Continuing the grand old tradition of crime-solving clergy — I refer, of course, to The Father Dowling Mysteries — Hal White’s collection of impossible crime stories featuring the retired octogenarian Reverend Thaddeus Dean gives us six takes on vanishing murderers, no footprints in the snow, impossible alibis, and more classic staples of my most-beloved of sub-genres. And, no small praise, it bears the stamp of approval from Bob Adey…so, are the stories any good? Well, as part of my continued trek to find something in the realms of self-published detective fiction that’s actually worth your time, let’s have a look…
First up is ‘Murder at an Island Mansion’, and the fact that White fits in three footprintless murders in 32 pages — one on sand, one on a painted floor, one on mud — with three different solutions is hugely laudable. However, you have to ignore some pretty telling physical evidence throughout, and the workings of the first murder, when you think about it, require frankly superhuman feats. The second death is novel enough to allow the unlikeliness of its actually being workable, though the third one harks back to a ploy Carr discussed and dismissed in one of his better solutions. And again there are some pretty telling physical clues to ignore…but at least there’s a level of functional simplicity which some of these stories do not share. As an opener this gives a good sense of how White intends to use his impossibilities, and it just about passes muster.
In ‘Murder from the Fourth Floor’ a shooter disappears from an apartment that is observed on all sides following an attempt on the life of her ex-husband, and I just don’t buy this at all. It’s one of those Omniscient Murderer stories where the responsible party has to do about 43 things and have them all come off perfectly and still risk something outside of their control ruining everything. And then, having hatched some diabolical plan and carried out every phase perfectly, they make a staggeringly basic error that gives the whole game away purely to provide a clue so that the detectives to solve the case. Yeah, no, not for me. But the bit with the phone is clever, and the story is saved by the compactness of the moment when Dean realises how the jig was done — more of that kind of thing would have definitely helped in this collection.
‘Murder on a Caribbean Cruise’ is definitely enriched by some good interpretation of unusual clues — well, okay, clue — but again my problem here is the sheer level of effort required to make it work. The murderer requires a…very specific piece of equipment, let’s say, and there’s absolutely no indication how they could have either obtained it or hidden it from everyone else on the boat. And, as with ‘…Fourth Floor’, the scheme requires a level of preparation that would put a Dan Brown plot to shame and it stops being enjoyable when you can see so many joins. Also, in spite of some nice character beats, this is the point where the tactless theology really begins to intrude, and it ends on a rather trite and therefore sour note because of this.
Next up is ‘Murder at the Lord’s Table’, which is guilty not just of more ham-handed theology but also the kind of dangerously ignorant thinking that conflates logic and faith. On top of this, the impossible poisoning and disappearance herein is again a scheme with so many holes, and requiring so much specialist knowledge and good luck, that you begin to wonder why anyone would bother. Additionally, the solution requires Dean to perform a series of actions in a way that would not have occurred to him at the time of their performance…and if they had, it’s never made clear when or how. Or why. Also, I should mention that all the motives in all the stories thus far are terrible. Still, the St Bernard is cute.
Now ‘Murder in a Sealed Loft’ is much more like it. I could do without the footnote about Restless Leg Syndrome (seriously, what the hell is up with that?), but this stabbing behind a triple-locked door of a sealed top-floor apartment is not only well-motivated and cleverly worked, it also contains a devious piece of counter-plotting which gives rise to a half-decent false solution. I’ll even let the ‘curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ crap slide and will allow the murderer their unlikely possession of the integral…thing — more of this, please, Hal!
Which brings us to ‘Murder at the Fall Festival‘ and a dead body appearing in a locked and watched room (well, garage). This story is…nuts. Honestly, part of me refuses to believe it would work on any level, and the rest of me is just quite happy to kick back and enjoy the insanity of it all. It’s not fair-play, which I don’t love, but then it is bloody loopy, and I’m all for a loopy solution provided I can believe it. I think I believe this. I think I might finally be at a stage where I can buy into this kind of thing. Or it’s terrible and I’ve lost the ability to discern (which has happened before). But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, not least because there’s a great story-within-the-story which shows a very adept eye at constructing and explaining incomprehensible events.
So, overall? Well, quite a few problems — I can forgive the characters being supermodel-thin (hey, these are short stories), but most of the personal interaction and dialogue is jarringly false, like someone writing conversations without ever actually having had one — but then there’s enough spark here to recommend: White’s prose is shorn of any style at all, so while forgettable is very easy to zip through, and there’s a decent fist at reworking the impossible crime even if it’s not always successful. With a bit more support and a little extra effort some of these stories could be great, and I feel that I can say that about very little of what I’ve read in the modern sallies on this sub-genre of late, so that’s also worth considering. A good start, and I’d check out more if White wrote them, but difficult to recommend as essential.
You may wonder whether this qualifies as self-published as it does, in fact, have a publisher responsible for producing it — Lighthouse Christian Publishing — who, while pursuing an obvious niche, should technically prevent this from earning a ‘self-published’ label. It’s possibly splitting hairs, but the following, taken from the ‘Submissions’ page of Lighthouse’s website, doesn’t really make it sound like trad publishing:
Although there may once have been publishing houses that took a rough jewel and polished it into a masterpiece, these days editors just don’t have that time. We expect the author to submit a manuscript that is as close to perfectly polished as possible, including spelling, grammar and continuity.
As well as persuading your family and friends to buy copies, you will need to work out a plan for contacting various magazines and other media outlets for reviews, holding book signings, and thinking of every way possible to get your book known … Please tell us your plans when you make your submission.