“There is no suspense in a bang,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “only in the anticipation of it.” This applies to Stacey Bishop’s sole detective novel because, well, it wasn’t a book a sizeable proportion of GAD readers were aware even existed until Locked Room International conjured this reprint fittingly out of the ether — when John Norris at Pretty Sinister hasn’t read it, you know it’s rare. As such, the gleeful anticipation of its release was undercut somewhat by the fact that we hadn’t even heard of it, and so there’s no weight of expectation: we are free, in this connected age of everything being on demand and everything being remembered, to come into this entirely without preconceptions.
We’re told at the start that there are three murders and one attempted murder, each of them with impossible overtones: in complete darkness, unseen in front of a crowd, when the victim is alone for solidly 80 feet in every direction and behind locked door to boot…frankly it’s a palooza of impossibilities that should set the heart racing in spite of any desire to come to it objectively. Additionally, Bishop — pseudonym of George Antheil — wrote the thing as a sort of bitchy roman a clef to get back at people who had wronged him, so there should also be an element of scapegracey and sharpened claws behind the veil of story. More’s the better.
Now, full disclosure: at the time of posting there is approximately 29 hours between me and my summer holiday, and I am physically and mentally worn out to a degree that I shall not begin to describe. I mention this because I think it might play a part in that fact that I did not enjoy this book. The plot itself is fine, but the writing is so abominably turgid that I struggled to get through this, and while a full page of our narrator “Stacey Bishop” expounding on the virtues of modern girls at the local swimming baths gives a tremendous insight into the society of the time, too little of this sort of lively prose is in evidence. There’s a great 50 page novella here, but also another 120 pages of just…stuff.
And most of that stuff displays a frank disinterest in the construction of a decent detective plot. The first crime is fine, and there are a refreshingly broad range of possible solutions posited (though the jumbling of threads prevents any real appreciation of the structure — a problem throughout), but as we go on, Bishop loses interest in his setting up for the problems. The second murder just sort of happens in the middle of a chapter, and the third one is so suddenly dropped in — no proper visit to the crime scene, no case made for the staggeringly impossible nature of what has occurred — and then the (disappointingly dull) solution revealed with a retrospectively disinterested “Oh, yeah, so I discovered earlier that it was done like this”. Also, how in the hell did no-one…do the thing that would make this solution so plain? It’s so blatantly not even mentioned that you assume it’s hanging as a red herring so a character can go “Chuff, chuff, Watson, of course we…” but, nope, no-one does, and that’s the answer.
Additionally, the repetition. Ye gods, the repetition. The discussion, the time charts, the further discussion, the writing of poems to lay out the information…for all Antheil’s invention, we’re just being told the exact same information in several different ways. Nothing added, nothing taken away, mere authorly showing off because — I can’t help but feel — that’s more what Antheil was interested in. It reminds me of the first two Ellery Queen books (perhaps unsurprising, given its era and locale) in its dull restatement of simple things, but at least Dannay and Lee were able to conjure up an affecting crime scene in The French Powder Mystery, or a sense of escalating panic and confusion in The Roman Hat Mystery. Most of what transpires herein is too loosey-goosey in its intent. And then we’re told about it. And some people discuss it. And the we’re told about it again, but in a poem. And have I mentioned the repetition?
I have in this subgenre a somewhat edacious nature, and am now attuned to the fact that more than a few solutions will be disappointing in one way or another. If the preceding book is well written, I’m on board; originality is desired, but by not means essential. Assuming I finish it, a poorly-written book can be elevated by an original solution, but here we just have answers that might work and someone confessing to them so we know that’s how it was done. I actually like the chutzpah of the second murder the most, but calling it a staggering bafflement is generous, and getting to it sooner would have increased my enthusiasm. And yet I feel the desire to like this book, possibly at least in part because I know the efforts John Pugmire will have gone to in order to bring back a long-neglected piece of work in an area I enthuse about on a near-daily basis.
Martin Edwards’ introduction is as superbly well-written and informative as we’ve come to expect, but the real coup is Mauro Piccinini’s afterword, which paints the whole enterprise in a most illuminating hue and offers a glimpse of what should be a wonderfully deviant form of literary vengeance. And yet, not to be. The excitement over, say, the translation of Noel Vindry’s The Howling Beast was entirely vindicated, and it’s wonderful to have something discarded back in print in this connected age where everything is on demand and nothing is forgotten — the unavailability of classic GAD texts being, you might be aware, something of a bugbear of mine — but I’m afraid this one doesn’t work for me.
Ah, well, ever onwards…
John Norris @ Pretty Sinister: Over the course of the book the impossibilities are each dealt with individually with each solution presented as it is discovered rather than revealed in the concluding chapter as with most detective novels. The problem of a key left in the locked door of the Denny apartment is oddly the one problem that is not explained until the novel’s end. The jail cell murder — the most ingenious of the three crimes — is surprisingly solved almost immediately but having its roots in more pulp fiction gimmickry the bizarre method adds another incongruous element of the absurd to the overarching somber tone.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: I also appreciated the ways in which the problems were approached, which on one occasion strayed off the well beaten track. There’s the customary interviews, theorizing and the compilation of several fact sheets (graded facts, time charts and a floor plan), but in addition to these Bayard wrote “poems” for all three impossible shootings explaining why they’re so damned impossible. They add to the overall peculiarity and oddness of the book. Still, the tabulations and “poems” also bring clarity to the complex plot by placing all of the known facts and clues in an ordered list.