#131: Adventures in Self-Publishing – The Third Gunman (2016) by Raymond Knight Read

Third Gunman

So, how was my holiday reading?

Well, following the discovery of Matt Ingwalson’s Owl and Raccoon novellas I pledged to give more self-published works a go because — hey! — some of it is evidently very good indeed.  Sure, an overwhelming majority is awful, but it’s worth the relatively slight cost to potentially find something surprising.  Which brings us to The Third Gunman by Raymond Knight Read.

Why this one?  Because it has the following synopsis:

A dead body alone in a locked office. The office window open to a rear garden covered in fresh snow….no footprints – sounds like a familiar locked-room mystery? That is, until Professor George Wellbelove and Chief Inspector Peter Meadows find out that the late Patrick Devlin had a dark and sinister past in Northern Ireland….and that opens a whole new can of worms.

and a review on Amazon that says

This is a novella-length puzzler well worth the time of anyone who enjoys impossible crimes. I’ve read my fair share of Carr, Halter, etc., and I found the situation baffling and the ultimate solution satisfying.

Essentially it’s a reimagining of John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins which someone who has read both Carr and Paul Halter found commendable — throwing around words like “baffling” and “satisfying” in that company is always going to get my attention.  And it is The Hollow Man retooled: the owner of a dry cleaning business is shot in his locked office by a man who is seen entering the building; when the door is broken in there’s no sign of the killer, a garden full of unmarked snow outside precluding an escape that way…and when the obvious suspect is tracked down, they themselves have also been murdered.  And you’re not going to tread such famous ground unless you’ve got something new to add…frankly, I was very curious to see what Read was going to bring to this.

Let’s get some ancillary issues out of the way first, though, because this exhibits many problems that stymie a lot of self-published fiction.  Firstly the formatting is awful, just so unforgivably bad — indents at the start of paragraphs vary in size (and indeed presence), punctuation comes and goes, random words are italicised without any particular meaning, like:

After Milek had installed the tablet’s software application, the Professor gathered up his new toys and made his way back to his office.

Also, Read has no idea how ellipses work:

‘Right, I have Roger’s report on Patrick Devlin and …………Chief Inspector Martin’s report on Danny O’Connor’

That’s twelve dots!  Twelve!  And it’s not the only instance of seemingly throwing in a huge pause for no reason.  It’s honestly a deeply baffling experience reading this, made even weirder by the separate crediting of an editor on the title page — frankly, I hope she didn’t charge for her services.  Additionally, characters are indistinguishable and the lumpy writing has instances where, despite living and working in Cambridge, there’s this dialogue:

‘Jesus with all these comings and goings, it is like Piccadilly Circus at rush-hour.’

which not only needs a comma after “Jesus” but also sits uneasily as it has characters from one city drawing an example from a completely different place.  Fine, London’s Piccadilly Circus is famously busy, but this reads like a London-based author setting his book elsewhere purely because; it’s akin to talking about a play in football by describing it in terms of cricket.  This is not a well-produced book by any measure, and highlights many of the perils of letting people have complete free reign over their own endeavours.

But, and here’s the thing, I was more than willing to happily forgive all of this for the simple reason that we’re going to get a new interpretation of The Hollow Man…and who doesn’t want that?!  If asked to choose one story to pull a Poisoned Chocolates Case on, The Hollow Man would doubtless be at the top of a lot of lists because it’s such a brilliant baffler and — while not the best example of the form — the archetype on which most of everything post-1935 was trying to build.  It’s a totemic piece of work, and someone bringing any new wrinkle to it is to be celebrated in my eyes.


Imagine my disappointment, then — nay, my frank bewildered, aghast astonishment — when this turns out to simply be The Hollow Man.  The plot of The Third Gunman effectively runs thus: man is confronted by someone from his past, goes to kill that person while giving the impression he is in his office, gets shot in the act of killing them, returns to his office under the guise of the person he has just killed, sets off a gunshot to make it appear that he’s just been shot after locking himself in his office, and dies of his wounds as people break in to discover him.  This is the plot of The Hollow Man, without even so much as a meaningful deviation to make it surprisingly clever.

Seriously, it’s copyright infringement writ large, and if any professional publisher touched this they’d be hit with some kind of legal suit.  But the thing I find hardest to understand is why Knight even bothered — he hasn’t given a clever alternative interpretation, and one aspect of his plot seems to be there only to make it seem like an impossible crime.  See, there’s no need for that gunshot fired by Devlin upon his return, it explains nothing in the way of misdirection like Grimaud’s did in The Hollow Man; take it out and you have an exceptionally dull mystery of a man who was shot elsewhere and then locked himself in a room before dying.  No aspect of Devlin’s plan accounts for the ‘escape’ of his killer…it’s so very, very stupid.


Read does at least try to work in a false solution, but this is dismissed for no reason other than he doesn’t want that to be the answer.  There’s a very intriguing situation where that false solution could actually contribute towards a more interesting actual solution, but when the chief suspect is asked about the key piece of evidence they give a brief explanation which is accepted without question and the whole thing is dropped from thereon.  It doesn’t occur to anyone that they could be, like, lying, perhaps?  Apparently not, and so that gets kicked aside and the ashes of John Dickson Carr raked over to thoroughly uninspiring effect.

The idea of The Hollow Man can be expanded on — I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I feel that Paul Halter did it honestly very well indeed with The Lord of Misrule — and the updating of this to (as far as I could tell) a contemporary setting raises the potential to reinvest this situation with new technology that wasn’t available to Carr and so update the workings in light of such advances.  In fact, if anything this raises one of the bigger issues I have with The Hollow Man and makes it even bigger in this milieu but simply doesn’t address it, namely [SPOILERS AGAIN] how can a man be shot in the stomach and walk such a long way without leaving any trail of blood? [END SPOILERS]  That seems like a more pertinent question in this age of forensic science, and the fact that it was ignored made me think that, since it’s not mentioned, it didn’t happen and so therefore there was a new explanation coming.  Faint hope, it turns out.

So if you’ve skipped to the end to find out what I think of this, here’s a summary: it’s awful, avoid at all costs.  For murderers vanishing without leaving tell-tale footprints in snow or mud read The Hollow Man, read The Lord of Misrule, read the wonderful Whistle Up the Devil by Derek Smith. Give your time and money to people who have worked to deserve it, and shy away for derivative and lazy enterprises such as this.  Add it to the overwhelming majority mentioned above and move one; there’s more good stuff out there, however, and I intend to find it.

So, how was my holiday reading?  Well, I read this on the plane, so it’s fair to say it got better…on which perhaps more in a few days.


25 thoughts on “#131: Adventures in Self-Publishing – The Third Gunman (2016) by Raymond Knight Read

    • Haha, let’s be fair, you weren’t likely to stumble across this anytime soon — but if I can take a bullet on this for anyone who may have been curious, well, it’s the decent thing to do given how many bullets I’ve dodged through other peoples’ anti-recommendations. And, you never know, hopefully I’ll discover some amazing self-published author we can all get excited about (breath-holding not recommended…)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Sounds dire. Thanks for the warning. Let’s hope Read does better in his further attempts.

    The Piccadilly Circus remark is probably fair dos, though; I think the expression is used nationally. I lived for many years in Devon, a lot further from London than Cambridge is, and certainly it was current there.

    You have to wonder about that Amazon review.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Weird, as I live in London and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used as an example of busy-ness…but then maybe I just don’t mix with the right crowds…

      Personal opinion is a fascinating thing, but particularly given the examples that review cites I’m more than a little curious about where such positivity comes from. Ah, well, not to worry; you live and learn. At least I know that I shall prefer to leave it to others to investigate Read’s other attempts; I feel I’ve done my bit 🙂


    • The phrase that comes to my mind is “Grand Central Station”, and that seems fair even if you live nowhere near New York City.


  2. I think the self publishing phenomenon has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it gives new authors (except this one, obviously) the chance to publish books with interesting alternative plots which would not normally be picked up by more conservative publishers. And a curse, because it encourages everyone to think that they have a book in them… and they so obviously don’t. Cliché coming; you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs to find the handsome prince.
    When checking out self published books I always ignore the first few reviews – they are usually written by loyal friends of the author. The review I read first is the worst one I can find. Then I look at how many people have actually reviewed it. Less than, say, five? Don’t bother.
    And presentation is important. The authors who have shelled out for a professionally produced, eye catching cover will always get more hits than authors like this guy, who obviously thinks that slapping the title over some stock picture will do. You can’t judge a book by its cover (a cliché again!), but in the world of self published novels, it certainly helps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I absolutely don’t disagree with what you’re saying, I am in part motivated in this by a contrariwise form of reasoning: namely that someone going to the effort of getting a professional cover and all those trapping hasn’t necessarily written a good book, and these associated trappings are simply giving the impression of it being worthwhile: “Well I’ve got a good cover and it’s well-formatted…obviously I’ve written a good book” — I believe the expression I’m looking for is ‘a polished turd’.

      I imagine I’m on a hiding to nothing, but I like to think that someone out there has self-published a book that at least shows some imagination or creativity or originality or something notable, but they’re a writer rather than a PR expert and so it’s hiding under a lousy cover and the swamping of a new market by — as you rightly say — a vast number of people who churn out dreck for their own sense of accomplishment.

      But, well, let’s see. I’m sticking with detection as that’s my area of interest, so I’ll dip in every so often (doin’ it for ma readeerrrrrs!) and hope to uncover a prince in that chorus of frogs…


      • I agree, it’s certainly no guarantee of quality but a professionally produced cover does mean that the author will get more exposure and possible a wider readership. Which will reveal their quality (or not) all the faster. Of course, the reverse is also true… we’ve all read commercially published books which turned out to consist of the gleaming excrement you mention.
        Having said that I have read books by good authors which had terrible covers – the Murray of Letho historical mystery series by Lexie Conyngham is an example. Not sure if she is actually self – published but the covers for the early novels were truly awful… fortunately the books themselves are much better. They may not appeal to you, JJ – they are not locked room mysteries – but they are well written with mature, three dimensional characters.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I imagine I’m on a hiding to nothing, but I like to think that someone out there has self-published a book that at least shows some imagination or creativity or originality or something notable, but they’re a writer rather than a PR expert and so it’s hiding under a lousy cover

        Years ago, when I was doing a lot of reviewing for an sf website, I tried to include a reasonable number of self-published/”indie” books in the mix. It seemed to me that the quality of the cover bore almost no relation to the quality of the interior.

        Things may have changed since then. If someone’s prepared to pay for a decent cover then perhaps they’re prepared to pay for an editor, too. Or maybe not: if they’ve blown the budget on the cover, perhaps they can’t afford an editor.

        We should remember that some of the very best books used to be published by Penguin and by Gollancz behind the very cheapest covers possible.


        • You do have to wonder what ‘professional’ editors do even with ‘professional’ books, though. I’ve read maybe three books published in the last ten years that didn’t contain obvious and egregious redundancies. I should totally get in on that: getting paid to glance through a manuscript and go “Yup, seems fine to me”.

          Good point on the Gollancz and Penguine covers, too, though there was something genius about their simplicity which spoke of a professional hand in there somewhere.


  3. Pingback: #132: When Inspiration Becomes Theft | The Invisible Event

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  5. Apologies for leaving a comment here a year afterwards, JJ, but your essay on “GAD and reality” linked to it, and I found this review interesting.

    First of all–I don’t have much to add to the self-publishing discussion, except that I know how damn’ hard it is to be published nowadays. While I (naturally, then) sympathize with those who do want to self-publish, it can provide a blank check to writers’ egos. On the other hand, I also dislike published authors’ feelings of “well, you wouldn’t need self-publishing if you were a good writer”–which is patently untrue. So I suppose I’m of two minds about it. By the way, Jon L. Breen wrote a fine little detective story on this theme, “The Vanity Murder Case,” which is a Philo Vance pastiche.

    As for the subject at hand… I suppose my question is–is it possible to find another explanation to Carr’s set-up in The Three Coffins? (I suppose I prefer the American title here because I’ve often seen Carr’s book and Eliot’s poem confused!) Now, I haven’t read The Lord of Misrule (which I shall, one of these days), but from what I’ve heard of it the set-up is similar but not exactly the same. I just wonder because JDC’s set-up there seems so very impossible, and only his explanation–as many flaws as it has, you’re right on that–seems to explain everything.

    Perhaps Read’s false solution has a kernel of a good idea there? Or no?

    Anyway, this book does indeed sound dismal. With that said, though, there are a few great detective stories that take an enormous amount from The Three Coffins: Death from a Top Hat, of course (though I’m not all that fond of that book ), but more pointedly Bill Krohn’s “The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus,” which is pretty much Carr’s book reworked in a different setting. I suppose that connects to your “inspiration and theft” discussion too. 🙂



    • No apology needed; it’s always nice when something pops up on a post from a while back — that’s why they’re left up, after all, to provide a bit of interest.

      I don’t know if Carr’s original story as it is has another solution — Halter’s equivalent outdoor murder is, in my opinion, far far better than Carr’s, but has to rework it a bit (Lord of Misrule is, I maintain, simply fan fiction done exceptionally well, as it’s clearly a love letter to The Hollow Man).

      The point of rewriting exactly the same plot with exactly the same solution (as Read does) seems rather pointless to me; Halter at least has the common sense to change some aspects and provide something original. This is just theft, and I can’t see a “regular” publisher touching it for fear of copyright claims. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, now…

      The false solution here…man, I’m firing up my brain but I seem to remember it does something interesting and then dismisses it just because…and then repeats the solution of Carr’s book. Why it’s not the other way around is completely beyond me…!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, well, if you remember it…

        It annoys me that Read is imaginative and inventive enough to come up with a false solution, even if it doesn’t explain everything, but then throw it away in favor of cribbing from another author’s (famous) book. Odd choice, there.

        Halter’s book does the outdoor solution better than Carr’s? I’ve got to read it, then, even if I’m not as fond of the killer’s identity (I usually have the killer pegged in an Halter book) or the prose.

        Perhaps I shall try to take on the challenge of plotting another solution to Carr’s problem as set forth. I know it won’t be half as satisfying, but, hey, I’ve tried to solve his “mask-clock-teaspoon” puzzle that Bencolin uses as an example in The Four False Weapons (without using the killer’s fingerprints 🙂 ).

        Thanks, JJ!


        • Even taking my unashamaed Halter fanboyism out of the equation, I do think his outdoor murder — a man walking in the snow, being followed by two witnesses who lose sight of him as they mount a small rise, is then found stabbed once they reach the top, and (of course) there are no other footprints near him — is sublimely plotted, clewed, and resolved. It’s one of my favourite Halterian impossibilitities, and I think Carr would have loved it.

          So, hey, there’s clearly scope for a few more ways to approach similar poblems… I say go for it!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Will do, JJ! It’ll take some time for me to analyze the minutiae of JDC’s set-up in Three Coffins, but I hope to come up with something.

            As for Halter, I just checked my library’s database, and they don’t have interlibrary loan access to Lord of Misrule, so it’ll be a while before I read that one, unfortunately. On the other hand, they do have The Phantom Passage, which I have recently ordered through interlibrary loan. Good one?


            • JJ, I just finished The Phantom Passage. I’ll try to post some comments about it on the blog, but just to let you know—it was the first Halter I enjoyed completely from start to finish. Thanks for the recommendation!


            • Ah! I’m delighted to hear so — it’s a clever little book (and so hilariously unlikely as to become even more fun as it progresses), and shows Halter off in a very good way. I’d argue that Death Invites You and The Picture from the Past do a similar thing and would possibly also be up your street since you enjoyed this…but others may disagree.

              Look forward to hearing your thoughts on it; there’s always the comments section of my review if you don’t want to write a review or reflection of your own (since you may wish to keep your site for your short fiction…).

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: The Fourth Coffin | yet another mystery blog

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