Here’s a poser for you: a woman’s body found in a castle, but the castle was searched before it was locked up for the night and she wasn’t there, and she could not have gotten in afterwards thanks to a combination of the partially-surrounding sea, a two-ton portcullis, and CCTV coverage. If it’s suicide, how did she get in? And if it’s murder, how did the murderer get in and out? No secret passages, no hidden rooms…howdunnit? After some misgivings about Adrian McKinty, I’m proving myself an actual adult by giving this impossible crime of his, set in 1987’s Northern Ireland amidst the sectarian upheaval most commonly referred to as ‘The Troubles’, a go. So, how did we do?
Y’know what? McKinty is a fine writer. The mix of DI Sean Duffy’s sharp observations and weary worldliness saves us from the cloying anachronisms that mar so may historical mysteries, and simple references to CDs being a fad or the newness of a kitchen kettle are sufficient to place us in time without overdoing it. Two era-appropriate famous faces show up in the narrative, and neither feels particularly shoe-horned in — no mean feat considering the second one and the ignoble nature of the story being told here — and McKinty deserves praise for working so well inside his milieu and avoiding jarring temporal awkwardnessess.
There are also some flashes of almost Croftian obsessive detail: the medical examiner’s extended recital of his findings, for one, and the invocation of Bayesian mathematics (though McKinty then gets simple probability wrong immediately after this, which takes the sheen off a bit). The procedure here is finely observed, and the fact that our impossible crime has a lot of other baggage around it is played very well indeed: the irenic nature of the job in the context is never far from your awareness, and the various issues are well-handled as Duffy and his men thrash out scenario after scenario to establish the plot and the actions taken. I mean, sure, the eventual direction is inevitable, but I rarely felt that the time was being wasted or needlessly padded.
McKinty, however, is a little bit too in love with Duffy — from the Borges epigraph to the diet of fry-ups, daily alcohol in all its forms, and marijuana turning him into a Morse-esque irresistible sex panther women are powerless around, complete with a love of classical music and philosophy, but with a stir of the Common Man in his cynicism…there are no cracks in Detective Inspector Duffy, and it gets a little boring. Other characters fare better, the callow Sergeant Lawson in particular, and the minor cast are sketched in very well indeed…it’s just a shame that Duffy feels so much like an idealisation without the flaws McKinty seems to think having him smoke weed at a crime scene implies. There’s an interesting iteration of this man, but we’re not there yet — any comparison to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch clearly does not understand those two far more nuanced and accomplished fictional leading men.
And the impossible death? Well, it’s a shame to report that it’s really little more than a gimcrack hook to hang the plot’s coat on, and not even close to offering a mildly original or interesting variation — we the reading public are being staggeringly short-changed by the explanation of how the lady in question got there, and the explanation of the exit of the murderer (because, c’mon, like it wouldn’t be murder) is so old that I’m surprised they weren’t heard creaking as they carried it off. This is apparently the second impossible crime in this series, and I’m not sure I can be bothered to check out the first one after the disappointment of this; I really want to commend McKinty’s efforts in utilising this classic puzzle-form in a modern crime novel, but you don’t invoke Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Jules Maigret, and Gideon Fell in your text and then only offer this up in answer.
And then, with the case all tied up except in one small detail — I’m going to steal a leaf from Ben at The Green Capsule and go for some muted spoilers below — we end on a three-chapter divergence into Duffy’s personal life which is astoundingly out of kilter with everything that has come before. Just when I was thinking that maybe some modern crime novels might be worth investigating again…nope, not if this is what they do. I’m good, thanks, I’ll stick with the classics. So not a swing and a miss — if you like your recent history you’re in for a treat — but too slight for anyone seeking an exciting new impossibility or a tortuous plot to wrap their noggin around.
The killer getting away and then later being killed by someone else as punishment for their crimes has a weird morality to it that makes me uncomfortable, but I can’t pin down quite what it is. The ‘balancing of books’ implied by their murder feels like a quick way to provide a sort of narrative closure, but I feel like the idea is much more complicated than that, and it’s a shame McKinty doesn’t do more with this. But there you go; just wanted to put this in as it’s been bugging me.
Mysterious Reviews: The cast of characters, Duffy in particular, time and place are all pitch perfect. And it’s hard to go wrong with a solidly set up and intricately developed locked room-style mystery, even if the solution to it isn’t original in the least. The issues here, and they are really quite minor ones, are that the storyline is just a little more complicated than it needs to be, creating a few unnecessary tangents that slow up the narrative and really don’t advance the plot significantly, and an ending (completely unrelated to Duffy’s investigation) that can at best, and charitably, be described as cozy, completely out of character with the style and tenor of the series to date.
Jose Ignacio @ A Crime is Afoot: [McKinty’s] books have an excellent sense of time and place, a sympathetic character, and the plot line is strong and is well thought-out. I also very much enjoy his writing style. Up till now, I have read all his books in the series, and Rain Dogs is in my view among the best. Rain Dogs, as the rest in the series, can be read as a standalone, but if I were you, I would rather start reading the series from the beginning.
20 thoughts on “#225: Rain Dogs (2015) by Adrian McKinty”
Sounds mildly intriguing – I’m from Northern Ireland myself so there’s that aspect to draw me – but no more given all the disappointing aspects you point to. I may try this or another title by the author at some stage but I guess i don’t need to rush.
There’s definitely a sociolgical side to this book which — if that’s yer thing — is well worth experiencing for how well McKinty takes a tremendously raw part of a country’s recent history and works it into his narrative without being too cack-handed about it. Can’t speak for the other books, obviously, but for my money that’s a stronger aspect fo this than the central puzzle. Much to think about in both style and content, that’s for sure.
What is it with modern locked rooms using the same old solutions? There is still so much more to be done!
In saying that, an old solution being done in an new way can work as well. Shame it doesn’t here.
For someone who hasn’t read much of this kind of thing, the disappearance of the murderer is offered up in a very fairly-clewed, open-handed way that actually passes by quite subtly. Alas, those of us who do this for (seemingly) a living will spot it from a mile away — in fact, I was convinced it was going to be a false solution, because it screamed at me immediately and I was hoping McKinty had something special up his sleeve.
In terms of new, original solutions…I’m sure there is a lot more to be done, but I also can’t help but feel that most of the really great ones have been done. Michael Bowen’s Washington Deceased has a good impossibility, but in order to work it requires such a high level of technical operation I just found myself tuning out (plus, the style of that books is awful…there had been a lot of skipping, and I just wanted it to be over).
Part of me thinks that the proliferatiof fo technology these days has killed the decent impossible crime. All that seems to be left are sixth-tier also-rans like ‘Murder in Monkeyland’ and ‘Three Blind Rats’ from that second Mike Ashley collection. But, hey, maybe I’m wrong and there’s a belter on the way…
All I needed was the phrase “sex panther” to decide not to read this book, so thanks for that! Most of the rest of it sounds like a hardboiled Mary Sue. Thanks for crossing this one off my list.
With that as your policy, 60% of the time you’ll be right every time…
Ah, you went with white on white for the spoiler text. I had considered that, but thought it could be a problem on phones. Speaking of which – the WordPress reader on my iPhone app doesn’t seem to respect text styles, and so these things all render in black text anyway.
1987 sounds about as late as you could go with an impossible crime if you want it to be thoroughly engaging. My issue with the modern era is that “he was sitting in front of a room full of witnesses 2000 miles away, but killed her by pushing a button on his phone, and there was no evidence because a drone flew by and…” I’m sure writers are coming up with killer puzzles and solutions for modern impossible crimes (although I’m probably being generous in that assumption), but as a reader, I can’t have the possibility of a modern technical solution in the back of my mind. You have to feel that the crime is impossible, and modern technology seems to get in the way of that too much.
I suspect my comment could even stretch back to some time in the late 60s or early 70s. That is one of the core reasons that GAD appeals to me so much. Impossible was possible!
Hadn’t considered the WordPress reader, thanks for bringing that up — maybe I’ll avoid such spoilers in future, but it was something that I realised was bothering me quite a lot after I finished this and wanted to share because usually someone is able to offer an good perspective or justification for these sorts of things. In many ways it’s a minor spoiler anyway, but I’ll bear al this in mind in future.
I’m with you on modern technological impossibilities. Like, I reckon it can be done — somehow — but it might take a lot of working out. Jonathan Creek had a fairly good line on the use of (at the time) modern technology in episodes like Angel Hair, The Seer of the Sands, and Miracle in Crooked Lane, but it’s telling just how many of them could easily be retconned about 80 years without losing too much of their structure or workings. Maybe that’s why the puzzle plot peaked when it did…in fact, that’s a bloody good point. Hmmm, I must go away and consider this…
As I believe I’ve mentioned somewhere today, the use of technology has been the nail in the coffin of at least a couple of short stories: ‘Three Blind Rats’ by Laird Long and ‘Murder in Monkeyland’ by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg are, without a doubt, two of the worst impossible crime stories ever written on account of their use of *ahem* technology. I’m sure there’s a way to do this well, we just need someone to figure it out…
I wouldn’t worry about the wordpress reader – you have the spoilers clearly marked with the opening and closing tags.
I like being able to vent a little in the spoiler section at the end of a write up, or to call out some aspect that I really enjoyed that is a little spoiler laden. I encourage you to do more spoilers in the future (I couldn’t read this one because I haven’t read the book).
Well, plenty of spoilers coming this Saturday…
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You beat me to this one. I read it three weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I heartily agree with the two reviews you cited in at the end of your post. I read any crime novel for its entirety and not just for its plot and the puzzles. I have no idea where you got this “sex panther” nonsense. I’m very attuned to that kind of thing and I guess it utterly eluded me this time. Clearly I was paying attention to other parts of the book that were a lot more interesting and not trying to find fault with McKinty. In fact, I find nothing at all in the book that I can genuinely criticize him for.
You have exceedingly high –probably unattainable– expectations of contemporary crime writers, especially when you feel that they are emulating Golden Age writers and their motifs. An allusion, after all, is only an allusion. Simply because Poirot, Fell, Maigret and Marple are “invoked” doesn’t mean McKinty must outdo them. Why must the bar be set so high every single time? I thought the Chesterton nod was well done. He fooled me if not you. (I obviously missed the well planted clue you mention.) For that, McKinty ought get a gold star! I guarantee you that the majority of his regular readers do not know nor have ever heard of the story that the solution refers to. I’m sure his regular audience was impressed by the simplicity of the solution.
The fate of the murderer to me is a case of perfect irony. You call it a “weird morality”. I guess you mean “eerie” rather than the colloquial sense of weird. And if that is your take on it, then I think that your reaction of “uncomfortableness” is exactly what McKinty intended.
Big bonus for me: reading McKinty got me utterly hooked on the early music of Tom Waits. The title is taken from one of Waits’ songs. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the book. I hadn’t a clue what it referred to until I went a-Googlin’ to solve that mystery, found the song and read the lyrics while listening to it.
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Ha, this is what I love: people reading the same thing and see entirely different responses. I know it’s not a new or even surprising thing, I just really enjoy it.
There is in fact no single story where the murderer’s trick is used — it’s a common enough example that crops up all over the place (the first Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film for one…); but that I had your overview of obscure classics, John — I’m working on it, I promise! — I’m afraid my criticisms along these lines are usually informed by what the average person would most likely know. The clewing is excellent, but the method has been so many times that it’s just a disappointment in such a well-written book.
And, no, I mean ‘weird’ in the sense of ‘what the hell are you doing?’ — the idea of an eye for an eye somehow balancing the books; I dislike the idea that simply having someone murdered is sufficient reparation for their own crime. I think there’s something I hold to about the loss of face inherent in being confronted with immutable proof of their guilt and having no further recourse to avoid the conequences of their actions. Simply shooting them removes this, but I need to get my head around thi to express it more clearly (hence why I mention it — I value these sorts of conversations).
And, really, you can’t see any fault with the last three chapters? Well, again, I think it’s great that you enjoyed this as much as you did — the sex panther nonsense was me being a little facetious, of course, but when the single neightbour dresses up to bring around a cake apropos of nothing and the ten-year younger student he’s shacked up with leaves him because he’s too old and then comes back because he’s so irresistable (you’re certainly given to believe that it’s not just because of…the situation in hose final chapters), there just seems too much of an element of the character’s magnetic attraction that is nowhere else on the page.
Have you read the other impossibilitiy? Is it any good?
Well that shows a lot about how I read a book. I completely dismiss all the parts of a book that don’t matter to me. I had to have my memory prodded. I agree with you about the unrealistic return of the college student girlfriend. Very fickle, isn’t she? I wasn’t impressed with that at all. But I’m never really impressed with what seems to have become a compulsory addition to any series — the personal life of the main character. It’s a contemporary invention borrowed from TV series, IMO. Readers now expect that kind of thing, but I just don’t care about it. Often grow weary of series books because the character’s personal life takes over and the mystery plots fade into the background when I feel it should be the other way around. Much prefer writers who never invent a series character and write one off (“stand alone” I think is the publishing term) mysteries. The story begins and ends with those characters. Paradoxically, that is more satisfying to me.
Yup, I’m with you, which is in part why I’ve neded up in the era I have with my reading: the series was a very different thing back then, with just the occasional mention of a previous book and then — woo! — on with the story of this one.
There is a current author who in 3 of their last five books has had one of the two main series characters in hospital at the end in a life or death struggle only — surprise! — for them to pull through each time. And you kind of want to go, “Er, this doesn’t work after about 14 books…”. But then standalones are a harder sell I guess, because people “aren’t as invested” — sounds ideal to me, but then I’m not in publishing….
Oh, and the Waits song is an epigraph at the start: Oh how we danced with the Rose of Tralee/Her long hair black as a raven/Oh how we danced and she whispered to me/You’ll never be going back home.
Not sure I understand its significance, to be honest…!
Geez Louise, how did I miss that? Before doing my internet search I thought that was a reference to some Irish folk tune and just blipped right over it. Of course now that I’ve heard the song I recognize those words. Had to hear the Waits song to understand the “rain dogs” reference which is a metaphor for all the forgotten misfits of the world. The murder victim has “long hair black as a raven” and if I recall Sean is utterly entranced by her when he first sees her the night of the theft in the Finnish guys’ hotel room. Doesn’t he talk about her hair a lot in those opening chapters? I can’t re-read the opening chapters because I read a library copy of the book. It’s been returned weeks ago.
Not read any of his other books, but I ‘m interested in three of them based on recommendations by George Kelley. Curt Evans said he was going to review that locked room in the pub book (can’t remember the title) back in 2014 but it never appeared on his blog.
Haha, now I’m the one not paying attention — totally missed that about her hair, and I guess the “You’ll never be going back home” line should have given it away, hey?
We should compare notes more often, we’d get a lot more out of these books, it seems!
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I’m sorry it didn’t work for you JJ. Anyway,, thanks for the mention.
Worry not, I don’t hold you responsible! And McKinty does write extremely well, so it’s been nice to experience that, and he’ll probably write something at some future point that I’ll be intrigued enough to try, so it’s far from a complete loss.
How does the impossibility in In the Morning I’ll be Gone compare?
I don’t have your knowledge on impossible crimes, JJ, and probably when I read it it didn’t bother me much but I took it as a homage to GAD. But I’ll be interested on your view if you decide to read it.