#275: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #3: The Secrets of Gaslight Lane (2016) by M.R.C. Kasasian

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A late-Victorian private detective living in London who exhibits such traits as brilliant deductive skills (highlighted especially in his observations about strangers), a brusque and pompous manner, the application of reason and logic in all his encounters with crime, and a singular lack of personal relationships with anyone beyond his household, the members of the police he encounters, and his chronicler.  Sound familiar?

And, of course, he has that glass eye, too.  Wait, what?

So, yes, Sidney Grice is very much cast in the Sherlock Holmes mould, but M.R.C. Kasasian has to be commended in going out of his way to make Grice very much his own man rather than simply relying on a familiarity with Conan Doyle’s Great Detective.  There are moments that round out his character and personality perfectly — the chapter in which he directs a hansom cab driver through London in a hideously dense fog is a particular highlight — and Kasasian commits fully to that brusque and pompous manner, too.  ‘Cos, well, Sidney Grice is an arsehole.

Piers Morgan

My blogging software put this photo here and will not let me delete it.

I mean, that’s sort of the point, and it feeds perfectly into the late-Victorian setting, but dude this book is exactly 500 pages long and Grice can be hard work at times.  He is a very plausible, era-appropriate high Tory — “all sweep away the poor” and “we’re too easy on the lower classes” — and enables Kasasian to explore some of the attitudes and ideals of this era, and it actually falls in neatly to his straight-ahead detection even if at times you feel yourself tiring of his excessive precision:

“Though the catches on the window are self-locking, these,” he lifted the padlocks off, “are not.”

“No sir.”

“That was not a question.”

“No sir.”

“Neither was that.”

Inevitably, then, there must be some counter-weight to all this curmudgeonly sharpness, and it comes in the shape of the excessively modern Millie that is Grice’s youthful legal ward, god-daughter, and chronicler, March Middleton.  In a way these two balance each other out, as she is far too progressive to exist in this society and so her snappy comebacks and blithe disregard for those (male) members of society who think her crazy for training as a detective does feel a little forced.  However, that both are anachronisms in their own way helps keep the balance tipping back and forth and contributes to the general sense of calamity and disorganisation that pervades things here.

Which is not to imply in any way that it’s a bad book, far from it, but your enjoyment of this will be aided if you’re prepared for the changes in tone that take you from the personal comedy of Grice’s malapropism-spouting maid (“Sorry sir,” she panted, “I rememberered what you said about one ring for come immediantely, two for a tray of tea and three for your insularated bottle.” She struggled for breath. “Only Cook thought she heard four rings and said that could mean two trays of tea or come immediantely four times.”) to the stark horror of a family slaughtered in the house and then a man tortured slowly to death in bed in the same house ten years later.  Honestly, kind of reads like a meta-examination of Victorian sensation literature from this era, and given Kasasian’s obvious enthusiasm for this era (once again, it’s five hundred pages long) I’m not sure that isn’t deliberate.

We are here today, though, to discuss the fact that while all the murders above happen in a sealed house, the in the second instance the body is found alone, with the weapon elsewhere, in a room where the windows are closed and the door bolted on the inside.  Evidence pointing to each of the household staff is scattered in the manner of so many red herrings — a weapon in one room, bloody clothes in another, etc — but the small matter of how the killer got in, killed, and got out again is obviously paramount.  And 500 pages, plus an obvious geeking out over and knowledge of the trappings of this time and society, provides a lot of scope for the working up of a lot of clever clewing and some appropriately devious ideas.

Now, with all its length, this book exemplifies what I tend to think of as mirror plotting: that is, the first issue raised in the narrative is the last thing resolved, the second problem encountered is the penultimate thing resolved, the third strand is the antepenultimate resolution…and so on.  That’s not strictly true, but it’s hoves close enough to support the point I wish to make, which is that the cues are in place once the location of the crime has been visited…and then nothing else is needed (or indeed added) until 350 pages later when we get the solution.  And as solutions go it’s…basic.  Motive and execution are flawlessly worked together, but the actual mechanics are two tropes you could probably name right now.

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And that’s a shame, because if you can get on board with the richness of Kasasian’s world building this is a very, very enjoyable book.  It’s not really designed to have the impossibility as its focus, since you don’t even know it is a locked room problem until well after Grice has been hired and called into Scotland Yard to see his detective nemesis — contrast it with Impossible Bliss by Lee Sheldon from last week in this regard, where the impossibility is on page two, or indeed any other novel of detection where the focus steadfastly remains on the how of the crime.  Here, Kasasian is far more interested, and I can’t say I blame him, in addressing many of the other issues and representations of the people in this era.  He writes superbly, juggling those contrasting tones mentioned above with a real adroitness, and anyone who has an interest in this type of story from this type of era is highly recommended to check out this and, one presumes, the other books in this series (this is the fourth).

So, well, impossible crime fans need not apply, but all you normal people out there could well be about to discover your new favourite author.  It’s unlikely you’ll hear about Kasasian on here again unless another impossibility crops up, but I will definitely be putting him down on my lists of future reads (yes, lists plural; it is a multi-faceted series of considerations).  You are very welcome, and I hope you enjoy the experience!

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See also

Crime Review: What is so refreshing about the Gower Street series is that they are never quite what you expect – these unusual originals stand out in what is a heavily populated genre. Never pompous, but clever, beautifully written, with some mesmerising characters, humour and pathos, all set in the murk, filth, and thick fogs of late 19th century London, they are always well put together mystery tales for those who want a little more from their Victorian whodunit.

Historical Novel Society: This series is reminiscent of Dickens and Lemony Snicket with reminders of Sherlock Holmes. The writing is funny, witty, and macabre, and the characters are eccentric and quirky. Sidney Grice is very precise and rigid in his ways. He is rude, blunt, and completely lacking in charm, and prides himself on not being encumbered by human emotion. Like Holmes, no detail goes unnoticed by Sidney Grice.

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Previous Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat attempts:

1. Murder in the Oval Office (1989) by Elliott Roosevelt

2. First Class Murder (2015) by Robin Stevens

16 thoughts on “#275: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #3: The Secrets of Gaslight Lane (2016) by M.R.C. Kasasian

  1. Ah, I was surprised to see a “Gower Street” novel fall into your reviewing radar… Having read the first two entries, I wasn’t expecting you to pick a Kasasian novel up. I enjoyed them – much more than I thought I would a mystery novel of their lengths. I usually despair when a mystery novel goes beyond 300 pages – currently reading a novel by Reginald Hill, and it seems like Dalziel and Pascoe have barely begun to scratch the surface at page 323. 😦

    Anyway, I enjoyed the first two “Gower Street” novels, for the reasons you mentioned. They strike me to be just about sufficiently, even if somewhat loosely, classically-clued, while maintaining an interest in setting and characterisation. Perhaps the key thing keeping me going with them despite their length would be the short chapters. 😀

    • I have this weird response to the lengths of books; anything up to about 300 pages I’m fine with, then from 300-500 I have my doubts, and 500+ I’m back on board…maybe it’s all the SF I read, where a 300 page novel does it decently and a 600 page one usually does it immersively, but in between they tend to prevaricate and maunder a lot. Hmm, a reflection there for another time…

      I’d never even heard of these books until I stumbled across this in my library a few weeks ago, and I like you was encouraged by the seemingly short chapters (I’ve returned it now, but I seem to remember this having 103 of them). The focus is probably less on the mystery than I would have liked, but I don;t feel Kasasian is ever realy wasting your time just to fill out the pages; he strikes me as very genuinely excitable about this era dn the trappings thereof, and it’s almost like hes trying to correct a few misconceptions about how these times are now viewed in less well-researched historical novels or TV shows (I’m guessing here, of course, but the rishness of what he does is motivated by more than just nerdy joy, I’m sure). I’ll go back to that start and try the first one but — as I say — unless there’s another impossible crime in there somewhere theyy’re unlikely to appear here again; gott keep up the purity of this exercise for a couple of years at least… 😛

      • “The focus is probably less on the mystery than I would have liked, but I don;t feel Kasasian is ever realy wasting your time just to fill out the pages…”

        Yes, I definitely agree here, and I guess the saving grace for me is that despite wanting more focus on the puzzle, the solutions for the first two novels strike me to be slightly better clued than expected. Was this the case for ‘Secrets of Gaslight Lane’?

        With the Reginald Hill novel I’m reading, I’ve finally passed the 450-page-mark – with about 100 pages to go. The focus never really dips too far away from the mystery, but I don’t seem to feel like much headway is made in terms of actually developing the puzzle. Apart from the first two ‘Gower Street’ novels, the only other two occasions where I didn’t mind my mystery novel extending beyond 300 pages were Hans Olav Lahlum’s ‘Human Flies’ and Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Magpie Murders’. I think if I had to read a 600-page mystery novel, I would remain comatose throughout… 😛 Unless it’s ‘Bleak House’? But that’s not really a puzzle.

        • The locked room murder in particular had some very strong clewing, yes, though it happened about 400 pages prior to the solution so I’d sort of forgotten it by the time I got there — if this is a feature of the series (the good clewing, I mean) then I’m definitely looking forward to reading more.

          Magpie Murders, don’t forget, is more like two books than one…so the length is allowable on those grounds 😀

        • Much as I enjoyed ‘Magpie Murders’ very much, I thought the book-within-the-book was great; the frame was good at best… But yes, the fact that it contained two tales meant that I was willing to go along with the entire length, though I confess that the frame wore me down faster than the tale-within-the-tale.

          • I liked how the framing story confounded certain exepectations in how it worked in the whole setup, but to say too much more would be spoilerific. As a plot in and of itself I agree that it would have lacked for compellig aspects, but (for me) the way it was worked in to the “novel” was genius and more than jusified its structuring in that way.

  2. I’m another who has grown deeply suspicious of any mystery running to such a page count, although I think I’ve sounded off on that issue before and it doesn’t do to make too many trips to the same well. Suffice to say I’m adding this title to my virtual list of books to read at some stage as I am keen to sample material from current writers that’s of interest.

    • Yeah, I’m fitting these more modern books between classic-era stuff because I’m aware of the risk of becoming a little jaded with just how lacking some of them can be (case in point, John Verdon’s Think of a Number — a book I did not care for), especially as there’s a tendency towards concept over content. I’m generally a shorter mystery kinda guy, much like yourself, but the odd foray doesn’t hurt, and the next modern one I have lined up is 244 A-format pages and so likely to swish by in a heatbeat or twelve. A couple of weeks of short, classic mysteries will follow now, and then back on this horse for another go…

  3. Really appreciate you continue to brave these modern-day detective stories in an attempt to find me an honest-to-god good locked room mystery. So far, you’ve not reached your destination. I would probably like the Victorian setting and historical material, but the plot and page-count is not exactly inviting. Just like Colin, I have grown deeply suspicious of (modern) crime novels bloated beyond the three-hundred page mark. It usually is an indication that they have very little, if any, plot. So why read them?

    On a side note, glad to see your started reading The Three Investigators! Let me know if you want any recommendations.

    • If I can dig up even one excellent locked room novel from the last decade, I think a lot of people will benefit form knowing it exists; of course, my selection criteria may be flawed and I could have already passed over something amazing…but I doubt it. Somewhere out there is a brilliant modern locked room that’s gone unheralded because the subgenre has fallen from favour, and I’m gonna find it, dammit!

      I have most of the first 27 Three Investigators books (I’m missing #4, #9. #18, and #24) and will probably put up somehting about them as the spirirt takes me, depending on what impossibilities or other justifcations crop up…might even do something on the first one, actually, which I finished yesterday. I remember your review of The Mystery of the Shrinking House and was disappointed to find that was one of the titles missing here, but let’s see what other wonders crop up in the meantime…

      • What a pity you missed out on acquiring The Mystery of the Shrinking House. It has a pleasantly dense and intricate plot with a locked room mystery tucked away in the final half of the book. I would definitely recommend keeping an eye out for a copy.

        The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy is also great and has an impossible situation when the titular mummy begins to mumble in front of Jupiter in closed room. Nobody was near to case to throw their voice and the possibility of radio transmitter was eliminated. The actual solution seemed questionable at first, but an internet search revealed this trick was definitely possible in the 1960s.

        The Secret of Skeleton Island (which has a great historical mystery sub-plot) and The Mystery of the Headless Horse are two other favorites of mine.

        • Noted, for which many thanks. I’m torn whether to read the ones I have and then fill in the gaps or whether to track down the missing ones and do the full run chronologically. This is not a problem anyone else can really help me with, I just mention it since we’re chatting an’ all…

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