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. 🙂 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’être 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.