The White Lady (2020) by Paul Halter

The English village of Buckworth has long been haunted by the spectre of a White Lady, a phantom whose appearance is always an omen of doom. When it appears to Sir Matthew Richards, vanishing into thin air after being pursued into a room with no exits, it seems that doom is coming his way.

As the White Lady claims a victim in the village, killing merely by a touch, Owen Burns finds himself enlisted to find the truth about the apparitions that seem to be increasing in frequency. As Sir Matthew grows closer to death, can Burns get to the bottom of the mystery and bring the apparition to justice?

The sixteenth translation of one of Paul Halter’s works, this, like The Gold Watch, being published ahead of the French version, is an interesting book. Interesting in the sense that it has some very clever ideas in it, and at least one very, very annoying one. To paraphrase Longfellow: when it is good, it is very good indeed, but when it is bad, it is horrid.

Let me explain – the central method involved in the second death in the book, which I won’t go into, is clever. There is something of an issue with the practicalities that involve the speed of sound, but it’s a clever murder method that would work exceptionally well as a short story. Unfortunately, it’s not a short story…

So, the horrid. Perhaps that word is overstating it for the first major issue I have with the book – the first impossibility. While I understand completely what Halter is going for, as it is a crucial event for the plot as a whole, but in terms of an explanation for what seems to be billed as the primary impossibility, it is disappointing in the extreme.

And the second problem, I found very disturbing. The final chapter, concerning the fate of one of the characters… It’s very hard for me to explain the issue I have with this without spoiling things, but I’ll give it a go. There are many classic detective mysteries where, for whatever reason, the sleuth takes matters into their own hands and decides the ultimate fate of the killer. I’ve never read a book where I so vehemently disagreed with the choice made as this one. I’ll say no more, but I found the conclusion… just wrong.

So, there are some very good ideas here, and certain aspects of the plot are cleverly done, but at the end of the day, this one has too many problems for me. As usual, Paul Halter is to be praised for his ambition – if it wasn’t for the final chapter, perhaps I would be more forgiving for the other disappointment – but ultimately, this did feel like a padded short story with a clever idea at its heart.

11 comments

  1. “the first major issue I have with the book – the first impossibility…”
    By first impossibility, are you referring to the disappearance from the small study or passing through a wire fence ? One is chronologically the first impossibility but is detailed later in the book.

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  2. “the central method involved in the second death in the book, which I won’t go into, is clever. ..”
    But isn’t it copied from Carr ?

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  3. It IS copied from Carr, a very classic title, where it makes so much more sense due to its setting. I totally agree about the ending: this isn’t “justice” like we find in that famous Christie- it’s pique! Nothing can excuse what that person did, and if Burns excused them for the reason I think he did, then he’s an accessory and unworthy of his mantle of detective.

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  4. Can it really be worse than letting a murderer free, so as to allow other people to commit fraud? (A very famous and popular author whom almost everyone has read).

    Detectives can be pretty amoral at times.

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  5. I have tried with Halter a few times. I find some of the plots interesting, but in general his writing feels so abysmally….bad: characters, tone, sentence-by sentence. I don’t expect realism from my locked room mysteries, but his books seem like bad self-published pastiche of JDC novels, from the forced and fake feeling pre-war setting to his plotting and writing that feels like something that reads like the examples in a physics textbook.

    What am I missing here?

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  6. I wish I could learn french and Japanese so I could experience the originality of this novels. But I m too lazy mind for that.and hey,why so many Indians are popping so suddenly in these blogs?

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  7. Yes,the ending is indeed somewhat similar to one of Carr’s,you know what I mean,it would be much better if those authors had written in English instead of French or Japanese,and hey ,I didn’t know Carr and impossible crime have fans in India too,nice to meet you all.

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