Four businessmen are playing their weekly early-morning round of golf when one of them hits his ball into a sand-filled bunker. Taking his next shot from down in the bunker, out of sight of everyone else, not only does he hit the ball straight out of the sand and into the hole (which he cannot see), but when the others approach the bunker to congratulate him they find it empty except for a blood-stained golf club, with no way for their colleague to have vanished without either being seen or leaving obvious traces. Intrigued? You should be…
I can’t quite remember how this came to my attention, but as it’s published by editorial and publicity service iUniverse Star it qualifies for my long-neglected Adventures in Self-Publishing where I search for impossible crime novels unrecognised by trad publishing houses that nevertheless might be worthy of your attention. And, y’know what? This is actually pretty damn good. It has its problems (we’ll get to those) but on the whole it’s of a quality that more self-published novels — hell, more novels full stop — should aspire to, enriched by some very good writing and a nice streak of inventiveness that fills out this wealthy SoCal milieu.
You can see Sheldon selling it on the odd-couple pairing of straight-laced Chief of Police Dan Shepard and terrible artist and general nuisance to society Herman de Portola Bliss as they lock horns, argue, team up, and eventually solve the mystery. It’s not without its cosy aspects in this regard, but Shepard is a slightly more put upon presence than we might anticipate — recently brought in from ‘outside’ to the consternation of a few colleagues, under pressure from the mayor who makes no secret of how much Shepard’s job depends on solving this case — and Bliss is captured beautifully in descriptions like
The furrows that fifty-six years had carved into his face added to the image, but Bliss no longer minded. If he needed to nurture his love of beauty, he looked at his art, not in the mirror.
Or exchanges such as:
“He exposed himself to a group of congressmen!”
Bliss shrugged, “They were Republicans.”
Around Bliss’ neck, then, hangs the sense of making this more of a caper — there will be impersonation of a police officer, breaking an entering, several arrests, a game of tennis, and more than a few obscure proclamations in the style of the Great Detective before we’re done — but it’s done with such a pure heart and a sense of enjoyment behind it all that you can’t really hold it against Sheldon for taking this approach. It’s fun, it moves at a good lick, and while I can’t comment in the originality of the disappearance (I can give at least two examples of the same sort of thing, but not with these precise…workings) you certainly don’t feel that Sheldon is lazily repeating something he read elsewhere: the golfing milieu is used very well, and while I’m not sure there are clues as such, you can certainly look back over things come the end and see how it was indicated in the text (yes, this sounds like clewing, but it’s not really…you’ll have to read it to see what I mean).
The impossible disintegration is well-worked and well-motivated, too, which is often something where more modern takes on the subgenre fall down. There’s a slew of last-minute information that makes the full motive of the guilty party all but impossible to fathom in advance, but at least S.S. van Dine would be happy to see a few of his rules observed to the letter. There’s also one element it shares in common with one of Carr’s less-heralded early titles that may not delight the purist, but I’m willing to give Sheldon a pass on this — seriously, he does a great job straddling the cozy mystery, impossible crime, eccentric sleuth, stern authority figure, and small town small-mindedness tropes that we might expect to drag the whole enterprise down (he even works in some clever threads about the wider community without stalling the enterprise even slightly), and what emerges is an inventive, richly-realised, and unusual detective story.
I especially like the added detail of the near-impossible golf shot that our vanishee makes before evaporating. In and of itself it isn’t impossible, but the fact that the shot had to be made in order to add to the overall effect of the vanishing give it at least a borderline impossible edge…and while others may consider the solution to this a little obvious, there’s again a nice form of foreshadowing that doesn’t quite fall into clewing but nevertheless made me very happy once it was spelled out. It works extremely well as a plot thread here, but would equally make a beautiful short story in its own right. In fact, I could believe Sheldon would make a very good short story writer if the itch ever got to him again (alas, this is his only fiction publication) and if he had another manuscript sitting on his computer I’d love to read more from him…provided he worked on the biggest flaw here: his characters.
Because the one problem a lot of people will have with this is that beyond Bliss no other character really emerges beyond Shepard playing music and the mayor being…a mayor. And it would actually be fine if there didn’t seem to be some late addition single-paragraph horrors of this ilk:
Amy smiled, obviously pleased. Most of the drudgework at the station fell to her. She put in long hours, despite being a single mom with a nine-year-old boy, and rarely got much recognition for her mostly menial efforts. Shepard knew she felt good playing a part in the investigation.
That, incidentally, being the only time we’re ever really told anything about Amy except that she’s in a room and/or sitting at a desk. But then Sheldon manages some quite wonderful turns of phrase, too, like…
Violence no longer respected such geographical niceties. These days the wolf howled at every door.
…and these definitely outnumber the cloth-eared characterisation points you sort of feel he was poorly-advised to add in…though these really are the only outright negative aspect I can find to criticise this on.
So, I have found a very strong impossible crime novel that was self-published — go me! And, indeed, my immense respect to Lee Sheldon for what he’s achieved here. I can recommend this fully to anyone who is intrigued by the setup, and equally to anyone requiring any proof that self-published works can compete with more traditionally-achieved ends. This by no means spells the end of these Adventures, though; if anything, having proved that there are two authors out there who have done this well off their own backs — let’s not forget Matt Ingwalson, who started this whole enterprise of mine off — I’m even more determined to find more.
Publisher’s Weekly: Taking charge of the investigation, Dan Shepard, the easygoing new chief of the Carmel City (Calif.) police department, finds himself reluctantly playing Watson to Bliss, who has a natural gift for detective work. While some people want Wagner’s murderer found, others don’t. Since Shepard is new to the area, everyone keeps a dubious eye on the chief’s performance, and Bliss doesn’t make his job easier. A witty and graceful style, an unusual cast of characters and a mystery that baffles up to the last page bode well for future puzzlers from Sheldon. If this isn’t the start of a series, it should be.