book review

The Phantom Passage

Paul Halter’s The Phantom Passage has an audacious hook. It’s London (1902), and people are reporting strange occurrences. The details are similar. A madman comes out of the fog to guide the victim down Kraken Street. This, in itself, is incredible–the street doesn’t exist anymore. Along Kraken, they encounter a man selling grapes, a woman promising a glimpse of paradise, and the titular passage itself. Eventually, they walk up a spiral staircase where disturbing visions of the past (or future) play themselves out through a window. If the victim is fortunate enough to make it out alive, he will exit Kraken, turn around, and find the passage has vanished. And the street has vanished. And the pub. The circus poster…You get the idea. It’s all gone.

Halter does a very smart presentation here. The impossibility is relayed to us by a third-hand account–American Ralph Tierney breathlessly bursts through the door and reports it to Owen Burns (The Detective) and Achilles Stock (The Narrator). Later, other characters swear to the same experience, giving the miracle some legs. Finally, the narrator experiences the phantom passage, delivering a first-hand account to the reader and cementing the impossible event as having taken place. Well-done, Mr. Halter.

The middle sections of TPP consist of Halter’s typical slow investigation into the past. Rumors are introduced. After a while, they become altered in seemingly strange ways. I love how detectives become fixated on details that don’t seem to matter. For instance, in TPP, the length of time a character stayed on the ground becomes important. While everyone else glides over the fact, Owen continues to ask about it. I’ve tried this strategy in my own writing, but I’ve no idea if it affects readers the same way it does me.

The impossibility strings us along for a good while (truth be told, covering up a couple sloppy bits here and there) until we come to a marvelous denouement. I want to be clear about this: You KNOW the solution. I knew the solution. Anyone with a touch of sanity knows the solution. Of course, the physical details have to be logical. If they weren’t, the book would be God-awful. Halter helps things by providing two diagrams at the right time. Nothing about the…geometry rings false. And then…

Then come the switches, the call backs of particular details you had misinterpreted, and the out-of-focus big picture becoming entertainingly clear. There is something to be said for quiet, understated conclusions, but it will not be said here. đŸ™‚ I’m addicted to the grand reveal and I offer no apologies.

Recently, I read a blog post wherein complaints were made about the raison d’Ăªtre of impossible crimes. If this is a problem for you, TPP will not offer much satisfaction. After all, the killer could have just shot the victims instead of going to such elaborate methods. Think of how much fun that book would have been!

I’ve said it a million times, but this is my blog so I’ll say it again. Impossible crime mysteries feature two important characters–the author and the reader. They are written for those who seek six spellbinding hours of madness and uncertainty. If this applies to you, check out The Phantom Passage and enjoy.

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4 thoughts on “The Phantom Passage”

  1. The interweaving of the plot is more accomplished in The Madman’s Room, but for sheer bravado in committing to the insanity the impossible crime allows this is possibly my favourite Halter. I totally agree with what you say about the different stages of presentation of the impossibility, and all of it is so nicely built and enlarged upon — right up to that wonderful final line — that surely only a very hard heart indeed couldn’t get a little bit excited.

    Sure, the motivations are nonsense, ad the whole thing could have been done with a piece of rock in a dark alley…but we get enough gloomy realism as it is. Give me this sort of grand imagineering any day.

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  2. Although I enjoyed the book, I feel that the extreme difficulty of setting up the impossible situation in the first place, and the probability that it would not work anyway, are serious flaws. It doesn’t qualify for the “most unfeasible murder method” award, as the murder isn’t directly related to the impossibility, but it’s pretty close.

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    1. This is fair criticism and (in the realm of impossible crime fiction) the most common. In fact, you could probably go even further in one direction you hinted at — the murder isn’t directly related to the impossibility. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot.
      (just my opinion) I’m willing to make a deal with the author. “Don’t disappoint me with the solution too much.” Because the solution is going to be disappointing on some level whether the flaws be realism or motivation. I just finished The Problem of the Green Capsule (depressingly good–it actually made me question if I should bother writing in the first place). Even that brilliant book could be dismissed outright by criticism of probability and difficulty. So the question, “Are you willing to make a deal?”, is very important. Some readers aren’t.
      The trade-off in The Phantom Passage is that I get to read a story with a vanishing street (completely believable within the presentation). As you said, it’s very enjoyable.
      Impossible crime stories have a very fine line of acceptability and the margin for error is razor-thin. Perhaps they can be considered mysteries with the tiniest amount of fantasy thrown in. The characters and events must relate to the real world enough to pass as realism, but the difficulty of the problem presented allows for a sliver of leeway when it comes to elements which, in other genres, must be flawless.

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  3. I agree that you have to allow a certain measure of improbability in a great deal of classic crime fiction. It’s just a question of how far the allowance can be stretched, For example, I would agree with your assessment of The Problem Of The Green Capsule (or The Black Spectacles, a better title in my opinion) despite a flaw in the plot (to do with what must happen immediately after the first murder) – it’s still in the top flight of this genre.

    As an example on the other side, I’d cite John Rhode’s By Registered Post (he really did go in for dull titles!) If you ever read this (and it’s not easy to get hold of), you may well agree with me that the book’s quality is seriously reduced by the unfeasibility of the second murder (which is technically an impossible crime, although the perpetrator couldn’t have planned it to be that way).

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