#358: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Untouchable (2016) by Robert Innes

Untouchable

I’d promised TomCat that I’d attempt to find a quality modern locked room mystery this week, but the book I was going to look at — Lord Darcyverse continuation novel Ten Little Wizards (1988) by Michael Kurland — has (miraculously…?) vanished.  So instead, here’s a revival of another occasional series: a selective pick through some self-published impossible crime stories in search of the gold that doubtless exists there somewhere.

Untouchable (2016) is the first in a series that currently runs to five volumes featuring newly-relocated Detective Sergeant Blake Harte.  Abandoning the bustle of Manchester following the end of a relationship, he finds himself in the quaint Heartbeat-esque surrounds of Harmschapel just in time for a seemingly impossible murder to occur: a man locked alone in a secure shed (abandon every hope, all ye who seek gaps in the walls), a shot rings out, and the door is opened to reveal a fresh corpse.  CCTV shows no-one nearby except someone who is provably innocent, so who- and howdunnit?

Now, I can’t deny that this has flaws.  It is, especially in the resolution of its impossible murder, a problematic piece of work.  But there’s also something quite promising at the heart of this that I have to confess has me more interested in Innes’ other self-published novellas than I feel I should be.  In many ways, Innes is clearly feeling his way as a writer here — most of the framing here is rather heavy on familiarity (we open with Harte lost down county lanes in search of his new home, and have the whole “he wakes up in the morning and bangs his head on the low ceiling” routine), and his grammar is a little distracting at times — but there is also some wonderfully dry humour, like prising information from a reluctant interview subject being akin to “trying to ask a teenager to do the washing up”, or the following when Blake meets his superior for the first time:

“Inspector Royale.” The man said, shaking Blake’s hand. “Welcome aboard. Found the place alright, then?”

“Sir.” Replied Blake. He had never understood why anyone asked that question to people standing right in front of them.

Oh, yeah, we should address the dialogue attribution thing, just for disclosure.  Where in the middle of action the dialogue is typically ended with a comma and then a lower case attribution, Innes tends to put a full stop as if starting a new sentence.  So, that second paragraph above should begin:

“Sir,” replied Blake.  He had never…

I don’t love this, but at least his dialogue sounds like words that real people would say to each other, so it’s not super distracting once you get used to it.  And I really do think Innes deserves some extra credit for telling his story in as efficient a way as possible — this novella is (you’re informed at the start) 33,000 words, and Innes ain’t hanging around just to pad his word-count.  You get backstory, new house, flirty landlady, new colleagues (a suitably diverse bunch), murder, investigation, a few personal asides, resolution, and then…

Well, we’ll come to “and then” in due course.

The murder and the investigation are, for my money, reasonably well-handled, and hit a few grace notes for the enthusiast.  We get the good old “investigator fancies the chief suspect” motif (and the suspect fancies him right back…), since Harrison Baxter is under suspicion for the murder of his abusive boyfriend, and a moderate puzzle element creeps into the setup as things progress, with a couple of nice little reversals come the ending that show a slightly tighter plot than might have been expected and bode well for future instalments.  It’s all hewn out of the sort of things people would do, and plays well off the different tensions within both the Baxter household and the team of investigators trying to unpick it all.  Sure, it’s not James Ellroy, but you’ve definitely read worse attempts at this.

Question mark

No mud shall be slung today.

So it’s with regret that I have to tell you that the answers offered are a bit of a shame.  The “how” of Daniel Donaldson’s murder is…look, I can completely see what Innes was trying to do.  I really can.  From a certain perspective, his method is bloody brilliant and deserves credit for the…if not originality (this could be argued as a mash-up of two methods from different yet well-known sources) then at least the linking of two similar ideas.  It’s smart.  But, dude, it is neither realistic nor practicable, or at least there’s no reason to believe it is since it’s  not prepared for in any way.  There’s no such thing as a clue in there at all…but, in fairness, that must be at least partly down to the clewing for such an outcome being, like, hard.  You can’t even guess at it because the necessary description isn’t there, and in order to keep it as a surprise Innes resorts to a certain amount of “Blake read the report and suddenly saw how the thing was done…” non-declaration, but that was the one real chance to provide a hint as to the workings.  It’s difficult to recommend, because it really does come out of nowhere in a way that’s difficult to defend beyond its potential.

As to the “why” and the need for this to be an impossible murder…well, 50% of the motive is superb, and 50% doesn’t work at all until you realise one of the plot developments that Innes hides pretty well and how closely these things interweave.  This is part of why I can’t just dismiss Innes out of hand, because the guy really does have something good here; no, this won’t be the best thing I read this year, it’s not even the best of my Adventures in Self-Publishing, but the promise displayed gives me hope that at some point he’s going to pull it all together a bit more convincingly and write if not quite a masterpiece then at least something that’ll be worthy of the time and money of most people.

See, because that dangling “and then” from above comes into play at the end, and it just makes this a bit more accomplished for me.  I don’t know how to get into it without spoiling it — it’s not a twist or any sort of narrative shock, more just something that shows a fidelity to his characters that I admire quite hugely.  He could tell his story and round up on an entirely understandable note, but instead we get a wrinkle that nudges this more towards the sort of universe I’d return to.  And someone who is clearly in the early days of trying their hand at this making such a mature decision elevates it as an undertaking to something that displays a keen insight behind the failings on display.  And I will take that — hell, I want to see that in these AiSP, and so while I can’t recommend this unconditionally, I possess the next in this series and have high hopes for Innes in the long run.

Blake Harte will return…

~

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

4. Impossible Mysteries: The Message in a Bottle (2017) by Merapi Omnut

10 thoughts on “#358: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Untouchable (2016) by Robert Innes

  1. JJ,
    I took a brief look at Robert Innes books – great covers. From your review, I detect the author may have missed a key issue of engrossing the readers’ mental participation in solving the crime, a point worthy of deep study on my part.

    • Yeah, some really good work has gone into the presentation of these — the covers and the chapter headings all look superb. He’s not got the clewing quite down, but at the same time he’s done something interesting and difficult enough, and with enough talent in some key areas, to make this an interesting start for me. I’ll defintely have a look at the next one, and if there’s progress made there I’ll probably continue. Someone committing to this in novella form is actually a good sign — not trying to over-reach himself with a full narrative first time out, and all that. Here’s hoping…

  2. Well, you’ve sold me on trying this one, at least. Character sways me more than plot so if an author takes care of those properly I can forgive a fair bit, especially on a first attempt.

    • It won’t break the bank, and it won’t take up too much of your time, so go right ahead. I’d love to hear another opinion on this, to be honest!

  3. I only recently got a copy of Blyton’s The Mystery of the Invisible Thief and now you dump this recommendation in my lap. Well, it has been added to my wish list. I hope you can live with yourself.

    • I gotta say, I don’t think you’ll go for this at all. Perhaps allow me to read a bit further in the series to see if there’s anything that would fall more into your sphere. This, I believe, would infuriate you beyond all measure…

  4. Not much to say about your take on this book. I do not read self-published fiction (99% of it is in eBook format and I don’t own an eReader), though this review almost tempts me to breakdown and invest in a Kindle just so I can read it. But I felt it necessary to leave some oracular comments on your future posts.

    I predict that you will absolutely hate TEN LITTLE WIZARDS. Very sloppy solutions, utter disregard for fundamental fair play plotting rules, among other infuriating flaws. Perhaps it’s best that you misplaced your copy. Or that it disappeared into the Cloud if it’s a digital book. I reviewed the book in great detail on my blog. So maybe not a post to read prior to your locating your copy.

    On the other hand I think you may very much enjoy THE DEVIL DRIVES for its impossible crime problem, if not for Markham’s eccentric prose. It’s certainly one of the more ingenious solutions in this subgenre. I don’t think you’ve read the two obscure books (I’ve reviewed both on my blog, but I won’t name them) that have similar plot gimmickry so you won’t have any reference points.

    Looking forward to both posts…or at least the Markham one. The Kurland review may never be written unless you recover the book.

    • Haha, thanks, John — I enjoyed a couple of Kurland’s short stories for his prose in spite of the plotting flaws, so your assessment of TLW doesn’t exactly shock me. I’d still like to find my (physical) copy and read it, but I’ll come at it with a little more caution than I’d originally intended. Watch this space…or don’t, as it may never turn up.

      As to the Markham — I finished it last night and will keep my opinions to myself until I get round to writing them down, but I actually loved the prose and would be especially eager to track down any other Markham novels on that basis alone. He has something of the pulp sensibility that I do really enjoy when it’s pitched in that particular way — not too cheap or exploitative, but merely intent on telling a story in a loose, fun, creative way.

      Review on Thursday, of course; hopefully that will give me time to get my ducks in a row.

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