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.
11 thoughts on “#174: Adventures in Self-Publishing – The Mysteries of Reverend Dean [ss] (2008) by Hal White”
Thanks for this JJ – it’s the kind of publication that is never seems to get on to my radar so really enjoy these reviews – keep it up mate 🙂
Conversely, it’s the kind of thing that’s permanently on my radar but I can’t find anyone whose tastes I have a good line on who have reviewed it…so the only option is to bite a possible bullet and find out first hand!
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I have read the book and I agree that the last 2 stories are the best though the last one is weird. Also there is another impossible crime story within the last story with a clever solution.
Also I agree that Murder At The Lord’s Table is the worst.
By the way, you seem to have given up on the Richard Forrest novel. 🙂
Yup, the final story cetainly is a bizarre one…though that’s not always a bad thing, it’s just…odd. But, well, creativity goes a long way with me, so long as it keeps just about this side of completely bonkers, and I’m willing to let this one through for the sheer loopiness of it.
As for the Richard Forrest book…yeah, it really wasn’t my tempo. One of these days I might get round to explaining in full and glorious detail why that’s the case, but in the meantime I just want to read something I can enjoy. What that turns out to be will be decided in the next day or so… 🙂
I am currently torn on the idea of self-published books. I wouldn’t countenance them before, probably for snobby reasons, but I understand publishing has changed and I have a more open mind these days. This volume, though, sounds like it has all the qualities that kept me away from them in the first place. Your mention of “ham-handed theology” was frankly more than enough for me to decide to avoid this one. Thanks for your in-depth look so that I don’t have to feel guilty 😉
I had a look at the Submissions page of Lighthouse Christian Publishing. Looks to me like that gentleman needs to dial back his editorial control by about 90%; at one point he tells prospective authors about paragraph spacing. But you’re right, that’s not really a publishing house; it seems more like an assistance service for people who want to do Print On Demand but can’t be bothered with the details.
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I will find something in the ranks of self-publishing that is worthy of our time, Noah, I will! Given that I seem to have a litany of issues with so much trad-published work, there’s no reason the self-publishing phenomenon should be any less tolerable for me (in, y’know, small doses). And this was all started by the quality of Matt Ingwalson’s Owl & Raccoon books, after all, so we know it can be done…
The two final stories here feature virtually (or possubly even actually) no theology at all and are al the better for it — White could actually be very good if he just focussed on the plotting, I feel. Having a Christian sleuth doesn’t demand a lot of heavy-handed denominational Christianity in your crime stories (Chesterton, for all his faults, proved this) so I wonder how much was Lighthouse insisting on more explicitly “Christian” content… I must point out that I can’t prove there was any interference at all, but it does feel alarmingly last-minute at times, and (given the guifance on brevity on the ‘Submissions’ page) the fact that it’s the discussions over faith and the like which could be completely cut out without any loss to the story feels very telling… Still completely pure supposition on my part, however.
If you’re interested in self-published mysteries, here’s a link to one (https://www.abebooks.com/Hemorrhaging-Souls-Nicola-Furlong-Salal-Pr/9031370915/bd) on ABE by someone who used to try to place her books in my local bookstores. There’s more than one mystery in her oeuvre but this is the one that stuck in my mind. “A series of unexplained deaths shatters the serenity of a Vancouver Island girls’ school, and Tempest Ivory, child psychologist and soprano, races to solve the mystery before it claims more lives. Tempest lands a coveted lead role in Rigoletto, but as she prepares for her operatic debut, the explosive secrets lurking behind the academy walls set her on a collision course with her past. ” There’s just something so … interesting about “Tempest Ivory, child psychologist and soprano.”
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And, wow, that’s a risky title, too, huh? Expect something akin to “not so much a Hemorrhage as a hemmorhoid” if this doesn’t meet the expected standard.
And, yeah, I love these unusual job combinations — it reminds me of those cosy ‘cookery mysteries’ where every protagonist is a lasso-maker and part-time model who also indulges in making amazing cakes. And solves crimes. I smell a shoe-horning in of the author’s personal interests… But, hell, if I can find it cheap I’ll give it a go!
Ah, this book. My first true exposeure to the locked room mystery, this was, shame it didn’t suit you. It has it’s fair share of flaws (no real whodunit aspect, the killers are almost never given a motive for going to such extreme lengths, and dang it White we get that Dean misses his dead wife), but nostalga is a powerful force. 😛
Only point I object to is the second story. That reveal floored me as a genre virgin!
Aaah, but now you’re wiser and see how ridiculous it is, right? I mean, Gladys Mitchell might astound someone who’s never read a crime novel before, but then better things await…
I’ve known it was ridiculous for a while, even reviewed it a few years ago, back when I was even worse than I am now. But I still love it and would recommend it, for nostalga is a more powerful force. 😛
And nothing you say can draw me from Mitchell, I’m determined to give her a shot. 😛