January 16, 2019

La ruelle fantôme - Paul Halter (2005; tr. 2012)

“‘Whole streets disappearing, people babbling incomprehensibly about fountains, serpents and who knows what else; visions of murders; moustached men whistling while clutching photos of the tower of Pisa…’”

A street from the past, appearing as if by magic on foggy London nights. A madman speaking in riddles. A lady in red, a blind fruit seller. A house. An unsteady corridor. A floor that seems to expand into a void, and up ahead, seemingly both close and far, a lighted window provides a glimpse into strange and sordid affairs. Not all return, but those who do, tell of these strange happenings and more on Kraken Street, which cannot be found on any map, and which vanishes the second one departs from it.

“‘But it’s impossible!… A passageway cannot disappear in space and time!’”

The setup is audaciously imaginative, which is characteristic of French impossible-crime-master Paul Halter. This, approximately his thirtieth book, was published in English in 2012 as The Phantom Passage by the estimable John Pugmire of LRI (which version I read for this review). I have a special affection for Halter since his collection Night of the Wolf served as my introduction to this genre back around 2010. Counting that, this book is the 8th Halter I've read, but the first since inaugurating this blog. I must confess I've had my eye on it for some time, and with a street-themed impossible crime blog, it seemed fitting to finally jump in. 

What I like about this mystery is that it's built not simply around an impossible murder or series of murders, but an entirely impossible event. There is an appearing and disappearing street, whose corner is marked by a particular triangulation of a billboard, a pub, and a fountain opposite which cannot be identified anywhere in the vicinity reported by the street's hapless victims. Moreover, the scenes glimpsed in the window turn out to allude to both situations which occurred as far as twenty years in the past, as well as one situation which occurs subsequent to its being played out, while in all instances there should have been no way for anyone to witness the situations as they occurred. Add to this the fact that the victims seem random and unconnected, yet some of them turn up dead after attempted to revisit the street and disappearing, and we have a thoroughly perplexing situation that has all the characteristics of a nightmare.

“The strange disappearance took place in a famously haunted area traversed by the sinister Kraken Street, a passageway with strange powers… Some compared it to a monstrous serpent—which could explain its name—a creature straight from hell, coiling itself between houses and only appearing when it was in search of a victim.” 

Our detective here is Owen Burns, assisted by Achilles Stock who also narrates. They are introduced to the strange events by Ralph Tierney, an American diplomat and old acquaintance of Owen's who, after being mistaken for a notorious wanted criminal and fleeing from the police, ends up falling victim to the nightmarish street and escaping to tell about it. Incidentally, I can't help but wonder whether Halter, consciously or not, took inspiration for this book from Carr's radio play A Razor in Fleet Street. In that play we have Bill Lesley, also an American diplomat in London, being warned that he resembles a wanted criminal, running from police when he is accosted on the street without papers, and then ending up in a strange barbershop on the second floor of a London tenement. 

“'I have a horror of simple solutions and preconceived ideas. I am rigorously opposed to the straight line.'"

While I found myself loving this setup and the various twists and turns the story takes, I could not help but feel that there was no way Halter would be able to provide convincing explanations for these events. In the end, though, I was more satisfied than I thought I would be. The actual mechanics of the missing street and the scenario that repeats on it strike me as workable if improbable (which is ok - I maintain that mysteries of this sort must be allowed to straddle the bounds of the real and the fantastic), but the motive and certain tangential elements (particularly aspects of the visions that play out in the room, as well as the identities of those involved) stretched my credibility to a fair degree. Nonetheless, this book is great fun, and required reading for anyone looking for a fantastically audacious and competently-wrought impossible narrative. 

“But Obscurity, of course. That black leper which descends on us every night; that dark enabler of crime and all forms of depravity. She’s the perfect accomplice of evil, the sworn enemy of light and truth. And, for some reason, she seems more impenetrable in London than anywhere else.”