It turns out that if you Google “white lady,” it’s an actual thing. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the legend of a woman in white pervades the folklore of multiple countries. She tends to be the ghost of a woman who died by violence, committed suicide or, in the scarier versions, killed her husband and/or children. Her love life tended to suck. Many white ladies are wearing the wedding gowns in which they killed themselves to avoid marrying men they did not love. The white lady of Estonia was the object of affection of a local canon, and when she fell in love with a choir boy, the miffed cleric had her sealed up in a wall. Some of them are good, helping out in childbirth and offering good advice, while others are malevolent, the stuff of horror movies, like La Llorona.
The White Lady of Buckworth Manor is boring.
Buckworth Manor is the setting for Paul Halter’s newest Owen Burns mystery, The White Lady, translated and published by John Pugmire and Locked Room International. All classic locked room enthusiasts are indebted to Mr. Pugmire for providing us access to stories from authors around the world, old and new, that we would have otherwise only heard about and drooled over. Halter is one of the only living authors who writes classic mysteries, most of them impossible crimes. They are homages to his beloved John Dickson Carr, to Agatha Christie, and to a style of plotting and trickery that has fallen out of fashion for all but a few dozen bloggers and a coterie of readers possessed of style and taste.
Halter has been writing novels about Dr. Twist, Owen Burns or the occasional stand-alone mystery for thirty-three years now, which edges him into the pantheon of prolific writers with lengthy careers and prodigious canons. I’ve been thinking a lot about these people lately: for one thing, as you may know, this year marks the centenary of Agatha Christie’s first appearance in print, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She would write for another fifty-five years, and her success and popularity show no signs of stopping nearly forty-five years after her death. Carr wrote even more novels than Christie in a career that ran over forty years. Ellery Queen, John Rhode, Brian Flynn . . . all of them wrote prodigiously, and now their work is forgotten by most, or dredged up by math teachers for re-examination.
The talents of most of these, and other, longtime writers, tended to dim with age. Last year, Paul Halter – at age 64 now, a mere whippersnapper – published The Gold Watch, a complex, multi-layered whodunit set in multiple time periods that proved he’s still got it. With The White Lady, however, he seems to have put it in a drawer somewhere and forgotten where he left it. Halter wastes a potentially fascinating legend – the stuff of horror and tragedy – on a tepid plot where little happens to such uninteresting people that, despite its mere 155-page length, reading this took me far too long. As a result, the elements that tend to bother me most about the author – the weird prologues and last minute twist endings, the characters made of dried cardboard, the stilted writing – all were exacerbated here.
If anything, I tend to be the guy who finds Halter’s novels overstuffed with ideas. The Demon of Dartmoor is one of my favorites, but I think there are something like three ghosts and four legends to deal with before the killer is caught. Here we get . . . practically nothing. A mysterious white lady has made appearances in the history of the small village of Buckworth, literally chilling people with her presence. Her “history” is sadly lacking here, however, and most people have assumed that she was actually a tricky servant woman-slash-local clairvoyant who had dallied with the local squire, Sir Matthew Richards, and then when she died, the role of soothsayer, lover, and walking ghost was taken up by her daughter (whose name, Lethia Seagrave, is the best thing about this book).
Sir Matthew’s family forms the crux of the plot, gathered together at Buckworth Manor to play cards, take walks, and complain. The squire has recently married his much younger secretary, a sultry wench named Vivian, much to the dismay of his daughter Ann and her husband Peter. Another daughter, Margot, shows up with her thought-to-be-dead-but-was-merely-scarred-in-prison solder husband and enough expositional baggage to turn into three better novels – except none of it matters in the end.
For seventeen chapters, these characters wander about as the White Lady makes occasional appearances. Most of the conversations surrounding these incidents take on an Elephants Can Remember tone of infuriating vagueness (“I obviously must of have been mistaken, but that’s the impression I had at the time.”), but to sum it up, the White Lady confronts a man in a garden and then disappears through a fence; wakes a man up in his bedroom and then scurries down the hall, into his study and disappears from there; touches a character on the forehead, and the character drops dead; appears in that same bedroom, touches a character with icy hands, bringing on a heart attack.
Only one of these incidents actually happens before our eyes, and it is the best one. In between, we get lots of wandering around and vague conversation. We get Owen Burns and Achilles Stock sitting in an inn eating and pondering over very little. And when we finally get to the summing up, to Burns gathering his suspects and explaining the who and how and why, it’s all beyond disappointing. The machinations of the plot are ridiculous, and the explanations of impossible events range from disappointing to infuriating.
Worst of all, it seems that the author himself is bored here. He steals a murder method from a much better book, he tosses in red herrings from various Christie novels (i.e., the Blackbird Mines from A Pocketful of Rye, that one we can’t talk about from Murder in Mesopotamia) and does nothing with them, and he tacks on another jarring final twist that proves particularly annoying. Worst of all, Halter robs his devoted fans, who look to him to preserve and play with the conventions of the classic impossible crime, of any real satisfaction. (The solution to the disappearance in the study is particularly irksome.)
The translation here feels rushed: odd tenses, syntactical and grammatical errors, and occasionally jarring word choices (after a man insults his hostess and rushes out, another character describes his behavior as “inadmissible”), but the real problems stem from the author. Nobody can hit it out of the ball park every time. And yet, I see Pugmire’s dilemma here: after presenting Halter’s work to English readers in retrospect for over a dozen years, he is now in a position to bestow his latest efforts upon us as they are written. It’s possible, however, that the best work is buried in the past . . . Death Behind the Curtains, 139 Steps from Death, Sibyl’s Tears. Over a dozen titles we can only dream about!
One can greedily hope these titles and more are made available to us in the future. And if we are lucky enough that Halter has no intention of laying down the pen, may his next work be a stirring and complex Gold Watch rather than the tepid ghost story we find here.