John Stephen Strange’s Let the Dead Past began with a ton of demerits. The book’s small print coupled with my eyes’ sudden deterioration gave me a headache. The condition of the book was even worse–by the final chapter, it started falling apart in my hands. To top it all off, the very first sentence revealed this was to take place primarily in a courtroom. I am not a particular fan of this subgenre. (Objection! Sustained! A surprise witness! Gasps for the gallery!) So…not a great start.
But I’m glad I stuck with it. There are no surprise witnesses in LtDP. In fact, there are few surprises at all. The killer is easily guessed and the clues turn out to be obvious and yet this is a supremely satisfying work. If we imagine a typical murder mystery to be a series of murky puzzle pieces, LtDP is more like a set of crystal clear pieces. We can see the design early on. Thankfully, the pieces fit very well and this reader found himself enthralled.
The story concerns Valentina Abbott, once a delectable belle femme, but now middle-aged and such beauty as she retained had the faintly brassy look which relies too much on art. Nearly twenty years ago, she divorced her penniless husband Michel and married a sixty-year-old wealthy doctor. The marriage was (as she herself admits) one of value for value. During this time she still saw Michel on the side. They even had their own little love shack, an apartment situated on a large rocky cliff. Of course, they had to be discreet about their “affair”, so they adopted the name of Lecoq to keep things quiet. It was at the bottom of this cliff where Michel’s (aka Paul Lecoq’s) dead body was discovered.
Valentina fled the scene. Now, all these years later, she has been caught and her trial takes up the majority of the novel. There will be many witnesses, including the staff at their apartment, the detectives hired by the doctor to spy on his wife, and one detective who remains unknown. Even the judge was involved in the case.
That judge turns out to be a key character. We learn a lot about Valentina through his memories. That’s good for the reader because Valentina doesn’t start talking (save for a courtroom outburst) until 2/3 of the way through. When she finally takes the stand, we feel like we know a lot about her.
Atmosphere is a word that mystery fans like to throw around. Usually, it refers to shadows and gothic effects. Here, the atmosphere is one of the past lingering almost dreamlike in the present. The characters are often stifled by their remembrances, shuddering or freezing at the thought of a far-gone indiscretion. It’s a hypnotic effect and it gathers steam as the tale nears its end when one final memory breaks the case wide open.
Once again, I wish to stress that everything is telegraphed. There are few details that produce that aha feeling that so many of us enjoy. It is my contention that you will not miss them one bit. If you ever come across a copy, I highly recommend giving it a shot.