly dreadful final novel, The Hungry Goblin, was merely a mediocre read.

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The Case of the Solid Key – Anthony Boucher (1941)

CaseOfTheSolidKeyHaving enjoyed Anthony Boucher’s locked room classic Nine Time Nine, my natural next stop was Rocket to the Morgue.  Right?  I mean, that’s the only other title by the author that ever really gets mentioned.   That struck me as odd.  Boucher was a well regarded writer of both science fiction and mysteries, yet I only really associate his name with two mystery novels.  Instead, I typically think of him as the mystery critic who wrote forwards in reprints of other authors’ novels, or assembled short story compilations, such as The Quintessence of Queen.

Recent reviews of The Case of the Crumpled Knave and The Case of the Seven Sneezes turned me on to the fact that Boucher had an actual library of books aside from those published under the pseudonym of H.H. Holmes (Nine Time Nine and Rocket to the Morgue).  A comment by Tomcat from Beneath the Stains of Time pointed me towards The Case of the Solid Key – a novel I’d never heard of, and one that Tomcat suggested had a particularly interesting solution.  The ante was raised when JJ from The Invisible Event replied that the book was nearly impossible to find at an affordable price.

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