Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The Gold Watch (2019) by Paul Halter (translated by John Pugmire)

Tick, tock, tick, tock…

Unbeknownst to us non-French speakers, Paul Halter went on a bit of a hiatus in the 2010s, producing only about one short story a year. However, in 2019 he returned to form, giving us The Gold Watch, published first in English. The book features mysterious crimes in the past, the past having an uncanny influence on the present, and of course, impossible murders. Set your watches, and enjoy.

The Gold Watch opens in 1901, and details a woman’s brutal murder, a crime that seems to reach forward almost a century. The story switches between two narratives. In the 1991 narrative, Andre Leveque is a playwright who’s suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block, brought on by his frustration at being unable to remember the name of an unsettling movie he saw as a child. All he can remember are some key images: “A sinister figure, a house in the rain, a frightened woman, a slowly-turning doorknob, a staircase…” And of course, “A gold watch.”

The 1911 narrative follows a group of people invited to Raven Lodge, the second home of Victoria Sanders, the head of a firm “speciali[zing] in the import of fine fabrics.” Among the guests are her deputy director Andrew Johnson and his wife Alice, along with Andrew’s secretary Cheryl Chapman, as well as Victoria’s brother, Daren Bellamy. There’s tension among the guests, as Alice despises Daren and has a bone to pick about her husband’s closeness to Cheryl, his former model, but before there’s any chance for argument, Victoria’s body is found out in the snow, having apparently tripped and hit her head on a rock while trying to get some air after a nightmare. The lack of any footprints besides her own and those who discovered her body attest to that. But Owen Burns is suspicious when he learns that a copy of the infamous play The King in Yellow was in her room the day before…

At first, these narratives seem to have nothing to do with each other, but eerie coincidences and strange echoes keep popping up, and it seems that they may be more connected than anyone thinks…

The 1991 narrative is more of a “what is going on here?” tale than anything. Another impossible crime is introduced, that of a woman who fell to her death when no one was near her, but it’s not the main focus (although the solution is clever). Halter does a good job of playing with your expectations in this narrative, and I have to say that I enjoyed this narrative more than the other one. The 1911 narrative suffers from a lack of…I suppose “substance” is the best word. There’s really only a handful of suspects, and not much investigation. I should have liked the culprit reveal more than I did; it’s possible that I was reading too fast and didn’t quite get that Halter was saying “X was the culprit” at first. (The fact that I didn’t suspect X at all didn’t help.) The central solution is very clever, although I don’t totally buy one aspect of it. (ROT13: Anzryl, gung gur jvgarff jbhyq znxr fhpu n znffvir zvfgnxr nobhg jurer gurl fnj gur obql; rira jvgu gur xvyyre’f qrprcgvba, V srry gung gurl fubhyq unir ernyvmrq gung fbzrguvat jnf bss.)

My main issue with the mysteries in both narratives is that you don’t really get the needed detail to solve them. The mysteries are drawn in broad outlines, and the specific details that would let the reader solve them get glossed over. (ROT13: V guvax urer bs na haoernxnoyr nyvov jurer n xrl qrgnvy gung jbhyq znxr vg fbyinoyr vfa’g zragvbarq hagvy Oheaf rkcynvaf rirelguvat.) I will say that the 1991 narrative is better clued than it might seem; there’s no final summing up, but the clues about what’s going on are there. The final explanation for the connections between the two narratives could irritate some readers. It frustrated me at first, but after chewing on it, I’m satisfied with it, as Halter does set it up. I admit I was thrown off because (ROT13: V gubhtug vg jbhyq or gur fnzr rkcynangvba nf nabgure Unygre abiry gung hfrf qhny aneengvirf. Vg jnfa’g, ohg V guvax V fgvyy unq n uneq gvzr pbaarpgvat gurz, nf Bjra vf fb rfgnoyvfurq va zl urnq nf n svpgvbany punenpgre, gung V pbhyqa’g dhvgr ernyvmr gung gur gjb aneengvirf jrer gnxvat cynpr va gur fnzr havirefr; gurl sryg qvfpbaarpgrq va gung frafr.)

On the whole, I enjoyed this book. There are some aspects of it that I’m not totally satisfied with, and I know that my generosity is because it’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I do think that it’s an interesting experiment. The impossible footprint problem is good, and the 1991 narrative is gripping. It’s another solid Halter. Recommended.

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, The Invisible Event, Ah, Sweet Mystery Blog!, and Beneath the Stains of Time.

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