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.
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.”
“That was not a question.”
“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.
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!
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.
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: