#325: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Impossible Mysteries: The Message in a Bottle (2017) by Merapi Omnut

Message in a Bottle

For reasons that are not entirely clear — he is not mentioned in the synopsis, nor the single review of this item at the time of writing (which is itself a single word — “Read” — whose tense is undetermined), nor used as a “For fans of…” comparison — this title appears when you search for Paul Halter on the world’s largest website of buying anything.  And it happens to be a self-published impossible crime story, so why wouldn’t I buy it?  The question is, should you?

In short, no.

I’m aware how difficult it is to write a book, and I have no desire to trample on anyone’s hopes or good intentions, but if the intent of these Adventures in Self-Publishing is to find laudable works featuring impossible crimes that have reached a public audience through a non-traditional route, this represents as big a step backwards from Impossible Bliss (2001) as it’s possible to take.  It’s not even worth getting angry about.  I almost can’t quite summon the energy to write this because it doesn’t seem right that I put more thought into this story critiquing it than the author did when conceiving, writing, and publishing it.

The plot runs approximately thus: a man in America is walking his dog on the beach one morning when it runs out into the surf and returns carrying a bottle in its mouth.  Espying some interesting-looking contents of said bottle, yer man opens it and discovers a letter claiming to have been thrown into the sea off the English coast some hundred (or something) years ago.  Interesting enough, but the letter also mentions him — the man whose dog has randomly found this in the water — by name, and so he gets non-specific journalist Jasmin Jones on the case to find out what’s going on.  Why her?  For the obvious reason that she’s the narrator of the story, which is the sort of circular reasoning that abounds throughout, and she manages to turn this puff piece into a trip across the Atlantic and a fateful meeting with destiny…

At least, that’s what I think is intended.  She meets Dr. Marcus Steinbeck, they exchange toe-curlingly awful dialogue, some things happen, they come to the conclusions that the answer requires, solve the mystery, and end up apparently in love.  After reading the progression of this relationship, I shall never again scoff at any shoe-horned GAD romance subplot, nor the fact that Jack Reacher ends up sleeping with the first moderately attractive woman he meets in every book, nor any form of inter-personal connection formed by any two characters no matter how unlikable, poorly-motivated, and lacking in discernible traits they may be.  From dialogue that thinks saying something bordering on the hateful counts as flirting to shenanigans like accidentally walking in on someone when they’re naked in the shower, all the “Well, this shows progression of their mutual antagonism towards affection” targets are set up, aim is taken, and then something else is shot instead.


The only way to get through this is with cute dog pictures…

And the more I read, the more I found to irritate me, which isn’t like me at all.  When it’s asserted that a PhD in Psychology is qualification enough to lecture university Mathematics (possibly some statistical modelling, at a push…)…I should let that go, as it has no bearing on the plot, but it’s emblematic of the nonsense that pervades into every single corner of this.  And I think that’s my gravamen here: there’s no single element of the plot where some basic idea isn’t malapplied — even Steinbeck being an authority on psychology, the academic discipline of applying principles of behaviour to large groups of people, gets turned into pop-psychological “Your body language tells me you’re feeling awkward” and “Now I’m a human lie detector” nonsense.

The easiest way to get through this is, I think, an annotated bullet-pointed list.  With apologies to Merapi Omnut, there will be spoilers…but the only way I can make sense of this experience is to lay it all out there in the hope that it gives me some closure.  Non-specific hints will not, I’m afraid, cover this.  And so…

  • Even simple punctuation goes awry

When speech attribution interrupts the dialogue there’s simply a speech mark and then the attribution or action, with no intervening comma.  Ever.  So you get this:

“Thanks” I said somewhat in trepidation.

But this happens without fail throughout and is therefore clearly intentional, like it’s some sort of experimental narrative from the mid-70s.  And I don’t see why.  It’s a basic tenet of punctuation, and simply gets more annoying the more it happens.

  • There is a huge amount of neither telling nor showing

At several key junctures, you get a line like: He then told me the key piece of information, and Jasmin reacts to that information…and then several lines later we get told what the ‘key piece of information’ actually was.  So, for instance, when the guy who finds the bottle tells her his name — and now I think of it, how does she not already know his name? — it’s done like this:

And here at this point, Mr Sanders gave me the final piece of information that established a mystery so baffling and so strange it sent my head into absolute dizziness.

“What?” I said in utter perplexity. “No way! You’re kidding me!”

“I’m not, I’m not” maintained Mr Sanders “I’m as serious as the sky is blue.”

“Holy hell” I exclaimed, somewhat to myself as I looked away from Mr Sanders for a second and focussed on the bottle and the letter before me.

“Holy hell indeed” echoed he.

This goes on for some time before you find out that it’s his name that he’s told her.  And it’s a little frustrating, but happens time and again with phone calls, answers to questions, so many revelations.  However, I have some thoughts on this…


I think I prefer tan dogs.

  • I think it’s a way to pad the word count

At one point, you get this exchange, wherein Marcus has been telling Jasmin much information discovered about the man who threw the bottle into the sea:

“The second thing. . . . .but I’ll tell you later. . . . .”

“What?” I nagged him, feeling he has seen something that I had not.

We hurried through the London streets where a mid-afternoon, grey drizzle was pleasantly spitting down.

“Are you coming to my grandfathers’ [sic] party tonight?”

I told him I was.

“Then I’ll tell you there.”

“Tell me now!”

“Ok, ok” he said…

…and proceeds to tell her.  So the delay was…what, exactly?  And why would there be a need to delay telling her anyway?  Is it a hint of their growing attraction?  No, I think it’s just someone with a thin story needing to bulk it out so it can be sold as a novella.

  • Oh, hey, and on the subject of his grandfather…

Okay, this is just weird.  The grandfather remains off-page until the very final scene, by which point our central, er, characters are limping their merry way towards some sort of relationship and he’s all twinkly and happy and avuncular.  Well and good.

Except that when we’re first told about the character, it’s explicitly — and rather too casually — mentioned that he was:

…accused of sexually molesting several students of his.  The story was not comprehensive, and the details scant.  He had kept his job.  There was even talk that the girls had been willing participants and even ‘enjoyed it’.  The bottom line however, was that it had caused quite a stir at Oxford, where he had then been a professor.

Now, nothing is ever made or comes of this.  Nothing.  It’s never mentioned again, never turned into a thread, never confronted in any way…so why the hell is it in there?  Add to this that Jasmin is aware of this when she first heads to meet him, is slightly creeped out by the solicitous tone of his emails, and then says:

…and more to the point wasn’t it my job as a journalist to use any ‘skills’ I might have in order to grease the wheels of enlightenment and get to the heart of the story?

I mean, fuck.  “I will willingly submit to potential molestation” is a fucking dark door to open so lightly.  Who is under the impression that’s something you just say or think or do in a situation like this?  This might be the single most revolting sentence I’ve ever read.  You don’t even need the current qualifier of “post-Weinstein” — this is a toxic attuitude to portray, and holy crap the more I think about it the angrier it makes me  I take back the apology above.  Merapi Omnut, you should be fucking embarrassed to have written this shit.

  • Jasmine Jones — the main character — is just the worst person ever

Good heavens, where to begin?  Never mind that the bant-tastic dialogue runs along these lines:

“Ha! Ha! You little milksop” said I

Oh, yeah, she calls him a milksop waaaaay too much, like that’s a word anyone uses.  Anyway…

“Ha! Ha! You little milksop” said I chiding him “So you would quite like the money then eh! But here’s the deal Einstein, Dr Steinbeck, Mr PhD: I bet you can’t solve it.

“I like you, but you’re really quite stuck up and condescending.  You need to take your head out of your ass!” I said jokingly, daring to insult him, as I had felt myself insulted, though also slightly regretting my harsh words when I had said them, because I wanted him to like me.

He’s rude to her, she’s rude back to him — instant connection!  Right?

Later on, following another thread that goes nowhere revolving around her ex-boyfriend who “made me do chores for him and his gang”, Jasmin ends up in Marcus’ room at 3am scared, and of course it is hilariously misunderstood and he thinks she’s coming onto him.  Au naturel.  Then a similar thing happens a few nights later and she goes to his room again and, without even trying to wake him, sits and watches him sleep for ten minutes before he wakes up.  At this point I shouldn’t even care, but I can only imagine that this is again intended to show their growing affection…but it comes out of nowhere, just hideously juvenile insults and then a sudden need for a man, and is again a product of the circular reasoing that abounds: if she was developing feelings towards him she’d watch him sleep, and so she’ll watch him sleep because she’s developing feelings towards him.

The point where she justifies a trainee journalist who is tailing around with her — despite being freelance at the newspaper she’s writing for, she apparently is not immune from Bring an Obscure Relative to Work Day — poking around in the home of a woman whose house was partially destroyed by a hurricane and is fed up of these reporters nosing into her life almost goes unnoticed, if I’m being honest.  There are probably other things, too, but I’m getting bored.


Yup. the tan ones are definitely better.

  • The answers are the answers because that’s why the questions were the questions

Detective fiction is about establishing a situation that leads to an intended revelation, I get that.  The author stacks the deck in advance so that certain events happen, certain information therefore comes to light, and the question posed is therefore answerable within the pages written.  Hell, I don’t think anyone stacks a deck quite as much as Paul Halter, and I delight in the machinations of that man’s plots and his ability to sustain a narrative thread because of the need to cover certain ground.  This is where the Genius Detective is needed, as their orphic proclivities enable them to carve through from the setup to the denouement without it seeming too forced that someone would know about the double-cross coding system and the mating habits of rare Belarusian moths.  The setup usually starts where it does because the answer must fall out a certain way, and most of the fun is in connecting the former with the latter (Carr, especially, excelled at this, as we know).

But, man, never have I been more aware of that manipulation than here.  Marcus is supposed to fill this genius amateur role, but the deductions he makes can only be made because the author knows they’re true because they make the answer possible.  This even contains one of the traits of lazy reasoning that I bemoaned in the comments somewhere recently and was taken to task over by Brad — the old “well we know one thing about their character and so therefore they would have definitely performed this action…” trope (in this case — spoilers if you care — that a man who didn’t like travelling away from home much would put his passport into a glass bottle along with a random letter of greeting and throw it into the sea…don’t get me started).

The inability to make any of this feel even vaguely organic — dialogue, character beats and interactions, plotting, solution — or to apply any internal consistency to the events herein is wearily apparent in the summing up of what must have happened to enable the bottle to contain a letter with that guy’s name in it.  It’s almost passable in some ways, but would require a far superior writer to hammer it into anything like workable shape — Halter could do it, Norman Berrow would have a field day, and I want to celebrate something so batshit out there as a notion in this field…but, as it stands, this is crap of the highest order and now has 2,000 words more written about it than it deserves.

But it will save your time and money, I suppose.  You, the internet, are welcome.


I’m off to gargle some cleansing bleach, and then bulldoze this out of  my mind with some Freeman Wills Crofts.  Happy weekend, all y’all!


Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing:

1. The Third Gunman (2016) by Raymond Knight Read

2. The Mysteries of Reverend Dean [ss] (2008) by Hal White

3. Impossible Bliss (2001) by Lee Sheldon