Any discussion of Paul Halter’s The Crimson Fog has to be done in two (very) distinct parts.
We begin in 1887. A man goes back to his hometown to solve a decade-old impossible murder. Straight away, we get an entertaining series of narrative game playing. “Sidney” reveals a false identity to some characters, creates another false identity for another group of characters, and then has a real identity he hides from everyone including us– although even that turns out to be unreliable. If you think I’ve spoiled anything, you don’t know Paul Halter. He pulls out multiple rugs from underneath your feet in much the same way as The Phantom Passage. It’s glorious.
The murder is detailed by witnesses. A man was alone behind a curtain while a group of children sat on the other side, waiting for a magic trick. They got one. He was somehow stabbed in the back whilst preparing. When the room was searched, there was no sign of the murderer.
That crime is decent enough, but the real pleasure comes when all the witnesses (10 years older) are gathered to recollect details of the day and see if the solution can’t be pieced together. I must admit, I love this stuff–someone remembers a key detail but can’t reveal it just yet. You know someone else in the room is quietly plotting murder.
With the whodunit element, the killer on the loose, and the questionable identity/motive of the protagonist, TCF has a good deal of suspense. It’s compulsively readable, has some wonderful character work (usually not Halter’s strong suit), and lays some viscous atmosphere. And then…
Then the wheels fall off. The beautiful mystery in which we had invested takes a (commercial?) turn by switching gears, going to London and depicting the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. With this change in the narrative, The Crimson Fog loses a lot of its appeal and becomes less mysterious and more like a Wikipedia article checklist of Jack’s crimes. It’s not terrible, but it’s far less compelling than what had come earlier.
I hate to fault Halter for his ambition. One could argue the stuff in London is a natural extension of the character arcs. However, it has no mystery. Everyone knows who Jack the Ripper is. Halter tries a few diversionary tactics (at one point even making Sherlock Holmes a suspect!), but the identity of the killer is so blatantly obvious that the murder mystery elements (you know, the reason I bought the book) stop working.
And that, my friends, is the one unforgivable sin. A murder mystery must function above all else. You can have realistic characters and wonderful dialogue, but if the spell is broken, I’m done with the book.
It’s a shame. There’s so much to enjoy in The Crimson Fog, I would have honestly been happier with a 150 page book that ended in Blackfield. I’d still recommend it, but it’s seriously flawed.