Sometimes someone is so taken with a book that you can’t help but stop and take notice yourself. So when TomCat was full of praise for this impossible crime, it hopped up my TBR pile with the effortlessness of a mountain goat on an escalator. I was promised audacity, and I love a bit of authorly audaciousness where an impossible crime is concerned — indeed, the boldness of such schemes as employed in John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could not Shudder (1940) or John Saldek’s Invisible Green (1977) make them firm favourites of mine, and if a book of this ilk has chutzpah enough to make TomCat and John Norris sit up and pay attention, then surely you must be onto a good thing.
So, let’s get it out of the way: I really did not like this book. For so, so, so many reasons, not least because — in much the same manner as Ryan recently highlighted about Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party — so much of the conversation goes like this:
“He was hit on the head?”
“He was hit on the head. We found metal in the wound.”
“You found metal in the wound? But he was hit on the head with a stone.”
“We found a stone that we think hit him on the head, but we found metal in the wound.”
“There is no metal in a stone.”
“There is no metal in a stone, and we found a stone that we think hit him, but there is metal in the wound. We think the metal came from the car.”
“The metal came from the car?”
“As there is no metal in the stone, the metal we found in the wound came from the car.”
“And the stone hit him on the head?”
“The stone has blood on it like it hit him on the head.”
“But you think the meal came from the car?”
“There is metal in a car. As there is no metal in the stone, we think the metal came from the car.”
There is a short story’s worth of plot in here — and a very good short story at that — but the sheer volume of perseveration in proceedings here is unbearable. For a large number of the plot points in this mystery our amateur sleuth sees something, thinks about it, discusses it with the inspector attached to the case, thinks about it some more, then goes away and talks to someone else about it, then writes a journal entry about it, then goes and questions the person involved, and then recaps all the other facts to that point in the story to see how the fit in. One key piece of information is irritatingly not revealed to the police until the 40% mark, but at that point the entire thing is laid bare, and leaves open only one course of action…which is not followed, because then everything would be done in three pages (well, multiplied up for repetition…).
Fundamentally, in spite of the inventiveness of its solution, this represents something of a shunpike on the roads of detective fiction — a cheap and slow route through vistas explored to a far higher standard elsewhere. Oh, I know, I’m a grouch and famously contrary, like I started this blog purely so I can prove how counter-culture I am, but I really hated Fearn’s inability to tell a good story in a compact and interesting manner. Yes, it’s probably quite realistic in terms of the investigation, but given the eventual resolution this would have benefitted from being a lot shorter or a lot more packed with incident. The realist school has no place wrangling with this sort of endeavour — and there’s a good line in some scientific detection — especially as the ingenuity of the solution seems horribly out of place given the hoary, antiquated nature of what precedes it. I have to give Fearn kudos for his method of death, but dammit if it’s just too far out of any sort of field, dale, sward, or common to fit into the way he reaches it.