#312: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #4: Hard Tack (1991) by Barbara D’Amato


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?”

192865The 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.

Hard Tack plan small

Floorplan ahoy!

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.

hard20tackThings 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…


See also:

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.)


19 thoughts on “#312: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #4: Hard Tack (1991) by Barbara D’Amato

  1. I’m a Barbara D’Amato fan too — ever since her first book, “The Hands of Healing Murder”, which is an impossible crime. (I grant you not a very good one, but original and interesting, and she got better later on.) I had the pleasure of meeting her … she disembarked from her cruise ship in Vancouver and made her way to the only mystery bookstore in town. That kind of sums up her affection for the genre and especially the Golden Age; she reads them just as assiduously as we do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ooo, does she have any other impossibilities hiding in her (somewhat vast, I notice) bibliography? The manner of her writing is entertaining enough that I’d love to track down more of her work, and if it’s an impossible crime then more’s the better…


      • I dimly recall that her second book, The Eyes On Utopia Murders, is also an impossible crime (and not a very good one). Both her first two books were paperback originals AFAIK and may be hard to find. She has not been fortunate in attracting publishing contracts over the years — to the best of my knowledge, the Cat Marsala mysteries were paperback originals written for Worldwide, a subsidiary of Harlequin. They surfaced and died, even though at least one of them was close to an Anthony/Macavity award. Someone needs to reprint her from scratch.


        • …to the best of my knowledge, the Cat Marsala mysteries were paperback originals written for Worldwide, a subsidiary of Harlequin.

          Interesting, then, if these were such a short run, that there appear to be three different covers — even allowing one for the US market and another for the UK, that would still imply that it got a second, distinct print run somewhere at some time.

          I don’t know what my point is, I’m just making it.


  2. If I recall correctly, I read Hard Tack a year before I began blogging and was not blown away by it. The locked room trick is decent enough, even somewhat original, but it was stuck in a story that failed to grabbed my attention. I clearly remember being quite bored with the whole book. Maybe this could have been a classical 90s impossible crime story had it been shortened to a novella or short story.

    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.

    What about Paul Halter and Edward Hoch? And I’m sure some good locked room mysteries were published in Japan during the 90s. Have you read William DeAndrea’s 1990 novel Killed on the Rocks? It has a no-footprints situation in the snow and a haunted television set. In my opinion, it’s a good one and might be that good impossible crime story from the 90s that you’re looking for.


    • Yeah, actual impossible plot-wise there’s a superb novella in here, it’s true. Maybe it would be more highly regarded had it been shortened, but I enjoy its commitment to playing out in a limited setting with a limited cast and a limited number of options. For sheer classic styling, it’s pretty tip-top.

      And, you’re right, I wasn’t sufficiently clear: I meant in this style of semi0cosy muystery that emerged in (pretty much exclusively) American crime fiction about this time. Halter and his Japanese contemporaries obviously vie for the top spot in my affections, but I was reflecting more on this sort of Resnicow-esque “mystery with lots of character work” of which this (and ol’ Herb Resnicow) is about as archetypal as they come.

      My reasoning here si that the crime fiction focus had moved from plot to character ince the 1960s, and was stuck in a bit of a nadir in the 1990s. The typical response seems to’ve been recycling a few hoary ideas from 50+ years back in the hope nobody would know them and then cobble some interesting/exotic/professional setting around (the White House! A millionaire’s boat! A bakery!) to provide the “real” interet for the modern audience. Doubtless some gems got through…but then that’s what I’m searching for here anyway so obviously I believe that!

      The DeAndrea is on my TBB, but thanks for pointing it out (again — I got the recommendation from your site). All in due course….


  3. I’m not sure if D’Amato knew of or has read DEATH UNDER SAIL by C. P. Snow, but this sounds like an updated rewrite of that 1930s mystery. You ought to find a copy and compare the two. It truly sounds very much like Snow’s mystery novel at least in where and how the murder takes place and the use of misdirection and ingenious plotting structure. Anyway, I highly recommend Snow’s novel regardless of its amazingly coincidental similarities.

    One of the better locked room mystery writers of the 1970s-1980s was Phillips Lore. He wrote at least two I know of and MURDER BEHIND CLOSED DOORS is definitely the better of the two. Maybe that’s another one you might want to track down.


    • Hmmmm, I’m intrigued; having checked out the synopsis of Death Under Sail they don’t sound the same at all beyond the boating setting, but I trust your perspective on this, John…I shall flag it for future reference. Though, of course, but doing that I’m bound to have forgotten this one when I eventually get round to DUS 🙂

      And Lore isn’t a name I’d heard before, so thanks for raising that. A brief internet sweep of the usual places shows no sign of Murder Behind Closed Doors, but it’s in the memory banks and I’ll keep on watching and hoping. I am greatly obliged, thank-you.

      Out of interest, what was the other Lore impossibility? Might as well watch out for both of them….!


      • I found more than ten copies for sale. Where do you look? I’ll send you the info and a hyperlink to the cheapest one I found. All of them are US dealers, of course, because it was only published in the US.


  4. I’ll second TomCat’s mention of Hoch producing original locked rooms and impossibilities in the 1990s – admittedly only in short stories, but such great short stories– but if you want a more modern humorous locked room mystery – may I direct you to DVD Extras Include: Murder by Nev Fountain? Sort of an impossible version of Three Act Tragedy, sort of… One of the books that got me blogging.


      • Duly corrected, and thanks for the pointer. Believe it or not, that Fountain book was in a charity shop round the corner from me for aaaages…it’s a distinctly memorable title, so I recall it most vividly. Said shop has, alas, shut down, so I doubt the book is there any more, but I’ll certainly remember it if I stumble across it elsewhere.

        And, yeah, Hoch is someone I need to get to, your most recent review of his has definitely spurred me on in that regard. But most of the Hawthorne anthologies aren’t available except through secondhand sellers in the UK…most frustrating, especially since virtually all his other books and collections seem to be. What gives?!


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