When the unpopular patriarch of a family is found stabbed to death in his locked study, it’s clear that one of the six family members gathered at the ancestral pile must be the murderer (the servants, of course, are excluded immediately). It’s up to our plucky amateur detective team to work out how he was killed and beat the police to the killer before it’s too late while also beginning to realise how they really feel about each other… So far, so Golden Age. Now substitute the following nouns: patriarch/inventor, family/hi-fi company, study/anechoic chamber (sound-testing room, if you will), family members/company executives, ancestral pile/company studio, and servants/technicians. What you have now is the plot of Herbert Resnicow’s The Dead Room. It’s that simple a switch – but for the trappings of its location, this could not be more of a Golden Age detective story, and the entire enterprise is undertaken in the same spirit as those classics.
It’s an odd one, this, because for everything it does well it also falls down on something key and so is a somewhat uneven reading experience. For instance, our amateur detective team of Ed Baer (motivated by being an investor in the company) and his son Warren are superbly characterised down to beautifully minute details. However, the six suspects are, well, they’re basically the same guy except some of them are overweight, some wear glasses, and a couple have a beard (one of them may even be overweight, have glasses, and have a beard – to be honest, they’re so indistinct it’s difficult to remember). Even I, with my recently-documented plot-centric bias, would have liked some kind of meat on their bones so they at least felt like people rather than names.
Thankfully, Resnicow is a witty and perceptive writer who keeps things going at a fair ol’ lick. You get a dead body on page one, a slightly hamfisted piece of motivation to justify the Baers’ involvement (but, hey, better that than 140 pages of reluctantly being convinced into and finally accepting what you know is going to happen anyway) and then a really quite ingeniously unique setup for the impossible murder of universally-disliked old man. Lovely little flourishes almost stop it being impossible while leaving scope for the actual commission of the crime – there’s nothing to actually stop anyone getting into the room, and all the doors were unobserved at some point – but the addition of a super-sensitive microphone that wold have picked up any noise is a nice touch that commends Resnicow’s ability to devise something not seen before.
And then the interviews start. And go on. And on. And on. And on. My Dodd Mead hardcover edition of this is A5 in size and only just makes it to 189 pages, and I was about 130 into it before I realised that nothing had been added since the crime had been described in chapter 3. Now, full credit to Resnicow for getting 100 pages of not very much past me, but there’s really very little of substance in there. You’ll recall in the first paragraph of this review that I likened this to a Golden Age detective story; that’s me deliberately not using the word novel for a reason: you need really two early chapters and two late ones and you’ve got everything. The clues, such as they are…well, maybe. Certainly you can look back and see how Resnicow is pointing you towards the solution at various points, but I’m not sure I’d call any of those points clues in the strictest sense.
The solution itself is very clever, and I’d love to know whether the setting or the solution came to Resnicow first as they’re inseparable. The only problem is, I’m just not sure it works. That super-sensitive microphone ensures the entire thing was done in complete silence and, I’m sorry, but I don’t see it. It’s worth reading to see if you can spot the important aspects, and you have to love the way Resnicow’s brain conceived of this entire fandango, but this would have been ideally suited to the shorter form where it’s flaws wouldn’t have been so apparent. Worth finding if you can find it, but don’t (ahem) kill for a copy…