Last week, the good; this week, the ugly: five of the low points from my reading in 2017. No further introduction necessary.
1. Worst Misdirection
A Smell of Smoke by Miles Burton — A man is famed in the locality for smoking particularly pungent cigarettes; when a crime is discovered, and the lingering odour of this easily-recognisable tobacco is detected at the scene, he obviously falls under suspicion. And stays under suspicion. For a very long time. While the plot meanders around and we all totally believe he’s guilty. Before it’s revealed — twist! shock! sensation! — that it was really someone else who was smoking one of his cigarettes! Good heavens! How did John Street come up with these stunning reversals?!
In fairness this is his, like, 48,937th published book, and I think he only wrote one or two more after this, but it’s alarmingly thin, and speaks of how much he’d put out before that his publishers were happy to let this one go. Curtis Evans and Puzzle Doctor are the Rhode/Burton experts ’round these parts and as yet I’m unaware what they think of this…but I’m willing to bet it’s not good.
2. Most Disappointing Novel
Think of a Numb3r by John Verdon — The promise here is huge, and I suppose it was too much to expect the book to live up to it, but Verdon has an amazing couple of hooks. A man receives a letter from a stranger asking him to think of a number between 1 and 1000, and an enclosed envelope contains the number he picks — howdunnit? A similar trick is repeated later in the book, plus there’s an impossible vanishing of footprints in the middle of a snowy field, and I was fascinated to see how this ties together.
Alas, the preceding century-plus of impossible crime fiction seems to have gone unheralded by Verdon, as all the solutions are painfully transparent and not even tied in well to the central plot. One positive from this is how fully it proves that the impossible crime is a phenomenally difficult thing to do well, but impossibilities aside this is still a poorly-motivated, thinly-contrived, and frustratingly-written affair that manages to make the central genius character both an arsehole and an idiot.
3. Most Disappointing Impossibility
Some honourable mentions before we pick a loser:
Wilders Walk Away by Herbert Brean — In which a man walks along a stretch of virgin beach and vanishes, footprints simply stopping in the sand with a good 20 feet either side of them to the sea and the…not sea. A solution so banal, it makes Michael Innes’ beach-set ‘The Sands of Thyme’ seem masterful by comparison.
Murder in Black and White by Evelyn Elder — A shooting where the gun disappears, I only remember what this is because a point is made about how fair it is when in fact you have no hope in hell of getting it. And it’s absurdly trivial. Cheating on the way to such a dull resolution is the ultimate sin — if you’re gonna be unfair, at least be creative.
Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty — A woman found dead inside a castle that was locked for the night and searched before being locked; how’d she get in, and how’d the killer (if killed she was) get in and out? The explanation for her entrance to the castle is, honestly, so bad you wonder why McKinty bothered.
‘The Problem of the Emperor’s Mushrooms’ by James Yaffe — Disappointing because there’s no detection, no real reasoning, and absolutely no justification why the five-and-a-half alternative solutions I came up with wouldn’t also perfectly fit the circumstances given. Oh, I know, “Infamy, infamy…!”.
However, the top (bottom?) honour goes to:
The Boat Race Murder by R.E. Swartwout — Gives you a dead body in a locked bathroom, and then immediately undercuts the impossibility by stating about four methods by which it would be totally possible. And, in spite of all this, the method is alarmingly clear from the first presentation. A curious book, because you have to wonder what the motivation was for writing it, since it doesn’t do anything well.
4. Most “Somebody Get This Man An Editor, Who Will Help Reduce the Needless Repetition and Excess Verbiage of His Writing Because There’s Far Too Much Said Here and Most of It Is Repetition Because It’s Been Said Before and So Doesn’t Need to Be Said Again and Can Therefore Be Removed to the Distinct Advantage of the Book!” of the Year
Evidence in Blue by E. Charles Vivian — Pleonastic, recapitulatory, verbose, prolix, repetitious, and fond of saying the same thing over and over at great length, Vivian’s novel of theft and murder is surprisingly long for the brevity of its plot. If you are thinking of trying to publish a book you’ve written, read this — if your pacing or the structuring of your content can in any way be compared to this, rewrite your book. All of it. You have written a bad book and nobody will want to read it.
Much like The Boat Race Murder, there doesn’t even seem to be a clever point behind all this dreary nonsense — the final revelation relies on the fact that someone wrote a letter in blue ink when it should have been written in black ink (or something, the title definitely has something to do with the colour of ink). Maybe this held astounding significance at the time, but a lot of contemporary reading in this genre has not revealed this to be the case in any other book, even in passing. So…am I missing something, or is this as terrible as it seems?
5. Rights Mismanagement of the Year
The continued unavailability of the works of John Dickson Carr is a frustration that dogs me like little else. Do you have any idea how many copies of Till Death Do Us Part I would purchase and press into the hands of people if I had the chance, and then say “Oh, hell, just buy pretty much any of the 50 novels he published up to 1950” when they clamour for more by him? As more and more work by GAD authors comes to light and back into sensible availability at sensible prices — thank-you Bold Venture, British Library, Coachwhip, Collins Crime Club, Dean Street Press, Ipso Books, Locked Room International, The Murder Room, Mysterious Press, and many others I’m doubtless overlooking — the withholding of Carr’s masterful oeuvre becomes ever more apparent and ever more baffling.
I’ve tried to do my part — I contacted the person in charge of his UK rights and got the brush-off, absolutely zero interest in my query, which I can understand since I’m really just one man (in spite of the rumours…) — and I just have to accept it, but it’s a staggering waste of some of the finest plotting the genre has ever seen. If you’re sitting on JDC’s rights and reading this — unlikely as all hell, I know — can we please be given some coherent idea as to the reasons behind the hold-up? I’ve no doubt it’s probably complicated, but awareness of complications would be infinitely preferable to baffling silence.
Hey, never hurts to ask…
Right, that finally dispatches with 2017. Next week…something else. Dunno what yet; tune in to find out!