Part of the fun of blogging over the last couple of years is the way it has encouraged me to take on books I may ordinarily not have, a facet of that being my (it must be said, occasional) attempts to find something from the modern era that will satisfy the bloodlust of my fellow impossible crime expert — very much the Holmes to my Lestrade — TomCat. So with one disappointing boat-centric impossibility under my (life)belt this week already, how does this hold up?
Weird as it sounds, the best way to figure out your response to this book is to start at the end. The final five pages, see, is a glossary of sailing terms that, unlike probably every other glossary I’ve ever read, is not too self-serious. If definitions like “Deck: what on land would be called floor” or “Swamp: When the boat fills with water and sinks. An outcome strictly to be avoided” strike you as just the right balance of humour and rigour then this is probably the droid you’re looking for. Tonally we’re in that slightly awkward early-90s phase of wry-yet-serious that (ahem) sinks so many books of this ilk for me, but D’Amato has a good eye for humour and character, and manages to strike the threshold well, and maintain it admirably once the dead body turns up.
This is important because the dead body — thrown at you in the prologue — doesn’t actually appear in the narrative proper until just past the halfway mark, and while there’s inevitably a certain amount of preparation going on, you’re hopefully not going to twig to most of it and so there’s always the risk of disinterest settling in. Thankfully, D’Amato is a very able writer:
“Tell me Bret,” he said, “all the time I know you, I guess we’ve been too busy for a good talk. Is Bret Falcon your real name or a stage name?”
“Oh, a stage name, of course,” Bret answered, so nonchalantly that anyone with a soul would have known he didn’t want to discuss it. “About the film of Off–“
Anyone but Chuck. “So what is your real name, Bret?”
The majority of the action takes place on a millionaire’s sloop, where freelance journalist Cat Marsala has been invited in order to write a piece about the wealthy and their habits. Not exactly an al fresco girl, our Cat, and from blue-collar stock who “had a sneaking belief that the rich were different. But at the same time they had a sneaking belief that the rich were just like everybody else — except luckier, or maybe less honest”, she’s very aware of her status as an outsider. Nevertheless, she’s not one to force some principle between herself and hosts who seem genuinely invested in her relaxing and enjoying herself, even if a weekend on a boat out of sight of land isn’t the ideal setting for someone who cannot swim:
Over the bulge of the life preserver I could see my feet dangling down. They hung there as if they were suspended in space. Below them, the water went on down and down and down.
And down and down and down.
I pictured myself sinking through that clear water. Down, falling slowly, turning over and over, slowly. Hair trailing like seaweed. Sinking beyond the sun’s rays, into the twilight, deep down. Then darker and darker, sinking slowly into eternal gloom Settling softly into the sandy bottom in the dark, cold — the dark cold —
My teeth chattered. I thought I was going to be sick.
It’s in the slow build of tension and horror in this nominal paradise that D’Amato really sells the first half of the book, the flashes of less-than-perfect descried along the way — such as two people in a weekend party of twelve on a 62-foot boat always being contrived apart by their hosts — that work without any awkward jarring against perfect sunny boat decks and beautiful rich people relaxing in the way beautiful rich people do. In grand tradition, we’re clearly building towards something.
Once the storm passes and the body is discovered, it becomes clear just in how much of a classically-styled whodunnit we’ve found ourselves: this is a country house murder, our group isolated and therefore containing a killer, just in a much smaller country house than we’re used to, and with an impossibility that makes even less sense given the context.
So this is what we’re here for: how does that impossibility hold up? Well, look, let’s address an unspoken thing here — part of this trawl through more modern swings at the impossible crime is trying to identify something that has sufficient scope or invention to intrigue In my heart of hearts, I don’t honestly believe I’ll find something from the 1990s to rival the best of the 1930s and 40s, but it would be lovely if that happened. So, yeah, my expectations are perhaps a little lower, but nevertheless I really enjoyed it here — it’s amazing just how much of the classic form this is written in: it’s essentially an alibi problem, with all manner of unforeseen events simply building to create an even more insoluble problem. What we’re left with is a man found with his throat cut in a room to which there is no access from unobserved directions and which was observed from all other points near-constantly. The internal geography is perfectly prepared for, you’re not being cheated out of anything in that regard, and the problem is beautifully parsed once finally encountered.
What I especially enjoyed was how D’Amato is prepared for the old, hoary tricks the subgenre has played over time. I can’t say this is completely original, but it does have a good idea of what has come before — witness the quite thrillingly technical medical discussion that’s handled oh-so-lightly upon first unveiling of the body in order to preclude the creaking old goat that is “the person who ‘discovered’ the dead body killed them at the moment of discovery”. And then, immediately upon this, the explicit statement of the sort of misdirection less confident hands would fumble because that turns out to be the answer…D’Amato is wise to the tricks of the genre, and approaches her initial stages of detection with a pleasing and impressive rigour.
Things then continue in the same vein, only now we have a murderer on board, and the character work in that first half comes into play, paying off with a sequence of sustain tension that works all the more effectively for its coming upon you unexpectedly, so I shall say no more about it. The subtle shifts in mood here are hardly unexpected — paradise poisoned has been done too many times to count — but, as I said above, the way the later horrors are prepared for with smaller knocks and little fears is very, very smart writing. I shall read more D’Amato based on this experience, because her manner of holding tight on the tone of her story is simply superb.
And then the solution is, thankfully, as canny as the novel that precedes it. I really like what she does here, and the scheme is especially well thought through from the perspective of the guilty party — one of the key complaints against impossible crimes of this ilk is “But…didn’t it all come off rather conveniently well?”…well, D’Amato is ahead of you there. This is quite a little gem — no modern masterpiece, but an unheralded delight akin to Leonardo’s Law (1978) by Warren B. Murphy in the “Hang on, this is much, much better than it has any right to be…” stakes.
So I was all prepared to recommend this as a fun, well-structred modern take on the impossible crime, and it turns out that TomCat has already bloody read it. But there’s no reason why any of the rest of you shouldn’t also read it. I mean, I’m assuming other people read these posts as well…
Barry Ergang @ GADetection Wiki: As I have mentioned elsewhere, impossible crime stories — which category subsumes locked-room puzzles — are my favorite types of mysteries, whether sedate or hardboiled. I’m a sucker for them, though unfortunately some of them suck. Hard Tack is not one of those. I found it quite entertaining, even if the locked-room murder method, when finally revealed, strained credulity as many such methods are wont to do. Cat Marsala’s first-person narration is lively, leavened with humor that’s sometimes sassy but seldom snarky, and maintains a good pace. (I knew I liked her when, in the first chapter, she said she had packed two novels to take along on the trip: John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins and The Judas Window.)
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: